Bassmaster American: Day Four feature

GREENSBORO, N.C. — All John Murray had heard was that there were big fish in there.

Brian Snowden didn't know even that much about Lake Townsend.

"Nothing," he said.

On Sunday, Fred Roumbanis won his first big BASS tournament, the Bassmaster American presented by Advance Auto Parts, along with its $250,000 bounty, after saying on Saturday morning that he didn't even know what species of bass lived in the lake.

Turned out to be the "scarce" strain. After a productive two days on 15,000-acre High Rock Lake, the top 12 finishers moved to the 1,500-acre Townsend for the final two days.

There, they struggled, and the six pros who fished the final day were ambivalent about their maddening, exhausting, challenging, sometime exhilarating two days on what for them were virgin waters.

"It's frustrating," said Ish Monroe, who finished third with 11 pounds, 6 ounces. "You've already fished two days, and you've made the cut, so there's a little sigh of relief there for making the cut. But then you're on a lake that's really hard to figure out.

"You're burnt out, and you're trying to use your brain, and that's not working either."

Parachuting into a fishery without benefit of practice or previous experience rewards adaptability and versatility, the anglers agreed. In John Murray's case, he first tried what worked on High Rock Lake: fishing deep. He caught nothing. Then he tried fishing shallow. Still, he caught nothing. Hitting banks were all he could do.

"You just don't know for sure, no matter what the season says or the time of year," he said after finishing fourth with 9-1. "It's that process. And then hopefully you get that bite that tells you what they're doing."

The "six-hole" format of the final two days — in which anglers rotate around designated areas of the lake at 70-minute intervals before getting a "happy hour" to roam — also forced anglers to learn quickly.

Mike McClelland (6th, 5-14) said he usually prefers to spend three or four hours on a single area of structure, experimenting with different baits and presentations. Instead, he had to scramble with the rest of the field. The closest he came to catching a fish Sunday was losing a 3-pounder.

Mark Tucker (5th, 6-9) said the format forced him to manage his time, and also to have at the ready a variety of equipment.

"If you get a gut feeling, intuition, whatever it is, you have to act on it immediately in those holes, because you don't have much time to sit and think, 'Oh, I need to try that,'" Tucker said. "Because before you know it, the time's up, and you're off to the next hole."

Several factors conspired to make Townsend even tougher than usual. The biggest was the seemingly aimless pattern the fish were following: some pre-spawn, some post-spawn, some just about to move into the spawn.

"The fish were all confused," Monroe said. "We've had weird weather this year, so they're all screwed up."

Their fickle movement and finicky eating habits obscured the population of bass in the lake, according to McClelland. Had the tournament been held a month later, he said, the weights would have been much higher.

"We hit the lake at probably the most inopportune time that we possibly could," he said. "I feel bad for what we were trying to do for Townsend, because we didn't highlight it like we could have. But it's full of fish."

With their weights zeroed before the final two days, anglers were forced to start from scratch over and over again. Snowden found it exciting to have to trust his instincts and scout holes quickly. It showed, perhaps, in that he was the only angler to catch five-fish limits both days. Among the others, only Roumbanis (21-14 for the two days) caught as many as seven fish.

"Some guys do well by just doing one thing," Murray said. "But guys who usually do better in a six-hole have a lot of confidences and techniques, and they just go through them until they find the fish.

"It's a blast. Because you don't have to worry about it too much. Just have fun."

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