Story by Matt Pangac and Dave Rush - Photos by Mark Jeffreys, Matt Pangrac and Dave Rush
Columbia, SC – After the first two days of practice on Lake Murray, South Carolina’s Casey Ashley didn’t have much going. With a deep history on his home state fishery, Ashley knew that if he was unable to locate the quality schools of largemouth keying on spawning blueback herring, it would be an uphill climb right out of the gate.
On the final morning of practice, Ashley found what he was looking for. “When I got here I was like, ‘this is going to be tough,’” he explained. “That last morning, I went back to a place where I’d already fished and I threw a jig and had two bites. Then I saw the fish come up on the next point and decided that I was going to start there.”
The decision paid off, as Ashley brought 14-13 to the scales on Thursday to land in 7th. Over the next two days of competition, Ashley climbed the leader board, finishing in 2nd on Friday and taking the lead on Saturday with a three-day total of 45-14.
“I knew what points had schools on them so I picked the area and stuck with it. It’s the area that I always catch fish in so I beat it to death,” he explained. Keying on the familiar areas, Ashley took advantage of an early morning topwater bite to amass the majority of his weight. “You had to be there at the right time when they came up schooling and it was critical to catch your bigger fish within the first hour,” he said.
On championship Sunday, the early topwater bites never materialized for Ashley, who entered the day with a 2-pound, 9-ounce lead over Mike Iaconelli. “I lost a good fish this morning and all day long it was going through my mind that this fish is going to haunt me,” he said. “I knew that the fish bit this morning for somebody and I messed up by starting in the wrong place.”
At 8:30, Ashley pulled up to his third stop of the morning without a keeper and caught a 3-pounder. After leaving, returning, and losing another quality fish off the same spot, Ashley regrouped and put another keeper in the livewell. After that, the topwater bite was over.
While he was able to catch a small limit throughout the rest of the day, two of Ashley’s key fish came in the final hour of competition. “I had one point where a fish blew up on a Fluke earlier in the day, and I went back and threw a shakey head up there and caught it. I left and then came back and caught another one around 3-pounds,” he explained.
The two key culls in the final hour proved to be the difference maker, as Ashley weighed a limit for 15-5 on Sunday for a total weight of 61-3 to take the Carolina Clash title by 3-pounds, 2-ounces over Davy Hite and Mike Iaconelli, who tied for 2nd.
“It’s big,” said Ashley behind stage moments after hoisting the trophy. “I’m glad that I won, but I’m really glad that I won it in South Carolina in front of all my family and friends.
“Last year was the first time that I missed it (the Classic) since I started, and it wasn’t good. We’ve got that out of the way so maybe we can go win another one now,” he continued.
Throughout the tournament, Ashley “flip-flopped” each morning between two baits. He started off each day by throwing a topwater Lucky Craft Gunfish in MS MJ Herring color and a Zoom Super Fluke fished weightless on a 4/0 worm hook. In low light conditions, Ashley used Pearl White and as the sun got up, he switched to a Disco Violet colored Super Fluke.
After the morning bite died, Ashley reached for a shakey head fished on 8-pound-test fluorocarbon line. Until Sunday, the shakey head hadn’t produced many quality bites.
“You just had to stay shallow and not make much racket because the fish were really spooky,” he explained. Keying on shallow points in 3-feet of water, Ashley targeted dark spots on the bottom where the bass were positioned. “I knew they were there so it was just all about getting them to bite.”
Aside from the key baits, the two-time Elite Series champion said that the areas he targeted were also key to his success over the course of the tournament. “I found places out of the way with fish on them where people weren’t beating them to death,” said Ashley. “Everyone was sitting way off of the points in 10-feet of water but the fish weren’t out there.”
The magnitude of the victory wasn’t lost on the young pro, who first tasted success during his rookie season in 2007 with an Elite Series win on Smith Mountain Lake. “Smith Mountain is special because it was my first win and my first year on tour but I honestly didn’t know what it meant to win and now I know,” he explained. “You find out very quickly that wins are hard to come by.”
2nd Place: Davy Hite
Entering the Carolina Clash on Lake Murray as one of the favorites and with an Elite Series win on Pickwick Lake already in his pocket in 2011, South Carolina’s Davy Hite hit the ground running on the first day of competition with a 16-7 limit to land in 2nd.
After dropping to 7th place with sub-par efforts on Friday and Saturday, Hite started his comeback charge early on championship Sunday. With a limit weighing 16-14, Hite boosted his total weight to 58-1 but was unable to catch Casey Ashley and finished in 2nd place after winning the tie breaker with Mike Iaconelli.
Although pleased with the high finish and valuable Toyota Tundra Angler Of the Year points, Hite said that his downfall this week on Murray was overestimating what it would take to top the field.
