A Year-round Guide to Bass Fishing on Lake Murray
A few years ago it seemed that every third bass I caught fishing on Lake Murray weighed three to six pounds. Despite my spending more time pursuing crappie, striped bass, and bream, I caught bass that weighed more than five pounds on several different models of crankbaits, on a jig with which I had little experience, a topwater frog, and of course on crappie minnows and live herring. I even landed my best bass, an eight plus pounder, blindly casting a Road Runner off my family’s dock around 1999. In the last couple of years, though, while I’ve gotten more knowledgeable and caught slightly better numbers, and spent more time bass fishing, I’ve been catching smaller fish. And so I wondered – is there something I’m doing wrong, or is the fishery changing? I sat down with Captain Rob Thames in hopes that he could answer this and more important questions, and perhaps make us all more effective Lake Murray bass fishermen.
Captain Rob Thames is something of a unique species as far as Lake Murray guides go. While there are a few largemouth bass guides on the lake, and certainly a high percentage of fishing interest on the lake is from bass fishermen, it is much easier to give customers, and particularly novices, a shot at catching striped bass and so there is relatively little guided bass fishing on Lake Murray. A significant percentage of Captain Thames’ clients are professional anglers looking to learn the lake in anticipation of a big upcoming tournament, and before major tournaments like the 2006 FLW event on Lake Murray, the 2008 Bassmaster Elite Series event, and the 2008 Forrest Wood Cup Captain he usually shows one pro the lake and tries to put him on an effective pattern. Captain Thames took out Kotaro Kiriyama last winter (he was in South Carolina pre-fishing Hartwell for the Classic) because of the upcoming May Elite Series event, and he has taken out other pros like West Coast angler Bobby Barrack, Kevin Lasyone and Jim Dillard of Louisiana, and others. Kiriyama made the cut and finished 15th in the Elite Series event, and Kevin Lacy lost an eight pounder at the boat to miss the final day cut by 6 ounces in 2006 but still finished in the top 10 anglers. Because no major national tournaments are being fished on South Carolina lakes, many of which he guides on, in 2009, Captain Thames is spending less time guiding professionals on our lakes this year but is spending more time staying close to home on Lake Murray.
In a nutshell Captain Thames said that my experience of catching smaller bass on Lake Murray is not unusual, and tournament results confirm that the fishery is down from its peak in the late 1990s and 2000s. He believes that this slowdown is largely the results of the eradication of grass on Lake Murray. In the 2009 Mid-State Kyle Page Foundation bass tournament on April 19, seemingly in the peak of bass fishing season on Lake Murray, it took just over 21 pounds to win. Only a couple of other boats broke twenty pounds. In contrast, back in 2006, when the grass was mostly gone but the population of bass from the grass era was still there, the MSKP event took over 32 pounds to win and at least twenty pounds just to make the top 15. According to Captain Thames it is a well known fact that grass in a bass lake is “like spinach to Popeye,” and the recent evidence from Lake Murray confirms this.
In the 1990s and early 2000s Lake Murray grass, primarily hydrilla and elodea, flourished, and the bass population (as well as that of other species) exploded. Grass has many beneficial effects on the fish populations. First, it stabilizes temperatures and makes surrounding areas warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Second, it provides food for many species as aquatic life and particularly plankton flourish. Third, and perhaps most importantly, grass provides vital cover and gives fish species room to hide, reproduce and grow. While having a positive effect on the fishery, the grass did get out of control on Lake Murray and the lake got so congested that it was impossible to swim or boat in many areas. Captain Thames says that instead of adopting a management strategy, state authorities settled on eradication as their goal. Lowered lake levels, the introduction of chemicals through boats and herbicides through helicopters all helped to kill the grass, but the introduction of hundreds of thousands of sterile grass carp really finished the job. By 2006 when water levels were up again little grass was left in Lake Murray. In the August 14-17 2008 Forrest Woods Cup on Lake Murray, admittedly at a difficult time of year, it only took 22 pounds total for 2 days to make the cut, and Michael Bennett managed the win with less than 53 pounds over 4 days. Interestingly, almost all the top anglers focused on what little grass was left in the lake.
The eradication of grass on Lake Murray has changed the quality of the fishery, but it has also affected the methods and techniques successful anglers use to catch bass on the lake. In the deep of winter, with water temperatures in the mid to upper 40s, when grass was thick in Lake Murray one of Captain Thames’ preferred methods for catching bass was to fish a heavy 1 ounce spinnerbait along walls of grass in conjunction with channel bends in the main lake. These areas are gone now, however, and the bass are no longer as tightly congregated.
