COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gary Klein has previously fished BASS tournaments at Lake Murray, the site of this week's Elite Series Carolina Clash presented by Evan Williams. But he hasn't fish "this" Lake Murray.
As the four-day tournament opened to 60-degree temperatures and cloudy skies Thursday morning, the 50-year-old Weatherford, Texas, angler talked about the challenges he and the other Elites Series anglers face on this 50,000-acre lake.
"This is the type of tournament I enjoy," Klein said. "It's tough, yet you can be rewarded if you work hard."
Klein thinks there will be some five-bass limits weighing 23 to 24 pounds brought across the stage at today's weigh-in, including an 8-pounder or two. But he doesn't think anyone will be able to do that here for four days in a row. In fact, he thinks 11 pounds a day will get you in the top 50 after Friday and earn you a $10,000 check in this event.
Lake Murray, built in 1930, used to have an abundance of aquatic vegetation. Thick mats of elodea grew to the surface in every cove and ridgeline in the lake. But all that has been gone for several years now.
The new factor in the bass equation for Lake Murray is blueback herring: Originally a saltwater baitfish, it has been unintentionally introduced to several lakes in the southeast, including Clarks Hill (site of the last Elite Series tournament two weeks ago) and Hartwell, where the Bassmaster Classic was held in February.
"There's a lot of herring in this lake," said Klein, who has qualified for 26 Bassmaster Classics over his fishing career. "The last time I fished this lake, there were no herring in here.
"It's really been the last three to five years that all the herring have gotten in here. The fish are really conditioned to them now. That's going to be the challenge on this lake.
"We, as anglers, are conditioned, too. Normally after the spawn, these fish will come off the banks and get out on the deep stuff, in 15, 20, 25 feet of water. But what we have now — because the bass spawn first and the herring come in and spawn after the bass — these fish are so conditioned that after the spawn they just hang out. They just wait on the herring to come by.
"My mind is telling me to back off and fish the breaks, in 15, 20, 25 feet, and when I do that, I don't get a bite. If I stay shallow, I get a bite."
But several Elite Series pros, including Klein, have noted all the vegetation — which grew around the banks of Lake Murray when it was low, is now submerged in a lake 2 feet above normal pool — hasn't been productive in practice this week.
"You can pull up on a point that has maybe a rock or one or two bushes in the water, and there will be seven or eight (bass) just sitting there," Dean Rojas said. "They're done spawning. It's weird. It's totally unorthodox from what we're used to.
"When the water is up, you fish shallow in the bushes. And there's fish in there. I had a 7-pounder (Wednesday) on Kermit (Rojas' nickname for his signature SPRO topwater frog). But you can go two or three hours and not get a bite. I'm using it more as a backup pattern.
"I'm going to try to catch a limit early, then go hog hunting."
Rojas agrees with Klein that the blueback herring factor has probably changed the typical behavior of post-spawn bass in Lake Murray.
"It's just been a weird practice," said Rojas, who is fifth in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race. "I've really had to switch gears a lot. I've done a lot of soul-searching. It's like, 'What's going on, man?'"
And that's exactly what Klein had in mind when he mentioned being rewarded for hard work here: It will probably take a lot of running-and-gunning to catch a big sack. There's a strong topwater bite. But with all the flooded vegetation, there should be a good flipping pattern working, too, and few anglers have found that.
"I'll be curious to see how the really good flippers do today, guys like Denny (Brauer) and Tommy (Biffle)," Rojas said.
"There's almost too much good stuff in the water. You get lost in it. Those fish can be anywhere."
Several anglers have mentioned seeing bass guarding schools of newly-hatched fry. Klein said the size of those fry would indicate that the adult males guarding them will soon disperse them, leaving the youngsters to fend for themselves.
"That can happen any day now," Klein said. "Once those bass scatter them, then they'll go back to munching. I think the bite is going to get better. Today could be the beginning of a great week."
The daily 6:30 a.m. ET launches and 3 p.m. ET weigh-ins will be held Irmo's Lake Murray Marina & Yacht Club.