John Murray was sitting on his couch, eyes glued to the screen. A self-admitted ESPN junkie, Murray was witnessing what he viewed as the culmination of his lifelong addiction: tournament bass fishing presented on the world’s leading sports network. This thing is going to be the next NASCAR, he thought.
As the Classic trophy was being presented to Kevin VanDam, a light bulb went off in Murray’s head: That’s it. That’s where I gotta go.
At the time, Murray was the most dominant angler ever to fish the Western U.S. bass circuits, and likely the best cash-game player in the world. In a little over a decade, Murray had racked up insurmountable piles of tournament riches, the likes of which will probably never be seen again. He’d won seven trucks and over 30 boats; four of which he won in one month.
“I was able to sell a few of the boats before I even won them,” Murray reflected. The Phoenix-based pro was unstoppable.
During that period, Murray’s success was the result of good fortune met by preparation. Western circuits were booming; Murray often fished 50 or more tournaments a year – many of which offered prize boats for their championship events. And Murray was one of the few competitors to dedicate himself full-time to those leagues, often bringing obscure techniques to new waters.
“When I brought Ricos out West, I won three boats in three months.”
Preferring to be the proverbial big fish in a small pond, Murray resisted pressures to leave the comfort zone of his Western fisheries. Besides, why would he; a quick stint on the BASS Top 100 Tour proved to be relatively unprofitable, thanks largely to the extensive travel required. “Every time I tried that,” Murray said, “I’d win money out west, and spend it out east.”
Murray stayed put for quite a while, but then things started to give out around home. The Western circuits were becoming less profitable, featuring far less lucrative purses. It was becoming apparent that the only game in town was to go national.
Again, Murray headed east to bass fishing’s Holy Land, this time greeted by success. He accomplished his goal of qualifying for the Classic his first year on tour, and followed it up with wins at the Open Championship and Busch Shootout, as well as a close call with what's now the Forrest Wood Cup. Everything was going as planned.
After hearing of the formation of the Elite Series in 2006, Murray was anxious to get under way competing with many of the sport’s best. But when he got the $55,000 bill to compete, he had to take a step back.
“That was such a big stake,” Murray reflected. “I fished tighter.”
Gone was the reckless inhibition to jump in every tournament he could find. Gone was the invincible feeling of making more money than he could spend at 20 years old. Gone was the Happy Gilmore of bass.
In addition to the entry-fee pressure, Murray had recently gotten married, and then became a father for the first time. While he witnessed such family transitions seemingly solidify the fishing of many of his peers, for Murray “the wheels fell off. It was supposed to be the opposite. I wound myself way too tight.”
Now there was more to fishing than the bachelor lifestyle. Now there were mouths to feed that required something more than pizza and cheeseburgers. Now, things were real.
The pressures quickly induced a change in Murray’s mindset, and his fishing. A career formerly built on a foundation of belief in his own ability, Murray began to doubt.
“Back in the day, I’d never listen to dock talk,” he said. “But then I started thinking maybe I was behind in the game.”
As he let others influence his approach, Murray was greeted with the touring pro’s kiss of death: “It totally eroded my personal confidence.”
After several years competing on the Elite Series, Murray had come close to winning but never sealed the deal. Confidence and self-doubt, as well as the need for consistent paychecks, had transformed him from a slugger to a lead-off man.
One day he identified the change, just as he’d recognized his destiny many years before while watching TV.
“It was last year,” Murray stated. “I had two great spots during the Open on Champlain that I never went to early on because I was so wrapped up in dock talk.” When Murray finally threw his cares to the wind and went to his best area, he quickly caught 20 pounds, but narrowly missed the cut. Enough was enough.
In 2016, Murray moved from Arizona to Tennessee to help cut down on the brutal driving regimen that comes with being a West Coast pro. After a few mediocre finishes to start the 2017 season, Murray focused his attention on the Elite event at Toledo Bend. “I had tremendous confidence there,” he said. “And I never talked to anyone outside my immediate circle of roommates. I stumbled a bit with execution, but I knew I was doing the right thing.”
With the chips down midway through the event, Murray made a monster run up the leaderboard, thanks to another confidence booster: a long out-of-production jerkbait. “I have about 20 of them; it’s a confidence thing,” he admitted. “The bait’s got more flash due to a flimsy bill. I’ve won a bunch of boats on it.”
Armed with confidence on the line and in his head, Murray sacked one of the biggest stringers of the tournament on the final day, taking home the title and a hundred grand.
Was confidence the key? You tell me.
As one of greatest pure tournament anglers of all time, and one of the sport’s nicest guys, perhaps we’re about to witness a renewed John Murray.
I, for one, am anxious to find out.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)