Casey croons at Clash

Casey Ashley triumphs at home in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Two 3-pounders in the last 45 minutes of competition helped Casey Ashley to the win Sunday in the Evan Williams Bourbon Carolina Clash with a total weight of 61 pounds, 3 ounces.

Ashley, the leader on Day Three in the Lake Murray event, closed the deal with a fourth-day catch of 15-5. The bag gave him a 3-pound, 2-ounce margin over fellow South Carolinian Davy Hite and New Jersey’s Michael Iaconelli, who both had 58-1.

Finishing fourth was Missouri’s Brian Snowden with 57-8. Fifth was Kevin Wirth of Kentucky, who had 55-12. Day One leader Jami Fralick of South Dakota ended in ninth place, and Day Two leader Fred Roumbanis of Oklahoma wrapped up in 12th place.

Ashley’s prize was $100,000 and an instant entry into the 2012 Bassmaster Classic.

It was Ashley’s second Bassmaster Elite Series win. His first was in 2007, his rookie year. The second feels very different, he said, and not just because it was in his home state.

“The win at Smith Mountain Lake was special because it was my first, and in my first year on tour. I really didn’t know then what it meant to win,” said the 27-year-old. “Now I know they’re hard to come by. I’m glad I won, but I’m real glad I won in South Carolina in front of all my family and friends.”

Ashley lives in Donalds, S.C., less than two hours away from Lake Murray, a fishery he knows well.

Clinching a Classic seat was an especially sweet accomplishment because he had missed out on the 2011 Classic, a hiccup after appearing in the sport’s biggest event from 2008 to 2010.

He likely would have qualified through the points system because he’d been riding in the teens, but “now that’s done,” he said. With the win, he moved up to ninth place in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points standings.

Ashley might not have won if he had corrected a day that started badly. He tried for an early bite on a shallow point — a prevalent pattern throughout the tournament for many of the pros. But the bass paid little attention to his fluke.

“The fish were there, but they just wouldn’t bite,” he said.

But, he said, another angler probably was on the bass to win, and that thought started to get to him.

“I knew that with the wind blowing all day, they were going to bite for somebody,” he said.

About two hours into his day — by then feeling “nervous and worried” — he made an adjustment by going to a new spot that got him going with a 3-pounder. He left the spot and came back later, only to hook into and lose a decent-sized fish. But he kept faith with the spot, and later came back and caught another fish.

“And then it was over,” he said. “I had to go totally to finesse fishing after that.”

The day ended much better than it started: two 3-pounders in the last 45 minutes of fishing. He took both on a shaky head rig after deciding that finesse techniques was what he had to do to when his topwater pattern shut down.

He said his parents were on the water watching him from their boat. Another 40 spectator boats surrounded him. While he enjoyed the attention, he said he felt added pressure to do well for them. Throw in the fact that until the last hour, he knew he did not have enough weight to win.

“I was worried, I was scared I’d lose this thing,” he said. His two last-hour fish eased his mind, but not knowing what others had caught, he could not be confident he’d prevail.

Throughout the four days of the tournament, Ashley uncovered out-of-the-way places that “people weren’t beatin’ to death.” When the morning herring bite died, he saw many competitors move out to deeper water, but he wasn’t tempted.

“The fish weren’t out there,” he said. “They were in less than 3 feet of water, and you could see them.”

He used the shaky head rig on those shallow flats, working it to “dark spots” that were rocks or stumps or a depression in the bottom composition.

His morning lure arsenal for schooling largemouth consisted of two baits, one a hard topwater, the other a plastic: a Lucky Craft Gunfish in a herring color, switching off with Zoom Super Fluke. He used a pearl white Fluke in the early hours, then went to “disco violet,” a transparent finish.

After about noon, he went to a shaky head exclusively.

“You had to stay up real shallow, cruise around, not make much racket because those fish were spooky,” the winner said.

Hite and Iaconelli both amassed 58-1 over four days, but identical weights did not result in a tie. A third-tier breaker rule gave Hite the second-place finish, and Iaconelli the third, because Hite had the heaviest single-day catch, 16-7 over Iaconelli’s 16-6.

Ironically, 1 ounce was exactly what Iaconelli at first believed had cost him the win, before Ashley brought his weight to the scales. When tournament officials corrected the impression, Iaconelli was relieved to hear he did not have to regret a 1-ounce loss.

“If I had lost by an ounce, it would have been heartbreaking,” said the pro from Pitts Grove, N.J., who has six Bassmaster wins to his name, including the 2003 Bassmaster Classic.

Iaconelli said he “fished like a maniac,” looking for one more big bite, which he felt sure he needed to win.

Hite, who grew up in nearby Prosperity and now lives in Ninety Six, was looking for a win in front of a hometown crowd on a lake he fished tournaments beginning at age 12. A Carolina Clash crown would have been his eighth Bassmaster win and second of the season, a rare accomplishment on the Elite trail.

“I’ve fished hundreds and hundreds of tournaments from this same ramp, but never have any of them been so exciting as this was today,” said Hite, who has the 1999 Classic win on his extensive competition record.

Hite said he “lost” on the third day with a smaller bag of 11-12.

“That happened because I swung for the fences by starting in places where I know big fish live, and I didn’t catch one,” he said.

His 16-14 weight on Sunday didn’t make up for Saturday, although it was the largest bag on the final day.

The Clash’s largest bass was by Jami Fralick on Day One. It was a 6-9, handily beating out Sunday’s largest bass, a 4-8 brought in by Snowden. Fralick won the Berkley Big Bass of Tournament bonus of $500.

The Carolina Clash mixed up the leaderboard in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. Leader Alton Jones fell to third after finishing 88th on Lake Murray. Terry Scroggins moved from second place to take the lead, and Kevin VanDam moved up to second place. Those who took larger steps up included Iaconelli from 27th to 16th, Hite from 16th to sixth, and Wirth from 23rd to 14th.

Next on the Bassmaster Elite Series schedule is the Diamond Drive on the Arkansas River out of Little Rock, Ark.