“I fished thinking that it would take 65-pounds to win this thing but it didn’t take that much in the end,” he explained. “Hindsight is 20/20 and I felt like I needed an 18- or 19-pound bag yesterday or today in order to win this thing and as it turns out, I didn’t need that. I should have just stayed more consistent.”
Each morning, Hite used his knowledge of Murray to key on the blueback herring spawn throughout the lake. He used three primary lures including a Super Spook, Buckeye Lures wake bait, and a new soft plastic jerkbait not yet on the market made by Yamamoto.
‘Familiarity with the lake was huge,” he said. “It really helped me a lot and maybe helped a little bit too much yesterday. I just ran way to many areas and I should have settled down and fished harder on less places.
“It’s good to be on a roll again,” he continued. “I’ve been very blessed to have a few years where it seems like you can do no wrong. The last few tournaments have been really awesome and I’ve been feeling good. I talk about momentum a lot, and when I get in a positive frame of mind, it really seems to roll well.”
3rd Place: Mike Iaconelli
After missing the cut last week at West Point Lake with a 66th place finish, it became apparent early on this week that Iaconelli was determined rebound at Murray. Entering the weekend in 7th place, Ike moved into 2nd on Saturday, sitting just over two-and-a-half pounds behind Ashley.
With 14-12 on Sunday, Iaconelli finished in a tie for second with South Carolina’s Davy Hite but slipped to third after losing the tie-breaker (heaviest single-day catch).
“It’s a good feeling to make a cut and to have a shot to win again,” said Iaconelli. “I like these tough events and I wish we would extend the season back to when we had summer and fall tournaments when we had tough events.”
Throughout the tournament, Iaconelli keyed on an area of shallow points and shoals located within a five-mile radius of the launch ramp. As was the case with many of the other competitors, the early morning bite was key for the New Jersey pro, who relied primarily on three key baits throughout the week.
“My number one bait was a soft, minnow-style bait that we’re making for the Berkley Havoc line,” he explained. “They’re prototypes and I literally had about 10 baits in each shape.” Iaconelli fished the bait with spinning tackle and Fluoro Braid, which he said was an important part of the technique. “I could cast a million miles to schooling fish and the minnow stayed in the water because the line actually sinks,” he explained.
Iaconelli also relied on a Berkley Hollow Belly swimbait and ½-ounce Molix spinnerbait, which accounted for a 5-pound bite. In the first two competition days, he also utilized a Rapala Jerkbait and Havoc Devil’s Spear.
Ultimately, Iaconelli said that his downfall was his inability to catch quality fish later in the day. “I’ll be interested in watching the tape to see how Casey did it,” said Ike. “Once 11:00 rolled around, I just wasn’t able to make a cull.”
4th Place: Brian Snowden
Like Iaconelli, Brian Snowden took advantage of the early morning blueback herring bite to earn a spot in Sunday’s finale. Unfortunately for the Missouri pro, he also had problems keying in on an afternoon bite once the sun crested the South Carolina tree line.
With 16-7 on Sunday, his heaviest effort of the tournament, Snowden finished in 4th with 57-8. “I caught all my weight today off of the second point that hit,” said Snowden. “They were just busting bait really hard and eating.”
Relying on a YUM Money Minnow swimbait with a ¼-ounce weight, Snowden burned the offering just under the surface to trigger bites. He also supplemented the Money Minnow with a Zoom Super Swimming Fluke rigged with a treble hook on the belly to hook bass that were just swiping at the offering.
Snowden said that as the tournament progressed, he was able to key on in important features holding bass. “It seemed like it was better if the bank was clay with an isolated group of rocks in 3- to 6- feet of water. That’s where all my better fish came from.
“Not finding a way to cull after the morning really hurt me,” continued Snowden. “All I could catch in the afternoon was small fish. I tried fishing docks, I tried cranking, I tried a jerkbait and the only way that I could catch them was chasing that blueback herring bite.”
5th Place: Kevin Wirth
With a track record of success in tournaments with a generally tough bite, Kentucky’s Kevin Wirth steadily climbed the leader board each of the first three competition days. Starting in 20th, Wirth cracked the Top 10 on Friday and climbed to 4th after Saturday.
On Sunday, Wirth brought in another consistent bag weighing 13-11 but slipped one spot to finish in 5th.
“It just went awesome,” he said backstage. “It was just one of those weeks where everything went my way. There were a few fish that might have made a difference, but I doubt it. I went through a lot of fish, generated a lot of bites and I’m happy about it.”
During the week, Wirth relied on two main techniques. Early each day, he would fish shallow points on the south end of the lake with a soft plastic minnow-style jerkbait. As the sun got up, he targeted docks with a Berkley Havoc Bottom Hopper Jr. in green pumpkin, rigged on a 1/8-ounce weight and fished on 6-pound-test.
