COLUMBIA, S.C. — Davy Hite celebrated most of his 43rd birthday competing in the final day of the Bassmaster Elite Series Carolina Clash presented by Evan Williams. That was fitting, since he lived for 30 years in a house on Lake Murray.
But Hite didn't have much of a "home field" advantage in finishing fourth with 64 pounds, 1 ounce, and collecting $18,000 for doing so.
"It's fishing so different now than it ever did when I actually lived on it, it's unbelievable," said Hite, who now lives in Ninety Six, S.C. "It's like it used to be natural grass, now it's artificial turf."
Lake Murray formed in 1930 when what was then the world's largest earthen dam was built on the Saluda River. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were thick mats of aquatic vegetation in the lake. While the grass produced lots of fish, it was deemed a problem by many homeowners and people who used the lake for swimming, boating and other water sports. Grass carp were put in the lake and now there's hardly any vegetation apparent.
Over the past decade, blueback herring have become the dominant bass forage. And like many lakes in this region of the Southeast, Murray has been at low water levels much of the past two years. However, it was two feet over the normal pool level last week, which was about a 10-foot elevation difference from what it has been in the last 12 months.
With different water levels, a different forage base and different habitat, it's no wonder that Hite didn't feel at home on his home lake.
"It looks the same, looking at the land, but the lake has definitely changed so much," he said. "I remember fishing this lake before there was grass. Then there was grass for about 15, maybe 20 years. Now it's totally gone.
"But it doesn't fish like it did before there was grass because now there's blueback herring in the lake.
"And in my lifetime, they've never let the lake stay up this high for this long."
That last point Hite noted speaks well for the future bass fishing at Lake Murray. Several Elite Series pros noted the unusually large size of the newly-hatched bass fry schools that were still being guarded by a male bass last week. It's obvious that Lake Murray has enjoyed an unusually successful spawning season, thanks to the high water.
"This is a great thing for the bass, and not just the bass, but all the fish in the lake, to have this high water," Hite said.
Two swimbaits — the hard-plastic Sebile Magic Swimmer and the soft-plastic YUM Money Minnow — were the dominant lures in the Carolina Clash on Lake Murray. Both are hard to find in area tackle shops. Both work well as blueback herring imitations.
Steve Kennedy found a Sebile Magic Swimmer in a color pattern that wasn't anything like that of a blueback herring. So he sanded the paint off of it and repainted it to look like a herring.
There was also another lure that produced a lot of bass last week on Murray — well, two lures to be exact. Kelly Jordon started the trend on Day One when he caught 17-13 (ninth place) using two soft-plastic jerkbaits on the end of his line.
Zoom's Fluke is one of the more popular versions of this lure, which is why several Elite Series pros referred to this rig simply as a "double Fluke," even if they weren't using that exact lure. (It was the Slug-Go that popularized this lure style almost two decades ago.)
Led by Jordon, the pros were rigging this two-lure rig in a way some might not be familiar with. You start by sliding one end of a barrel swivel over your main line, then tying the main line to one end of another swivel. On the other end of each swivel, you tie a one-foot leader, a hook and a soft-plastic jerkbait. You end up with your main line tied to a swivel, leader, hook and jerkbait, with another swivel-leader-hook-jerkbait free to slide up and down the main line.
That last aspect is particularly important when you hook two fish, which was fairly common last week when anglers would cast this rig into schooling bass. With the second lure free to slide on the main line, it was less likely the fish would break the leader by pulling in opposite directions.
Jordon lost some fish — four 6-pounders, he guessed — the first day because he wasn't using heavy enough line. He went to a braid main line and 25-pound test fluorocarbon leaders in fine-tuning this double-lure rig.
"That's the bomb-dot-com, right there," said an always-confident Jordon at Sunday's launch.
Kennedy, too, had been impressed by the presentation. He hooked two bass when he cast it into a group of bass busting blueback herring on the surface at Lake Murray. The second fish came off before he landed it, but he did put a three-pounder in the livewell.
"I think that's the first fish I ever caught on a double Fluke," said Kennedy, who finished second with 65-4. "I hit right in the middle of them. It's the most awesome thing I saw all week."
Flipping their lids
There were a lot of fish lost in the Carolina Clash. That's just the nature of treble-hooked lures, especially topwater baits, that a bass bumps or slaps as much as it does bites. A fish hooked anywhere outside the mouth is likely to come "unbuttoned" on the retrieve to the boat.
But Ish Monroe lost one like no one else on Lake Murray. He weighed only 9-15 Friday and almost missed the cut with a two-day total of 23-5 that left him in 47th place. Monroe would have had at least two more pounds Friday if a three-pounder hadn't jumped out of his livewell, back into the lake.
"When I was moving across the lake, the livewell lid popped open," Monroe said. "I don't think I closed it good enough. That could hurt me in this tournament."
Monroe made the top 12 by catching 18-0 Saturday. In the final standings, he finished with a four-day total of 53-2, good for 11th place. The lost fish might have cost Monroe $1,000 and a few Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points, as Dave Wolak finished 2-1 in front of Monroe in 10th place with 55-4.
Monroe did weigh-in five bass Friday, even if one was a 1-pounder instead of the 3-pounder he lost. Matt Sphar wasn't so lucky at Texas' Lake Amistad last month.
Due to high winds forecast the first day on Amistad, the tournament was shortened by one day. Friday Sphar took some ribbing when he got to the dock with only four bass that totaled 14-9. Missing was a 3-pounder that had a cull-marker in its mouth. Sphar put two-and-two together after talking with his co-angler and realized that fish left his livewell just like Monroe's did last week — through an open lid.
That mistake really started stinging the next day when Sphar weighed a limit of 29-7, then missed the top 12 cut by only 10 ounces.
Kevin VanDam enjoys a run-and-gun power-fishing style that has propelled him to the top of his sport. With big boosts from three Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles and two Bassmaster Classic wins, the 40-year-old Kalamazoo, Mich., native leads the all-time BASS money list with well over $2 million in earnings.
You need to have some cash in your pocket when you're running-and-gunning like VanDam and almost every other Elite Series pro was doing last week on Lake Murray. VanDam said he put $140 worth of gas in his boat after Day One, $120 after Day Two, another $100-plus Saturday and expected to burn more than any of those days on Sunday.
VanDam finished eighth with 59-15. Edwin Evers topped him with a third-place finish of 64-13. He also beat VanDam in the gas-guzzling category.
"I'm burning $150 a day," Evers said.
"I'm scared. I'm really scared."
—Fred Roumbanis, describing his initial reluctance to put his hand in the mouth of what turned out to be a 6-pound, 13-ounce largemouth bass. When it was buried in thick aquatic vegetation, Roumbanis feared it was a sharp-toothed mudfish.
"The bites were totally awesome. They would almost take the rod out of your hand."
—Edwin Evers, who finished third with 64-13, on the bass strikes at Lake Murray
"I know there were at least six or seven guys that were on the bite to win this tournament. But it's not about who hooks them, it's about who gets them in the boat."
—Kelly Jordon, who finished seventh, talking about all the bass hooked but not landed in the Carolina Clash
"I had a striper field day this morning. If this would have been a striper tournament, these guys would have been in trouble."
—Grant Goldbeck, who finished 12th
"This is a day when it felt like they were punching me in the arm."
—Dave Wolak, who finished 10th, on his inability to land the big bass he hooked Sunday
"I prayed for a win, and I think the Lord thought I must have said 'wind.'"
—Davy Hite, on the strong winds that blew Sunday