Lake Murray has a way of creating drama in tournaments, and it sure did this week.
Googan Baits Stop 3 of the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Presented by Bad Boy Mowers allowed pros to fish all over the lake and rivers, with patterns galore. In the end, the blueback herring-spawn pattern held up the best, with Matt Becker having a 7-pound lead going into the final day, only to be one lost fish by Anthony Gagliardi away from losing.
While there was unexpected drama at the top, behind them, anglers scrambled all over trying to either grind them out up shallow, milk docks or hope to time things right for the herring-spawn bite.
Back in 2014, a lost 5-pounder late on the final day by Scott Canterbury opened the door for Anthony Gagliardi to overtake him by an ounce and win the FLW Cup on Lake Murray. Gagliardi now knows what it feels like to be on the other end.
Already with the biggest bag of the tournament sitting in his livewell the final day, the local favorite had one 3-pound, 9-ounce bass he wanted to cull out. He hooked the fish to do it, a 5-pounder that would’ve made weigh-in razor close. Unfortunately for him, he accidently left his Power-Poles down, the fish wrapped around one and it broke off.
Then again, if not for a “shank” on Day 1, Gagliardi might not have needed that fish at all to win.
Despite having a home on the lake, Gagliardi admits he doesn’t fish Murray all that often during this time of the year. So any advantage he had was definitely muted.
“I practiced herring-spawn stuff, and I didn’t find them,” says Gagliardi. “I had a handful of spots I’d caught them before, but they weren’t there in practice. I found some bedders. So that’s what I did the first day.”
Yet, he also caught a lone fish Day 1 on a herring-spawn pattern. So he decided to “keep them honest” and start on it Day 2.
“I caught a limit quick, and then I went to another spot and culled a couple times,” says Gagliardi. “I went sight fishing for a few hours and didn’t do any good. Then I went back to the herring and caught my two biggest. That just pointed me in the right direction. So that’s all I did from then on.”
Cycling through main-lake points, Gagliardi says he threw a lot of different things, but a Berkley PowerBait Power Swimmer on a 1/16-ounce head was his biggest player, with a Sebile Magic Swimmer and a double soft-jerkbait rig with Berkley PowerBait Jerk Shads also getting the call often. He threw the swimbait on a 7-foot Level medium-action spinning rod and Abu Garcia Revo MGX reel rigged with straight braid to short Gamma fluorocarbon leader.
While the switch allowed him to increase his weights every day, it ultimately couldn’t help him overcome that start.
“My Day 1 was a flop,” says Gagliardi. “It was teed up for me, and I just shanked it into the water.”
Considering his weights increased every day, you’d think Michael Neal had a solid pattern he was dialing in like Gagliardi. You’d be wrong.
Like Gagliardi, Neal stubbed his toe the first day (though he actually thought 14-10 would be a good weight for this event) by fishing a wacky-rigged Big Bite Baits Fat Stick under dock walkways.
Figuring that bite was going away quickly, he switched to a herring-spawn pattern early on Day 2, catching three on a 5-inch Big Bite Baits Jerk Minnow (pearl white) thrown on a 7-foot, 4-inch heavy-action Denali N3 rod and Daiwa Tatula 8.1:1 reel spooled with 16-pound-test Sunline Sniper fluorocarbon.
Yet, when he couldn’t muster much else, he ran up the Little Saluda River to an area he got one bite in practice and caught his two biggest tossing a Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer (white and chartreuse) with a Big Bite Baits Kamikaze Swimon (white) trailer with a 7-foot, 2-inch Denali Kovert rod, Daiwa Tatula 6.3:1 reel and 20-pound Sunline Sniper fluorocarbon.
He basically ran that Day 2 pattern the rest of the week, though he admits he wished he’d had a better feel for how to get more bites up the river.
“Up the river, it was just random,” says Neal. “You couldn’t go too far back and it had to have wood on it, but that’s all I could figure out.”
If you were on the herring-spawn bite, time was key. Not only trying to time it right when the bass would be up schooling, but also maximizing time running around hitting so many spots.
Adrian Avena figured he’d hit anywhere from 50-60 spots a day. Some of those spots were a little better than others, especially the flatter points, but many were just spots he’d hit and move on quickly. To help do that, the right gear was essential.
“The biggest player for me this week was my Abu Garcia Revo Rocket,” says Avena. “I was covering a lot of water throwing a topwater, and there’s no better reel than that to do that.”
However, he actually started the tournament sight fishing with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent D-Worm on a drop-shot.
A good tournament is rarely the outcome when you leave the dock the first morning with no idea where to go. Yet, an avian tell set David Williams up for a great week.
“I had a terrible practice, and I didn’t know if catch a limit,” says Williams. “I left the dock the first morning and didn’t know where to start. Well, I rounded a bend and saw four herons on a bank. I thought, ‘that looks like a good place to start to me.’ I pulled up there, and in an hour and a half I had 17 pounds.”
His week seemingly kept going right from there.
While he only caught one more fish off that bank the rest of the event, he managed to junk fish pretty much all over. And regardless of where he was, be it main-lake points, docks, bridges far up the Little Saluda River or anywhere else, if he could find the herons and shad, he could get bit.
