MANY — Arizona native John Murray joined the Bassmaster Elite Series 11 years ago, having won more than $1 million fishing West Coast tournaments. But an Elite Series win has eluded him until Sunday at Toledo Bend.
It's the day Murray jumped from third place to the victor’s seat after slamming nearly 25 pounds of bass onto the scales during the latest Elite Series event. His four-day total was 77 pounds, 10 ounces.
“You know what it takes to win one of these: I mean … since the inception of this thing, I’ve been trying to win one, and I always thought I would — until recently,” Murray said after the weigh-in. “I really thought I might not win one, you know.
“We’ve got so many good anglers now, so many young guys, I go, ‘It just might not happen.’ To finally, really, do it? Yeah, that’s pretty hard to imagine.”
But during last week’s stop at the massive Toledo Bend Reservoir, Murray banged away at the bass. Even though most pros agreed the lake was much more stingy than their past four visits, Murray moved from 34th the second day to third going into the final round.
All eyes at that point were on leader Jamie Hartman, who seemed dialed in, but Mother Nature seemed intent on testing the pros, calling up ever-changing conditions. Brutal winds on the first day gave way to a calm second day, and then she threw the winds and blue-bird skies into play for the third round.
On Sunday, the top 12 were greeted at the ramp with howling winds and rollers in front of Cypress Bend State Park.
That was a game-changer, reducing some anglers' ability to key in on their bites. For Murray, the sloppy conditions propelled him to huge sack of fish early in the morning.
South Carolina’s Jason Christie edged into second, and Hartman fell to third. Rounding out the top five were South Carolina’s Casey Ashely (70-6), Idaho’s Brandon Palaniuk (67-5) and South Carolina’s Andy Montgomery (65-9).
Louisiana’s top finishing pro was Gonzales’ Greg Hackney, who put in a 19th-place showing with a three-day total of 44-14.
Murray wasn’t fishing protected waters. Instead, he spent the last two days bobbing about off the north point in the Patroon area. The first two days, Murray worked water near the dam. But on Day 3, he moved to the mouth of Patroon Bayou and camped out on the northern point.
“The flat on top was 4 1/2 to 5 foot, with stumps and stuff,” he said. “And then the break where the fish were was between 5 and 8 feet. So if I sat in 13 feet (of water), I could hit that.”
But the stumps didn’t seem to be the what held the bass. He said pinpoint casts to a very small spot was critical.
“There was a foundation,” Murray said. “Everything else was clay. If you could hit that foundation right in the morning, you’d get a bite.”
Experience on the lake clued him into the spot: Murray won a 2003 Bassmaster Open at Toledo Bend fishing the same point.
“Years ago, it was good,” he said. “It’s remote. You’ve got to idle a long way. It’s got way-outside structure. I just love it. There are a lot of pluses about it.”
And last year’s Elite Series Toledo Bend stop only added to his understanding of the locale’s potential.
“That last time we were here, I touched three 6-pounders on that same spot, and lost all three of them,” Murray said. “So today I caught those three big ones, and I think I kind of got paid back.
“It’s a transition area. They were spawning on top. I know when I’d go up on top and throw that jerk bait, I caught two big ones that way," he said. "They were females up there spawning, and I caught little males up on top.”
His final-day bites came early with the biggest coming when he dragged a crank bait across that foundation.
“There was one cast that worked,” Murray said. “Off to the side, there was something nasty that I could not get a crankbait through, and if I made that cast, it was over. It was so frustrating.”
His key lures included a Smithwick Rogue, a Lucky Craft 28 Pointer and a Strike King 5XD. He also caught some fish there on Day 2 drop-shotting a Gene Larew Tattletail worm, but the win came off the hard baits.
“They were eating little white bass,” Murray said. “You had to match the hatch. They had to look like white bass, and you had to make the right cast.”
The 5XD was responsible for his heavy last-day big limit.
“(The crank bait) dives to 12 feet, and the foundation was at 7, 8, so it was perfect — dut, dut, dut and it would load,” Murray said.
Sticking to his position was a challenge in the rough conditions, since Murray doesn’t have a trolling motor with an anchor feature.
“Yeah, I have a MotorGuide that doesn’t have that. I was physically doing it,” he said. “But when I made that drift and I’d get there, I knew the cast. It’s old-school.”