COLUMBIA, S.C. — Alton Jones has won well over a half-million dollars on lakes that contain blueback herring as the dominant forage for bass. Yet Jones doesn't care to compete on anymore blueback herring lakes anytime soon.
"I hope they don't start transporting them to a lot of other lakes," Jones said Saturday morning, already guaranteed of another $10,000 by making the top 50 cut in the Bassmaster Elite Series Carolina Clash presented by Evan Williams at Lake Murray.Jones won the Bassmaster Classic last February on South Carolina's Lake Hartwell — a blueback herring lake — and collected the $500,000 check that goes with it. Two weeks ago at Clarks Hill Lake — another impoundment with bluebacks — Jones finished 11th and pocketed another $12,500.So why wouldn't Jones want to fish on blueback herring lakes every tournament?"I've learned at blueback herring lakes that you can take a lot of what you've learned about bass over the course of your lifetime and throw it out the window," said the 44-year-old Waco, Texas, resident.
"In blueback herring lakes, you basically have two patterns for the year — spawning and schooling — and there's not much in between."
Since 90 percent of the bass in Lake Murray have finished spawning this spring, the lake's 50,000 acres have "fished small" for the 108 anglers in the Carolina Clash. Blueback herring are spawning, and they prefer hard-bottomed, flat points to go through that process. So almost every angler in the tournament has concentrated his day on those major lake points."You've got to take a number to get on one of these fishing spots," Casey Ashley said Friday. "Everybody is doing the same thing."Lake Murray was formed in 1930 by what was then the largest earthen dam in the world. Blueback herring aren't a native species. In fact, they didn't show up in the lake in significant numbers until the mid 1980s, according to Richard Hall, who has operated the Lake World bait and tackle shop near Murray Dam for almost 25 years now.
"It happened pretty much by accident," Hall said. "They don't know exactly what happened. The original bait man on this lake, we think he started it."Blueback herring are an anadromous species that can be found on the Atlantic Coast from New England to Florida. They live in saltwater, but move into freshwater to spawn. They have naturally moved through lock-and-dam systems into some freshwater lakes.
Bluebacks are practically identical to alewives — another anadromous species. But their name is somewhat of a misnomer. They don't have a bright blue back. It's closer to gray in color. But there are subtle gold and bronze scales on bluebacks, too."When you're watching them follow your bait up (to the boat), it's really more of a brown color," Jones said.That's why a gold/bronze, double-jointed Sebile swimbait has been such a popular lure among the pros at Lake Murray this week. Kenyon Hill relied partly on a shad-colored Sebile swimbait to win the Elite Series event at Clarks Hill two weeks ago.
"It just amazes me how quick the word spreads on something like that," Hall said. "That (Sebile swimbait) has been my No. 1-seller. I was reluctant to put another expensive lure in stock, but it's selling like fire."
Blueback herring can reach lengths of 15 inches, but most are in the 5- to 8-inch range. They are long, thin-bodied fish, unlike the deep-bodied threadfin and gizzard shad that form the more common bass forage base in most U.S. lakes.
On the surface, it's puzzling why bass anglers would be discombobulated by a baitfish that is easily imitated by artificial lures, and one that holds the only key to success in a tournament.
Lake Murray has been low, as much as eight feet, for several years. This spring it has risen to about two feet above the normal level. That 10-foot elevation difference has put all kinds of bushes and vegetation in the water. That's normally where a high percentage of the bass anglers would be fishing this time of year. And Lake Murray would "fish big" then, with its 500-mile shoreline holding bass.
"Almost anywhere else we go, fish would be wanting to be there because it's the most abundant cover in the lake," Jones said. "And it's nice, fresh, green stuff that bass prefer."But they like the herring so much, they'll fore go that nice cover to be around the herring."Hall goes out at night with big lights to attract blueback herring near his boat, where he can capture them with a cast net.It's ungodly the herring out there in this lake," Hall said. "It's ungodly."
They are a popular bait for striper anglers primarily, but black bass anglers too. He sells them for $6 per dozen or $45 for a "load," which cuts the price to about $4.50 per dozen."I've caught 32 bass that were 10 pounds or better on this lake," Hall said. "All of them have been caught fishing with herring.My best tournament fish (on artificial lures) is only 9 pounds. I can't bust 10 pounds."(By the way, all but one of those 32 bass caught on live herring went back into the lake alive. The other was caught by an angler Hall guided who was dealing with a terminal illness, and Hall, understandably, didn't ask the man to release the fish after he expressed a desire to have it mounted.)
The problem with the blueback herring/black bass relationship for tournament anglers is that it's so much a timing deal. Jones and several other anglers have mentioned casting to points where fish should be, getting no strikes, then trolling-motoring up to the shallow areas where they were casting and seeing plenty of bass in Murray's clear waters.You can't fool them by casting a single herring-imitating lure into that area."Those fish just sit there in places where herring might show up," Jones said.
Howard Stephens of Columbia, S.C., has won over $140,000 on the BASS circuit while fishing from the back of the boat as a co-angler. The 64-year-old president of a company that sells carbide drill bits to manufacturing companies calls Murray his home lake; he's been fishing it since 1972. He has closely observed the blueback herring-effect on the lake."You can look at a point and tell if it's the one you want," Stephens said. "It's got to have a hard bottom. They go out quite a ways, and they can't have steep sides.
"If you throw your swimbait up there, and some herring follow it back, you better stay there and keep fishing or come back later, because sooner or later the bass are going to move up and feed on them."
Stephens and his partner, Mark McCormick of Chapin, S.C., won the points race in the Carolina Anglers Team Tournament Trail last Saturday on Murray."We had a milk run of about 25 points that we had I.D.ed as having good potential," Stephens said. "We made that run twice (during the day)."
Stephens and McCormick sewed up the points race by finishing second overall Saturday and catching the big bass of the day. But even they found Murray's herring-related bass frustrating."We had a limit at 6:45 (a.m.)," Stephens said. "We culled through the morning. After that, it got cloudy and the wind picked up."They thought the weather conditions were perfect for some serious culling to begin."We caught two small keepers the rest of the day," he said. "It doesn't make any sense."Stephens, by the way, prefers YUM's Money Minnow for his swimbait on Lake Murray. Like the Sebile hard plastic lure, the soft plastic Money Minnows are hard to find in this area now.
Stephens' experience last Saturday sums up the frustrations of the Elite Series pros this week on Lake Murray. Even when the weather conditions seem perfect, and you know where the fish will be caught, there's no predicting when the bass/blueback herring feeding frenzy will begin.
That's why you'll often hear the Elite Series pros talk about it being "a timing deal" — in other words, being at the right place at the right time. That throws a luck factor into tournament bass fishing that's simply hard to handle for many of these professional anglers who have spent decades studying the habits of bass.
And that's the best explanation for why Alton Jones, who is half-a-million dollars richer thanks to blueback herring lakes, hopes they don't start showing up anywhere else in the country.
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Carolina Clash, May 15–18, 2008. Thursday through Saturday, daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 3:00 p.m. ET. On Sunday, "Hooked Up" will air at noon and 2:45 p.m. ET, with the final weigh-in and live streaming video to start at 3:15 p.m. ET.