COLUMBIA, S.C. — Fred Roumbanis remembers clearly the thought that went through his mind after four hours of catching nothing on the first day of the Bassmaster Elite Series Carolina Clash presented by Evan Williams. It was, "Oh my gosh, I might blank."
With a four-day total of 66 pounds, 13 ounces, Roumbanis went from zero to hero on Lake Murray, winning the $100,000 first place check Sunday. His margin of victory was 1 pound, 9 ounces over Steve Kennedy. Most important, the 29-year-old Bixby, Okla., resident did it by following his instincts and doing something completely different than the rest of the field.
While every other angler was concentrating on main-lake points where bass were feeding on blueback herring, Roumbanis found his fish way up the Saluda River where bass were feeding on bluegill. Ultimately, the bluegill trumped the bluebacks — and following your instincts surpassed following the crowd.
"I didn't even know about the Sebile Magic Swimmer," said Roumbanis about the dominant lure in this tournament. "That's how out of the loop I am."
For Roumbanis, his method of doing it meant more than the money he won.
"It really, truly makes me feel like I'm a pretty good angler," Roumbanis said. "I feel like I can trust my instincts and run with it — not worry about what everybody else is throwing, not worry about what a typical pattern is on a lake.
"There are so many keys to the puzzle on every lake you go to. There are probably five different patterns on any body of water that you can win a tournament. And I think this is just one of the patterns guys could have caught them on, if they tried."
Roumbanis definitely went through some trying moments on Thursday. He too was going to start on the main-lake points/blueback herring pattern in this tournament. It was the same pattern that made a winner out of Kenyon Hill two weeks ago at Clarks Hill Lake — another impoundment where blueback herring are the dominant bass forage.
But when Roumbanis struggled on his first point, he then found every other one he wanted to fish occupied by another Elite Series angler. That's when he went searching — for just one fish. After a 6:30 a.m. launch, it was 10:30 a.m. Thursday when Roumbanis started his run up the Saluda River, which forms the 50,000 acres of Lake Murray.
"I wanted to get something in the livewell," Roumbanis said. "It's quite embarrassing (to catch nothing), plus you've got (Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year) points to think about. One fish is worth points. If you come in with nothing, you don't get any points.
"I really just went up there to gain some points and see where it would put me at the end of the day, if I could catch five (bass). I didn't think I had a chance to catch five that late in the day.
"But in two hours I had 15 pounds, and I had to turn around and come back. There wasn't much time left."
What Roumbanis found way up the river was: a.) tons of flooded vegetation; b.) largemouth bass feeding on bluegill rather than blueback herring; and c.) a fishing hole all to himself.
He caught a few fish flipping a Zoom Brush Hawg the first day. The second day he added a few on an Ima Roumba wakebait. But in both those days he realized it was perfect water for his favorite lure: the Snag Proof Frog. Roumbanis tied on one that had some orange under its chin, to imitate the underbody of a bluegill.
"I'm just excited to finally win one of these Bassmaster tournaments on a frog," said Roumbanis. "I've made several top tens on it. But it's one of those baits you have to spend so much time throwing.
"I grew up on the California Delta, and it was basically the only bait I'd throw in every team tournament. My partners would flip and everything else. It's a bait I have extreme confidence in. I can go all day for five bites without picking up a flipping rod or something like that."
Almost exactly one year ago — on May 20 — Roumbanis won the $250,000 Bassmaster American Major at North Carolina's High Rock Lake.
But he didn't do it on a frog.
Sunday he had one frog bite in particular that stood out among the rest of his 17-pound, 14-ounce limit. After missing a big bass two straight days in a particular area of the Saluda River, Roumbanis had nicknamed the bass there "Sugar." He caught "Sugar" Sunday and earned an extra $1,000 for the 6-pound, 13-ounce fish that took Purolator Big Bass honors.
But he wasn't sure what he had when something slurped his Snag Proof Frog under the water.
"I was pretty sure it was a mudfish," said Roumbanis, who had already caught one of the sharp-toothed rough fish, also known as grinnel. And he wasn't about to stick his hand into the mouth of this fish after it buried up in some thick vegetation.
"If you put your thumb in its mouth, you're going to lose your thumb," he said.
So he put his hand on the fish's back and realized he had "Sugar" instead of trouble.
"I think that fish bit me every single day," Roumbanis said. "I kept getting one giant bite around that vicinity. I just wanted it to give me some sugar and put it in the livewell. So I nicknamed it 'Sugar.'"
"Sugar" proved to be the difference Sunday, but it wasn't like the rest of the 12-man field failed to give Roumbanis a run for his money. He entered the day with only a 7-ounce lead over Kennedy. And the final qualifier for Sunday — Ish Monroe — was only 6-15 behind Roumbanis. It was the tightest 12-man final in the two-plus seasons of the Elite Series tour.
As the anglers weighed in, from 12th to first in the previous day's standings — one big bag after another came to the Elite Series scales. Kevin VanDam had 17-4 and briefly took the lead. Then Kelly Jordon knocked out VanDam with 17-12 and a four-day total of 61-8. South Carolina native and local favorite Davy Hite, celebrating his 43rd birthday, took over the top spot with 19-0 and 64-1 overall.
The parade of big sacks continued, as Edwin Evers weighed 19-4 to give him 64-13. Then Kennedy took the hot seat with 16-12 and 65-4 overall.
But in the end, Roumbanis had followed his instincts to the sweetest sugar in his young professional bass fishing career.