The forage base in Lake Murray consists mainly of blueback herring, threadfin and gizzard shad, bream, crappie, and crawdads. Particularly in the winter Captain Thames targets what he calls a “crawdad bite” and tries to make his presentation imitate a crayfish. His two prime methods, post-grass, at this time of year are to fish around brush piles in the lower part of the lake and along rock ledges in the mid-lake area. He looks for brushpiles in 15 to 30 feet of water and fishes very, very slowly, almost imperceptibly moving a jig or spinnerbait in a yo-yo up and down motion across the limbs. Captain Thames is only expecting to take one fish off of each brushpile, and he will move after ten to twenty minutes on a single spot. In the mid-lake he looks for the very deepest rock ledges that he can find and fishes a jig very slowly against these formations. He prefers a black and blue jig – as a pro on his boat told him, “black and blue is always true.” Another lure he will use around both brush and along ledges is a ½ ounce Hopkins Spoon. He removes the treble hook and replaces it with a single hook to prevent snags, and even though the lure looks huge it does not look nearly so big in a 5 pound largemouth bass’ mouth!
When water temperatures start to move up and daytime surface temperatures hit 52 or 53 degrees the bass will start to become more active and move shallower. Captain Thames will look for the sunniest, warmest areas he can find, and this often means fishing around rocks. It is also important to target areas that receive the most sunlight. Conventional wisdom is that this means it is important to target the Northern side (Chapin as opposed to Lexington) and Western End (Newberry) of Lake Murray, but not all the fish will be concentrated around Lighthouse Marina. Instead bass fishermen should break down each cove or creek and think what about which area would receive the most direct sunlight within it – generally the northwest side. One important note about late winter/ early spring fishing on Lake Murray is that Captain Thames likes to fish clear water and believes bass will be concentrated in those areas. An infusion of cold, muddy water into a generally clear water lake will almost always turn off the bass bite, while cold stained water coming into stained water is less negative. If conditions are stained Captain Thames will usually turn to a lure that displaces water, like a crankbait or spinnerbait, which the bass can locate with the sensors on their lateral line.
In February of 2006 when the FLW came to Lake Murray one of the most successful patterns was fishing around the huge boulders found in the mid-lake section of Lake Murray, and particularly around Land’s End. Pros fished from 12 feet deep up to the surface around these rocks, and one of the most effective lures was a Bomber Flat A Ghost Crawfish Pattern crankbait fished from 6 to 8 feet deep. Professional angler Anthony Gagliardi of Prosperity stuck to deep brushpiles in 15 to 20 feet, and Kevin Lasyone (who had pre-fished with Captain Thames) concentrated on four points from to 6 to 20 feet deep that had rocks and brush on them. He lost an 8 pounder at the boat that would have easily given him 3rd place for the tournament.
When the water begins to warm a little more and temperatures hit 55 degrees bass will start to spend more time in shallow water and will begin to stage for the spawn. Captain Thames notes that bass are only predictable in the spring because they are moving up to bed, and so the key to catching fish this time of year is to think about what they will be doing relative to the stage of the spawn. During this prespawn period Captain Thames has at least three patterns he likes to fish, and appropriately they are all related to the spawn. Last year one of the best prespawn patterns on Lake Murray was to fish around the last dock before a spawning area. The bass will stage here waiting for the temperatures and conditions to get right to move up and bed, and they are susceptible to soft plastics and jigs. Another strong pattern is to fish secondary points adjacent to spawning flats; there is something about the points that holds fish. Finally Captain Thames will look for any elevation change, and particularly a sharp one, adjacent to spawning flats.
Traditional bass spawning areas are no secret, and when he is bed fishing Captain Thames generally prefers to use soft plastics. Some years the bait of choice will be a white lizard, some years he will have better luck with a soft plastic crawfish, and some years he will like a tube jig. The best lure is usually something you have confidence in, and it is also important to try two or three different colors if the first offering doesn’t work. Captain Thames notes that one of the keys to catching bedding fish is to figure out the spot in the bed about which the bass is particularly protective. There may only be a tiny dime-sized area that triggers an aggressive response, but you can usually find it by noting how the bass orients and what area it always protects when it swims away and then comes back. On days when the bass are picking up the lure but continually drop it a good trick is to start with a four inch French Fry worm but to be willing to continue to cut off the end section until it is a length where the bass can’t strike short.
After the spawn the bass reverse direction and go back out the same way that they came in. Many bucks will relate to boat docks and protect the fry near them, and Captain Thames likes to fish a swimbait in this situation. Black Dog Baits, a West Coast company, makes a particularly good swimbait, and Jackall Lures of Japan also makes a very good product. He likes to rig these on a 7/0 hook with a ¼ ounce weight on the shank; if more weight is necessary you can wrap lead around the shank. It is important to throw to all parts of the dock as the fish will move around from day to day and over the course of the day. If fish are following the swimbaits but not taking them then casting a jig or a shaky head worm to the bass will usually put them in the boat.
