Day One: Lake Murray will be the shortest drive I will have for FLW this year. Even though I live about 4 hours from Murray, I haven't fished it much, only a couple summertime BFL's years ago and the FLW 3 years ago. In both of those BFL events, I had some success, with one having landed big fish of the event. The other event, my co-angler won the co-angler side from the back of my boat. This event will be similar to the FLW 3 years ago, with the lake in another major drawdown for repair work on the dam. In that FLW, they were eating a spinnerbait up, I got a check using one. But this year, the reports are that the water is colder and clearer.
I arrive at my hotel for the week without a boat. My new Pedigree wrapped boat is due to be delivered by Ranger on site tomorrow. Until then, I will climb in the boat with my fellow competitor and roommate Chris Elliott, who won the last FLW event here.
Day Two: The weather has been really warm in SC for Feb. Today will not be any different, with sunny skies and temps reaching the 70's. Really nice day to be on the water and sharing a boat with a buddy. We will catch alot of fish today but size wise, they are small. We will learn something today though. The lake is much clearer than expected, and the water temps are really high for Feb, being in the upper 50's. And the lake is really low, at least 12 feet low. You can see boats high and dry everywhere, some just sitting on dry land where the water should be 20 foot deep. There is some really dangerous stuff just under the surface that is not marked, mostly rock.
Day Three: I got an early morning wake up call last night. The Ranger Service crew arrived and had my new boat in tow. They needed for me to come get the boat so they could begin unloading their equipment. Today's task will be to ready the new boat for the water. I have an appointment at 9 am with the local Ranger/Yamaha dealer to prep the engine. It feels strange sitting around the hotel waiting for them to open instead of fishing, but I will take this time to load my gear into the boat.
I arrive at the local dealer, they immediately jump on my boat, begin the proper prep operations for the motor, stuff like priming the oil system, inspecting components. Its called a DPI. Once everything is done, they go to fire the engine, but nothing happens. Its like there is no power from the batteries. After about an hour of checking, they determine that something is amiss from the wiring harness from engine to panel control. They can bypass the controls and start the engine, which enables them to run engine and set the timing and ok it for use. But the other problem seems to be more electrical than mechanical, so they recommend I go let the Ranger Service Crew look at it.
I arrive at the service truck to find no one. I later learn that they are at the Visitor Center where all the FLW tournament boats are, servicing them for the finals. Once they arrive, they instantly begin trouble shooting the problem. Its a time consuming task, having to eliminate one problem for another. They are going thru each separate wire one by one. Needless to say, it will be a frustrating day, sitting on the bank when I should be out there practicing. Late in the day, they will find the problem, the ground wire connected to the kill switch on the throttle has been pulled loose. Perhaps something that happened when the initial wiring harness was pulled thru the inside panel from motor to console. All I will have time to do today is go run the boat, make sure everything else is water ready.
A major front as arrived, the winds are whipping and air temps are dropping. Due to this, I will have to trailer my boat to the other side of the lake to find some calmer water to break in the engine. After idling around for about an hour in 3 foot waves, I decide to try and fish some. I take out some rods, only to realize that my boat is missing the retractable rod straps on front deck to hold them in place. Its getting late, so I decide to load the boat and head back to the service truck to remedy the problem. Its Saturday and it might be hard to find the Ranger crew on Sunday morning. I will also need to make phone contact with them to be sure they are still here and get directions to the Visitor Center.
While driving through the host town on my way to the Service area, I will go down a road I have never been on, one that goes from flat land to a steep grade just inside city limits. As I come down the hill, I will meet one of Lexington's finest, a city cop. I look down at my speed, and I am going alittle fast but nothing extreme. 3 minutes later, I will find a flashing blue light behind me. Having pulled over, the officer approaches my truck, ask for my license, proof of insurance and registration. It takes me a few minutes to locate my registration and I am very friendly and very polite to him, making small talk like please overlook my glovebox being so disorganized as I live in this truck being on the road so much. He doesn't seem amused and only respond's by asking if I know why he pulled me. I politely answer that perhaps I was speeding some but explained to him about how my day was going with all the stressful problems getting my boat ready. He ask where I am from. I reply from NC, having come to Murray to fish the FLW. I have never been in Lexington before and was even lost as to where I was in relationship to the Columbia Visitors Center, the staging area for FLW boats. He only responds by saying, "I will be with you in a minute". He walks back to his patrol car while I can only sit and hope my problems have not gotten worse. Surely, under the circumstances, he will not write me a citation, just a warning and perhaps some directions to Visiters Center.