His main weapon of choice was a homemade spinnerbait (white and chartreuse with gold and silver blades) with a Zoom Split Tail trailer thrown on a 7-foot medium-heavy Cashion ICON rod with 15-pound test HI-SEAS monofilament line. Yet, he also caught some on a jerkbait, frog, swim jig and a number of other lures.
“Everything I did worked this week,” says Williams. “It just all came together.”
He says he still doesn’t know anything about blueback herring, but considering Tai Au has now made back-to-back top 10s on blueback lakes, he’s sure faking it well.
Then again, he certainly wasn’t targeting the herring spawn.
“I was mixing it up every single day,” says Au. “It was a matter of putting my head down and going fishing.”
The biggest key was where he was doing it, as he was catching his better fish in the first third of the spawning bays.
“That’s where the late spawners were,” says Au. “If I saw a bed fish, I’d fish for it. Otherwise, I really was looking for old, wooden docks.”
For sight fishing, Au utilized a Yamamoto Saltwater Ika on a drop-shot thrown on a Fitzgerald rod. Otherwise, the docks got a Yamamoto Senko (baby bass) skipped under them. He also mixed in a ½-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a Yamamoto Zako trailer.
All of this combined allowed him to rise from 80th after Day 1 to 24th to ninth to sixth.
When things are going well, successful people work all that much harder. Evan Barnes sure epitomized that this week.
Fresh off a Toyota Series victory on Lake Texoma, Barnes had no experience with blueback herring. He does, however, know plenty about tossing a buzzbait around for spawning fish. So that’s what he did the entire event.
Focusing his attention around Cloud Creek up the Little Saluda River, Barnes put a Brazalo buzzbait with a Zoom Horny Toad (grey ghost) trailer in his hands and went to town beating up the bank.
“I’m absolutely exhausted,” says Barnes. “My marshal the first day was counting how many casts I was making. He said it was nearly 200 an hour.”
While he often went down long stretches of bank with the trolling motor on high, there was a method to the madness, as he keyed on backwaters with little flats that “were not super obvious.”
“The fish were pulling up to spawn and guard fry,” says Barnes. “I also think most my bigger fish were females who were done spawning and sitting in a laydown or something recovering. Unfortunately, because we were so late in the spawn, I just ran out of big ones.”
It was the hot lure for a little while about a decade ago, but now you don’t hear of many guys throwing prop-style topwaters much outside of Florida. Cody Huff used that to his advantage.
“I got on a deal throwing an Rapala X-Rap Prop on the edge of the bank grass,” says Huff. “They were absolutely killing it.”
Fishing far up the Little Saluda River, Huff had no shortage of bank grass to rip his topwater around, with smaller patches very tight to the bank being best. He threw the topwater on a 6-foot, 8-inch Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Series rod and Johnny Morris Signature Series reel spooled with 50-pound test Bass Pro Shops braid. He also mixed in a Missile Baits D Bomb and a Yamamoto Senko, which he’d flip around shallow docks.
Yet, as he figured he was running out of fish up shallow, Huff called an audible that helped get him in the Top 10.
“On Day 3, I decided to abandon ship up shallow around 1:30-2 p.m.,” says Huff. “I was working my way back and trusted my gut. So I pulled out a 6-foot, 8-inch Johnny Morris Signature Series rod with a Rapala Shadow Rap jerkbait on it and started running windy points. It was lights out.”
Things started so well for Derrick Snavely. He had two solid patterns, and both were producing big fish the first two days. Unfortunately, things started to unravel on Day 3.
For two days, the Tennessee pro “flip-flopped between a worm pattern and herring-spawn pattern,” starting with the worm pattern, which consisted of catching fry guarders in 6-7 feet.
“I have confidence I can envision where big fish would spawn,” says Snavely. “So I just kept tossing a V&M J-Mag worm (green pumpkin) on 1/16-ounce shaky head to as many of those places as I could.”
From there, he’d go back out the points to chase herring eaters with a myriad of lures.
“I had more than 20 rods on the deck and caught fish on a bunch of them,” says Snavely. “My goal was to show them something they haven’t seen. So I used a vintage Bomber Long A as a wakebait or I’d fish a 4.8-inch Keitech Swing Impact FAT really slow, almost with a finesse approach. Just different.”
Yet, on Day 3, with a miserable weather forecast, he opted to forgo the worm pattern and focus solely on the herring-spawn pattern. Things never seemed to click from there, as he only caught four fish each of the final two days.
While many anglers sampled docks throughout the week, few found enough on them to make them a prime focus. Skeet Reese wasn’t one of them.
“I started the tournament junk fishing, but I got dialed in to a bite late the first day that carried me through to the Top 10,” says Reese.
That bite was fishing deeper docks in 5-10 feet, with the 6-8 foot range being the best. The added key to the pattern were deeper bank grass lines.
“A lot of guys picked off the shallow fish on the docks,” says Reese. “So I think the fish were running those grass lines and then would pull up and position on a dock where no one had fished.”
When he found the right combination, he’d pitch a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Hit Worm on a drop-shot tied with 12-pound test Berkley Nanofil line to an 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon leader.
Unfortunately, a dwindling bite and him having to call his final day early in order to catch a flight home to watch his daughter accept an award left him with only two fish on Sunday.