If John Murray had a single fishery he'd like to forget, it would be the James River in Williamsburg, Va. Nine years ago, the Arizona pro quit fishing BASS events because of his poor performance on the James. The river sent him back West questioning his decision to fish on a national platform against the best anglers in the world. So, when Murray boarded the plane for the inaugural Busch Shootout not knowing his destination, he could have never guessed he'd have to come face-to-face with an old nemesis.
The Busch Shootout format is a throwback to the first Bassmaster Classic, where Ray Scott kept secret the name of the fishery until midflight to the location. In similar fashion, BASS officials were diligent in keeping this year's "mystery lake" a secret, forcing the anglers to pack gear that would catch bass under any condition they might face. But, when the 13 anglers who qualified for the shootout landed in Richmond, Va., Oct. 28, it became apparent that the James would be the battleground for the winner-take-all $100,000 purse.
"When I figured out where we were fishing, I assumed we were all going to watch VanDam's bank account increase — again," joked Murray. "But, I was pretty stoked about all of us getting on a body of water where none of us had practiced. It would test all of us to try and figure out the fish in a very short amount of time."
Ben Matsubu figured out the fish better than the rest on Day 1, bringing a five fish limit to the scales weighing 13-9. Kevin VanDam was the only other angler to catch a limit, his weighing 8-1. Murray boated only 3 fish weighing 4-6. Luckily for him, there was one more qualification round and the weights would be zeroed going into the finals.
Lure: Yamamoto Kreature, Zoom Baby Brush Hog, Reaction Innovations Smallie Beaver. All creature baits were either green pumpkin or watermelon colored.
Tackle: All baits were fished using Shimano Chronarch reels, 20-pound Yamamoto line and a medium-heavy action Lobina worm rod.
Technique: The creature baits were cast to the shallow portions of laydowns then slowly reeled through the limbs. The 1/4-ounce weight kept the bait falling slightly throughout the retrieve, but Murray never stopped or hopped the bait. All bites came while the baits were swimming.
"The tide was outgoing, and I found some deep holes on the ends of laydowns where the bass would congregate when the water fell," Murray explained. "I would pitch my bait to the shallow end of the tree and swim it through the limbs. The bass wouldn't eat it if I hopped it, or stopped it, or yo-yo'd it over a branch, or deadsticked it. They wanted that thing swimming past their noses," Murray said. He started off throwing a Yamamoto Kreature paired with a small 1/4-ounce tungsten weight. And when he ran out of the Kreatures, he threw Zoom Baby Brush Hogs. And when he ran out of those, he threw a Reaction Innovations Smallie Beaver. All baits were either green pumpkin or watermelon colored.
"I should have had a much better first day weight," Murray noted. "I missed three really good bites that would have helped me out."
Murray went out the second day with more focus. Using the creature baits, he conned four bass into biting, and caught all of them. The four fish totaled almost 8 pounds and vaulted Murray into the Top 6 final round.
For the finals, the anglers pulled their boats out of the James River and launched them into a small lake that was divided into three holes, with pairs of anglers alternating through the holes every 80 minutes. For the final hour of competition, "The Busch Happy Hour," anglers were allowed to fish anywhere on the 35-acre impoundment.
On Murray's second cast, still using a creature bait, he hooked and landed a 5-pounder. Another cast later, he landed a fish that would go a bit over two pounds. "After I caught those first two fish, I thought this was going to be one of the most awesome lakes ever!" Murray said. "And then I went about four hours with only one more little fish to show for it. It was the longest four hours of my life."
It was a long four hours for all of the anglers fishing the small lake, as none of them could crack the code for getting the bass to bite. And in the end, Murray's first five casts would be all he needed to take home the championship trophy. His 9-9 final round sack bested his nearest competitor (Thad Takes, 4-10) by almost 5 pounds.
"It's was really awesome being the first guy to win an Open Championship last year. And being the first guy to win the Busch Shootout is even more incredible," grinned Murray. And the fact that he won the event on a fishery that almost cost him his pro career will make the James River a place he'll never want to forget.