CULLMAN, Ala. — When the Smith Lake bass began transitioning into spawning stage earlier this week, many of the teams competing in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series tournament presented by Bass Pro Shops switched their fishing tactics hoping to keep pace.
Lucas Murphy and Mitchell Gunn of Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, however, stuck to their original plan, which was to throw swimbaits underneath docks hoping to land prespawn spotted bass.
It was a risky move, especially as the weather steadily grew warmer and bass headed for the shorelines to spawn. But Murphy and Gunn were consistent through all three days of the tournament, and that was enough to win on this 21,000-acre fishery here in north central Alabama.
The duo caught 15 bass in three days for a total weight of 52 pounds, 7 ounces. They were in second place heading into Saturday’s final day of fishing, but an 18-2 limit vaulted them past Day 2 leaders JT Russell and Porter James of the University of Montevallo, which is located about 90 minutes south of Smith Lake.
The Grand Valley State team was a bit stunned to win the event. Their aim was only to qualify for the College Series Championship, which they failed to do following a poor showing on North Carolina’s Lake Norman last month in the first college event of 2019.
“The goal was to get 15 (pounds a day here), which we figured would be good enough to do get us into nationals,” Murphy said. “But we had absolutely no idea it would be enough to win it. So this is completely surprising.”
Ten of the 12 tandems competing Saturday caught a five-bass limit, which highlighted how active Smith Lake became as practice days gave way to competition. Some anglers suspected the super moon on Wednesday had a positive effect on the bass bite.
Whatever was happening, it worried Murphy and Gunn.
“We were keeping an eye on the water temperature,” Murphy said. “It kept getting cold at night, which excited us, but then the water would warm up close to 60 during the day. It made us think they wouldn’t stay under those docks eating. We were catching them in water anywhere from 56 to 59 (degrees.)”
Murphy and Gunn seized the Day 1 lead with an 18-13 limit, but fell to second on Friday when they caught a 15-8 limit. Russell and James stormed to the top of the leaderboard with a 20-9 limit that day, which was the second heaviest total of the tournament. The Grand Valley State duo bounced back on Saturday, however, when Russell and James struggled and only put 10-10 in their livewell.
“We missed a few chances today,” Russell said after his team fell to third overall. “We missed three fish and they all were at least three pounds.”
Murphy and Gunn took advantage. They used spinning rods to swim 3.3-inch and 3.8-inch Keitech baits in 5 feet of water underneath docks. Tennessee shad, pro blue and bluegill flash were all effective color patterns, they said.
The other key was covering nearly every inch of Smith Lake’s 21,000 acres.
“I don’t think we took the lifejackets off much,” Gunn said. “We’d fish for a minute, catch one, then move on.”
This was Murphy’s second win in a Bassmaster College Series event. He teamed with Nolan Hitt to win the Eastern Regional last May on Cherokee Lake in Tennessee.
Exactly 250 teams began the tournament on Thursday and 12 survived the cut to fish on Saturday. Trailing Murphy and Gunn were, second place, Derek Freeman/Caleb Allgood, Clemson, 49-9; third, Russell/James, Montevallo (Ala.), 49-4; fourth, Aaron Denny/Williams Mathews, Grand Valley State, 47-7; and fifth, Trevor McKinney/Ethan Jones, McKendree (Ill.), 45-15.
The dozen teams that fished Saturday split a pool of $8,500 cash for their respective school bass fishing programs. Murphy and Gunn won the top prize of $2,500 for Grand Valley State.
Seventy-four different schools and 28 states were represented in the full field. The Top 25 teams in the tournament standings after Friday’s weigh-in automatically qualified for the Bassmaster College Series Championship, which will be held later this year on a yet to be disclosed fishery.
Murphy and Gunn won the tournament, but it was another Grand Valley State duo that weighed the Nitro Bass Pro Big Bag of the Tournament. Denny and Mathews caught a 21-4 limit on Saturday to take the honors. Russell and James had the Carhartt Big Bass, a 6-7 largemouth that anchored their bag on Friday.
The tournament was hosted by the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce.