COLUMBIA, S.C. — Four sporadic morning hours on a topwater bite were enough to carry Casey Ashley of Donalds, S.C., from the runner-up spot to the top Saturday in the Evan Williams Bourbon Carolina Clash on Lake Murray.
Helped by a 15-13 day, Ashley added up 45 pounds, 14 ounces over three days, enough for a shot at a Bassmaster Elite Series win in his home state on Sunday.
He bested Michael Iaconelli of Pitts Grove, N.J., by 2 pounds, 9 ounces. But with the way the lake’s been fishing, the pro from New Jersey said it’s not enough for Ashley to feel complacent.
Ashley didn’t think so either. He’d be the first — was the first, actually — to acknowledge that the Lake Murray title is in the crosshairs of any of the top pros’ sights.
“I’ll have to catch 14, 15 again tomorrow to stay up in first place, and I could be passed then even if I do catch that,” Ashley said. “It’s tough out there, and it’s a day-to-day thing. The only thing that separates somebody having 15 pounds from 12 pounds is a big bite. Yesterday and today I got a good bite. Who knows if I get one tomorrow.”
Tough Lake Murray once again reshuffled much of the leaderboard Saturday. Trailing Ashley and Iaconelli were three rising pros within 4 ounces of each other: Jeff Connella, up from sixth place into third with 42-4; Kevin Wirth, up from eighth into fourth with 42-1, and Tommy Biffle, who jumped from 14th on Day Two into fifth with 42-0, thanks to a Day Three sack of 16-7.
The field was cut to the top 12 for the final day Sunday. The winner will claim the Bassmaster Elite Series trophy, $100,000 and an instant entry into the 2012 Bassmaster Classic.
Ashley made do on only seven bites Saturday. They all happened for him between 7:30 and 11:30 a.m.
“It took a while this morning for them to get fired up,” he said. “Then, after 11:30, I did not get another bite.”
He said he could not get a bass to take his lure unless he threw it into the center of schooling bass, and even then only one in 10 would commit.
“You could throw right into the middle of them, and they wouldn’t pay you any attention. It was crazy,” he said.
Iaconelli’s largest bass of the day, close to a 5-pounder, upgraded him enough to challenge the leader. While Iaconelli’s bites were earlier than Ashley’s, the New Jersey pro said all the action shut down as soon as the sun got high in the sky.
“I struggled then,” he said. “I keep trying different things to get those fish to bite after the sun gets high. So far I can’t do it.”
From Bentley, La., Connella was consistent. He produced similar-size bags three days in a row, all on the same pattern, every day. He said he was covering a lot of water, and “whoever follows me tomorrow is going to burn a lot of gas.”
Wirth, of Crestwood, Ky., settled in at fourth place by “pecking away” at it and, perhaps, finding subtle differences that others are missing to sustain a bite beyond a few morning hours.
“I’m trying to key in on some off-the-wall stuff,” he said. “And I’ve been fortunate enough to get some better bites.”
Day Two leader Fred Roumbanis stumbled into 12th place, just making the cut. Day One leader Jami Fralick headed into the final round in sixth place. Edwin Evers sacked 18-8 to catapult from 45th and fish again Sunday.
Saturday’s biggest bass, a 6-2, was brought in by Russ Lane. But the 6-9 weighed by Day One leader Jami Fralick still holds the lead in the Berkley Big Bass of the Tournament competition for a $500 bonus.
Sunday’s 3 p.m. ET weigh-in will be at Dreher Island State Recreation Area on Lake Murray.