When the officer comes back to my truck, he hands me my license and paper work, and a ticket. I am totally in shock from this. As he begins to tell me what the charge is and my court date, I make the comment, "Sir, I did not deserve a ticket. I have never been on this road a day in my life, nor have I ever been in Lexington. I have a clean driving record and the only reason I was speeding some was from the steep downhill grade and trying to get V.C. directions by phone." His only reply is, "You can tell your story in court". I guess it was his way of saying "Welcome to Lexington".
Once I arrive back at the hotel, it becomes apparent alot of people saw me being pulled. I will get ragged pretty hard about it, but all agree they have never heard of a host town officer giving out a ticket, perhaps a warning under the circumstances. Most are usually helpful and friendly, that officer didn't even try and get me to where I was trying to get to.
Day Four: This moring we awake to a major change in weather. The wind is howling, the temps are near freezing, and the forecast is for snow or sleet. Right now, its just rain. Just great, I haven't been able to practice, now this. Co-angler Roger Heister is going to join me today. The plan is to venture up into the river, perhaps find some stained water. Its hard to go out under these conditions, but off we go. The first thing we notice when we put in is the ice forming on anything the water touches. On our way to my first area, it begins to sleet. The sleet pellets feel like pin needles sticking in my face as I continue on.
Upon arrival up river, Roger makes the comment, "don't you just love this"? Before I can answer him, a nice largemouth crushes my CLU lipless crankbait. My hands are so cold, I can barely take the hooks out of its mouth. We continue down this bank, land about 3 more keeper fish and have a good one pull off. In between, we are also getting Jack bites. Its kind of frustrating, but under these cold conditions, any bite helps keep the ole blood circulating. It also helps keep the ice from forming in our rod guides.
There's two things I notice today. One is that the river seems deserted. Perhaps its the weather or maybe the lake is fishing bigger than I expected, but what ever, I like what I have found today. At the end of the day, we find that the red lipless cranks seem to be producing bigger fish. Of course, you have to beat the Jacks off them too.
The sleet has changed over to a cold rain and will last all day. I have to come in early because I have to do an appearance for Pedigree during a "meet the pro" night. For once, I'm not complaining on having to stop for the day, my fingers are numb and I can't feel my toes.
When we arrive back at the ramp, you can hear the sound of sirens in the distance. They continue to get closer and closer, until two rescue trucks and an ambulance pull into the ramp parking lot. We pull my rig out, staying out of the way, but the only thing me and Rog can figure is that an elderly man has fallen out of his boat, suffering from hypothermia. It was cold enough today to be life threatening, must less falling in.
Day Five: The weather today is not much better than yesterday, well least its not sleeting and wind howling. But its cold !! The plan today is to expand the second thing I learned yesterday, that the red lipless CLU crankbait is producing better fish. As expected, the water temps have really fallen, going from the mid 50's to the low 40's. The bite today is really off for us. Roger will land a couple nice fish on the red lipless crankbait late, so perhaps the pattern will continue to work late.
Again it will be a short day, with the pairings meeting tonight and needing to get my gear in order. I also need to dry out all my winter gear for tomorrow. The forecast is for below freezing conditions. Looks like it will be a physical and mental draining event.
At the registration meeting, everyone is pretty quiet. Well, except talking about how many jacks or pickerel everyone has caught. Everyone has their war story, with a bite mark or two on their hands as proof. As far as bass, most are either on them big or not. I feel pretty good about my chances, if the cold weather doesn't hurt them too bad. While going thru registration line, their is a group of ladies from the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, who are asking we fill out surveys about our stay so far in Columbia. One of the ladies remarks, "If we fill out the survey, will be eligible for a free all expense trip back to Columbia courtesy of the Chamber". I jokingly ask her if I can pick the date, so I can use it to pay my expenses when I have to come back for my court date. She laughs and says, "oh, you met one of our officers"? Yep, got me a little speeding ticket as my personal mementoe of Columbia. She just laughs.