Another successful and now well known pattern after the 2008 Elite Series events on Lake Murray and Lake Thurmond is to target bass which are feeding on spawning blueback herring. At this stage the lake fishes very small as there are about a half dozen well known points on which the bluebacks spawn. Bluebacks were probably originally introduced into Lake Murray by striper fishermen emptying their bait tanks into the lake, but the grass in the lake protected them and allowed the population to explode. Now that the grass has died back it is much easier for the bass (and striper) to feed on them during their spawn. Topwater lures like Super Spooks and Pencil Poppers are a good choice, especially early in the day, although the bass will feed on the surface all day. Rattle traps and of course swimbaits are also good options.
About the time that the herring spawn is ending bream will often be going on the beds, and a good late spring/ early summer pattern is to target bass which are terrorizing the bream in a role reversal of a month or two earlier. A good place to fish is the last dock before the bream beds, and topwaters like Pop-Rs, propeller baits like the Devil’s Horse, and Brian’s Bee are good choices. Sightfishing with shaky head worms is another good method. The winner of the 2008 Elite Series tournament on Murray, Fred Roumbanis, fished a frog to take advantage of bass targeting bream.
In the summer Lake Murray bass fishing bears some similarities to the winter bass fishing, and especially post-grass one of the best options is to fish the same deep brushpiles that were effective when surface temperatures were very cold. Many anglers prefer to head up the rivers to the cooler, more vegetated areas of the Big and Little Saluda Rivers, and Captain Thames spent most of his time up the lake after the 2008 spawn. As discussed earlier one of the benefits of grass is that it acts as a temperature stabilizer and most of the successful FLW anglers in August of 2008 headed up the lake and fished around grass. Topwater fishing is often good in these areas, particularly very early and late, and clear Super Spooks and buzzbaits will both work.
While there is certainly a resident population of fish that will stay shallow all year, particularly around grass and primrose, professional angler Bobby Barrack who pre-fished Lake Murray with Captain Thames believes that the lake is an ideal swimbait fishery. Like many of the West Coast lakes he fishes Murray is a clear, highland reservoir with some steep drop offs – it is not unusual to find 100 feet of water next to 20, and because of that the bass spend a lot of time suspending. There is a lot of nuance to fishing a swimbait, and rather than a typical shallow to deep retrieve a deep to shallow retrieve will be preferable at certain times. After using your electronics to find schools of bait in deep water hold your boat in 5 feet of water and throw out over 80 or 90 feet, and then count your bait down to 30 or 40 feet. Retrieve the lure until you hit the first point at that same 30 or 40 foot depth, and fish which were suspended in 45 feet will often hit the lure at that first point. Barrack liked a huge 8 to 12 inch swimbait and suggested the Huddleston swimbait deep and the MS Slammer or AC Minnow shallow, and he was sure that with practice these baits would be effective on Lake Murray.
As water temperatures cool in the fall baitfish begin to migrate to the backs of the creeks where the preferred temperatures, oxygen levels, and plankton content are found. First the fish will move onto main lake points in areas like Crystal Lake and Bear Creek and then they will follow the channel back. On Wateree this occurs particularly in Colonels Creek. Topwater Pop-Rs, any crankbait that imitates a shad, rattle traps and 3/8 ounce white and chartreuse spinnerbaits with nickel blades are ideal.
In the 1980s before the grass explosion on Lake Murray a well timed spring tournament used to take 17 or 18 pounds to win, and it appears that Lake Murray may be headed back to that same norm. Without drastic changes in the management approach Captain Thames believes that the fishery has probably not hit bottom yet. The grass spores and roots are still on the bottom meaning that some of the vegetation could come back if it were allowed to, but the authorities still appears to be intent on eradicating the grass. If grass starts to appear near a homeowner’s dock Captain Thames says that with one call to DNR they can usually get someone out to spray it.
To balance the competing priorities of the homeowners and the fishermen Captain Thames wishes that in the future a management, and not extermination, approach to aquatic vegetation on Lake Murray could be adopted. While as recently as a few years ago grass was strangling the lake and making boating difficult in some areas, a vegetation-free lake is not ideal, either. Important policy choices will be on the table when the current generation of sterile carp dies off, and the direction of the Lake Murray bass fishery will be up in the air.
I am enormously grateful to Captain Rob Thames who patiently, politely and thoroughly answered so many of my questions about Lake Murray bass fishing. He is an extraordinary teacher. To book a trip with Captain Thames call 803-309-6320 or email him at RThames@THAMESbassfishingadventures.com.
*** Captain Thames is proud to be sponsored by Pure Fishing, (http://www.purefishing.com), the corporation that owns Abu-Garcia, Fenwick, Berkley, All-Star, Stren and Trilene, among other quality brands, Black Dog Baits, (http://www.blackdogbaits.com), a West Coast bait company that makes awesome swimbaits and Jackall Lures, (http://www.jackall-lures.com), a Japanese company that makes a wonderful and effective line of lures including crankbaits, swimbaits and soft plastics.