“I think that using 6-pound-test was important but I was also keying in specific places on the docks. There were times when I would just make one key cast on each dock. I hit a stretch today where it seemed like I caught a 3-pounder off of each dock,” he explained.
6th Place Tommy Biffle
Mired at the bottom of the TTAOY standings heading into Murray, Tommy Biffle has admittedly struggled through one of the worst seasons in his career. “I’ve had them on in almost every tournament this year and lost fish in every way you can imagine,” said Biffle earlier in the week.
Heading into the final day less than 4-pounds behind the leader, Biffle had every right to use the proverbial “swing for the fences” comment often uttered by professional bass anglers. With 13-2 on Sunday, Biffle was unable to connect on the giant bag he was hunting but he did gain some momentum heading into the final two tournaments of the season.
“I fished all week and only lost one fish with 10-minutes left in the tournament,” he said. “Overall, I’ve had a good week even though it’s been tough. Sometimes, the tough ones are better.”
Catching the majority of his bass flipping and pitching to shallow cover, Biffle also boated some keepers each morning on a soft plastic jerkbait. “I fished two days up the river and two days down the lake so I just scrambled around and fished whatever looked good and caught one here and there,” he concluded.
7th Place: Jeff Connella
Final Day Thoughts: “Today was a grind, I wasn’t able to catch them early like I had been doing. Finally I had to go fish docks and catch the 13-0 that I ended up with.”
Pattern: “I fished the herring spawn in the mornings and then fished docks once the sun got up.”
Baits: V&M Pork Shad, V&M Pork Pin
Key to the Week: “Fishing the Pork Shad extremely fast and getting those fish to react to the bait.”
Week in Review: “I’m happy with the week overall. We didn’t show what this lake was capable of producing. They are here but they just wouldn’t bite during the tournament.”
8th Place: Edwin Evers
Final Day Thoughts: “Today went OK. I just couldn’t get the big ones in the boat. I caught tons of fish but lost a 5-pounder and that really hurt me.”
Pattern: “I was keying on the blueback spawn the entire tournament. I fished spots on the southern and the northern end of the lake this week.”
Baits: Blue Hologram YUM Money Minnow, YUM Houdini Shad
Key to the Week: “Keying on the Herring and knowing the areas where they like to spawn.”
Week in Review: “I should have slowed down a little bit on days one and two. Overall, I am happy with the finish after getting off to a slow start.”
9th Place: Jami Fralick
Final Day Thoughts: “Today I just couldn’t get enough bites to figure out where the fish were. Once my early bite died I just never figured anything else out.”
Pattern: “I was fishing the blueback deal early and then keying on docks for the rest of my day once that was over with.”
Baits: V&M Hightail Shad, V&M Chopstick
Key to the Week: “Figuring out that dock deal early in the tournament when my herring bite died. I caught my biggest fish of the tournament skipping a dock.”
Week in Review: “I can’t complain, I never lost a fish that I had hooked this week. Overall it was a really good tournament for me.”
10th Place: Rick Clunn
Final Day Thoughts: “Today was totally different for me. I had been having a limit every morning early and I just never got a bite during my key time.”
Pattern: “I was running a series of points in the morning taking advantage of the blueback spawn and then heading up the river and covering water.”
Baits: Rico Suave, Rico Popper, Luck ‘E’ Strike rc2, Sebile Magic Swimmer
Key to the Week: “Getting those fish to bite early was the key to having a successful day. After about 9:00, it got really tough to get quality bites.”
Week in Review: “Overall it was a good tournament. I maximized the fish I had and never lost a fish that would have helped me until the final day. I can’t complain, I really enjoyed it.”
11th Place: Chris Lane
Final Day Thoughts: “Today went great. I pulled up to my first point and I caught some right of the bat. I had a good day and don’t think I lost any ground in the AOY race.”
Pattern: “Chasing the bluebacks until I couldn’t chase them anymore was the key this week.”
Baits: Gambler Super Stud, Sebile Magic Swimmer, Luck ‘E’ Strike rc2
Key to the Week: “Running a lot of points and fishing fresh water was key. Making super long casts with my new Abu Garcia Revo and Stren line was crucial in order to catch these fish.”
Week in Review: “I just had a blast this week. I really enjoyed the lake and am looking forward to coming back.”
12th Place: Fred Roumbanis
Final Day Thoughts: “I gambled and went up the river today where I won it last time. I broke a few fish off today and also lost a good one right at the boat. Finally I picked up a spinning rod and went and caught a limit.”
Pattern: “Running away from the clouds was my primary pattern. I was keying on fish that were relating to shade.”
Baits: 4” straight tail worm fished on a drop shot.
Key to the Week: “The bright skies and slick calm conditions were the keys to my bite this week.”
Week in Review: “I caught a lot of fish this week and had a lot of fun. It’s all about the AOY points, so I am happy with how things turned out this week.”