This is the Chevy Open, one of the big high profile events of the year. These events usually lay out the spread with a great pre tournament meal. Something hot and good will be the ticket after a cold wet day on the water. Well, as Little E and I approach the line for the meal, we notice its pretty short. What's up with that? It doesn't take long to figure out why, as when we finally reach the first buffet table, the first item is a loaf of bread. The meal is cold cut sandwiches ! You can hear the rumbling as everyone realizes what it is. I hear one guy say, "heck, I've been eating cold sandwiches all week" and I really get a chuckle when one tells the lady handing out the bread that Chevrolet really must be down with sales.
The meeting is pretty short as meetings go. One interesting note, remember the ladies from the Chamber of Commerce, well when they go up on stage to draw the lucky winner to come back to Columbia, all my buddies sitting around me start ribbing me its probably rigged I win so can come back for 2 free nights in the county jail. But get this, when Charlie Evans draws the name, and says "Jeffrey Thomas from Broadway NC" everyone explodes with laughter. You can tell Charlie and the ladies don't quite get what's so funny but I just got my "get out of jail free" card punched.
I draw out boat #99 out of 200. Not a bad number, I will stay in the middle of the field both days, with perhaps the evening bite being best. My partner tomorrow is from Alabama. After a few exchanges on where and what my plans are, its back to the hotel.
Tournament Day One: The morning will start out cold and damp. I meet my co-angler partner and we slowly begin the journey across the lake to take off. With the lake down so low, most ramps are high and dry, making most have to make early morning long runs to the take off site. This can be dangerous enough in the dark, but on Murray, which is full of small shallow humps and islands, more like a crap shoot. We make it safely across, but fellow team member and friend David Lauer will not. Word is that he ran into a small rock island while coming across, ripping out the bottom of his boat while doing his best James Bond impression.
When they call our number, we make the chilly run up river. Once there, I notice pretty much got my area to myself. As the day progresses, I think I know why. It will be a hard day, with few bites, most being jacks. I really thought I could catch them today but I don't. I will end up with less than 4 pounds and way back in the pack. Despite the conditions, some huge bags of fish will come in. I mean huge. So much for my stained water river fish.
Tournament Day Two: My co-angler partner today is from Michigan. I ask him if he's use to the cold weather, which he comments you never get use to it. The plan today is again go back to my river fish. I know they are there, perhaps biting today with the water temps leveling off. Word is that the bigger stringers of bass are coming from the clearest water on the lake, near the dam. I can believe that because the river again will be deserted. The day starts out pretty fast, as my first stop, I will hook about a 3 pound bass, only to have it pull off beside the boat. I hear a little "yep" behind me as one lone boater across the river nets about a 4 pound fish. This gives me a positive attitude that today they will bite. A little further down the bank, I will land my first keeper, around 2 pounds, on the custom lures red lipless crankbait. After about an hour, numerous jacks, again I will lose about a 3 pound bass. This is something that I cannot be doing if I am to make any ground. As the day progresses, my co-angler and I seem to be rotating catching keepers. He will catch one, I will catch one. It turns out to be more frustrating, even though I am getting bit more, because they are not keeper fish.
In between the flurry of small fish, a small john boat about 12 feet in length, will idle up behind me, asking if we are doing any good. Appears to be a local crappie fisherman. My co-angler politely answers with a "enuff to keep us interested" response. I continue fishing until suddenly the guy bumps my boat with his john boat. What the heck? Next thing I hear is, "S.C. Resource officer, need to check for license and gear." We quickly obey and after a couple friendly comments about his well equipped boat, he bids us luck and is gone.
At weigh in, the sack feast begins. Man, did they catch them again. I have been to some of the bigges, most famous lunker lakes in the country, but none will compare to Murray. Big fish after big fish will go across the stage. If there is a better lake in the country right now, I don't know it.
The next two days will be spend working the Pedigree booth in the Wal-Mart Fun Zone. The weather is cold and wet, but the people from Columbia really turn out to witness the big bass bonanza. What a final day weigh in, it was just one guy pulling out one big fish after another.
Maybe I will use my "free" trip back to Lake Murray to go fishing instead of fighting a speeding ticket in court. Paying a minor fine for the opportunity to come back and catch these hawgs is more like landing on "free parking" instead of drawing the "go straight to jail, do not pass go" card.