The KBF Trail: Lake Murray

It was less than two weeks since I had returned from my Florida/ Georgia trip and less than two weeks before I was hoping to head to South Carolina for the Lake Murray Trail events, but I was finally getting my new kayak! It was official, I was joining the Feelfree fishing team and would using my new Lure 13.5 V2 for the remainder of the season. I had been waiting for this new boat for over a month, but today was the day. It also happened to be my birthday so that was a hell of a gift.

It was an easy three hour drive over to Three Belles Outfitters in Niantic CT to pick it up. They had already assembled the drive, rudder, and seat, and with their fully stocked shop, I knew I would be a kid in a candy store. I had scheduled to spend the day there, pick up some accessories, and get a few things rigged out. We installed lights, wiring, and I picked up a new Helix mounting kit and a transducer arm. I had an array of ideas for this boat, but I knew I needed to spend some time in it first to get my bearings and make decisions before I installed too much. But we got the bulk set up, and I was on my way.

Over the next week I picked up a Humminbird Helix 9 MEGA SI (the brand new G4N model), some track adapters, moved my rod holder assembly over, adjusted my krate system, and made the final adjustments to the boat. I also picked up new sheets for the sleeper area in my truck and built a foam rudder guard to protect it during travel. The only thing left was my day job. I had a major project that was all hands on deck. I knew it needed to get out the door and there was no way I would be allowed to leave if it didn’t get done. By Monday afternoon things were looking to be in the clear, so I let them know I would be gone Thursday and Friday. I am really lucky to have such great support from my employer as I travel and pursue my goals as a competitive angler so they were cool with my leaving. On Tuesday afternoon the project was completed and submitted, so I was free to go!

Loaded to Go!

I actually left the office a little early Wednesday to get a jump start on my travels. I had a lot to do still at the house before I left. Finish my packing, loading the truck, and get the house straightened away since I would be gone a few days. I didn’t quite get on the road as early as I wanted, but I was on my way. I made it as far as the “Welcome to West Virginia” truck stop on I-81. It’s become my go to stopping point to sleep a few hours when I leave in the evening after work heading to a tourney.

But Thursday morning came and I was up and back on the road! I arrived at Lake Murray about 2:00 in the afternoon to see what I could figure out in a short period of time. I had seen some pictures of some giants that were being caught. I was also hearing that the lake was being very stingy. I was on edge as I drove around the lake. There was a creek arm I found that abbuted the road in an area that looked like you could do a roadside launch. It was my first go to area, but when I arrived it wasn’t what I dreamed of. It was launchable, but maybe only with a small recreational kayak or canoe. I certainly wasn’t getting a fully rigged fishing kayak through the swampy muck out to the lake. And the creek itself was littered with logs and debris. It was simply a no-go.

I drove around to the nearest ramp, only maybe a 10-minute trek. Being the middle of the afternoon I wasn’t surprised to find the lot nearly full, and most of the vehicles either had kayak trailers or racks. I recognized many of the trucks, and it was clear this would be a popular launch. I decided instead to head up-lake and explore some of the waters to the northwest.

I popped up to Crayne’s Landing and the shop manager was kind enough to let me launch for just a few hours without charging me. There were 2 or 3 other kayak trucks in the lot but my goal for the day was simple, get my kayak wet for the first time and start to figure everything out. It was a wild first hour or so. I had never even turned on the new Helix unit so I had to get my settings adjusted on that. I had to play with the seat position up-down and front-back, break in the drive and rudder,  and start to figure out where and how I wanted all my stuff for fishing. Being organized on the water is huge. The quicker you can find things, get things out, change baits, change rods, re-tie, measure fish, etc. can result in more casts; and sometimes it can mean having the time to hit that last dock in the row before lines out and get that last second fish. I was all disorganized, but I was slowly putting the pieces together. I was also getting used to rudder positioning and just the overall stability of the kayak. The Lure is not much longer than my old Outback, just 9-inches. But there is a much larger deck space for standing and I could actually walk around a little.

I did try to spend at least a little time fishing but I quickly realized this was not my kind of water. It was very silty with maybe 6-inches of visibility. I’m not a fan of really stained water so I started to head out toward the main lake. But as I pedaled out that way, I was watching the water temp drop down and down and down. What had started at 59 degrees was down to 55 and I wasn’t even that far out. I decided I would instead go the other way. Head way back into the back of the creeks and see what that was like. I knew it was unlikely I would find cleaner water, but maybe it would be even warmer. I was right and soon I was fishing in 63-64 degree water. I thought for sure there would be bass that had been chasing the warm water and pulling back up in there. But I fished all around and couldn’t coax a bite. There had to be bass in there, but muddy water wasn’t my strength and with only a day left before the tourney I knew I needed to find something more my style. 

It was well established that the east end by the dam was clear water. I figured I needed a launch down there. I checked the forecast and saw a northwest wind likely both days of the event. I decided the southwest corner would be my best shot. I could be in and out of wind, not have too big of waves to deal with, and still be in the clean water. Pickings were pretty slim down that way on where to launch. All I could find was Jakes Landing and on their website it listed a day rate of $9 to launch. It was a little steep, but pay to launch sites were legal and this was the only one in the area. I had to explore it Friday morning because it was the only card I had left to play.

I showed up to the launch just after it was getting light out. It was going to be a chilly day with a chance of rain coming through so I wasn’t in a huge hurry to get going. I surveyed the ramp and it seemed simple enough. There were even signs indicating the launch fee was less during the week, and since I didn’t have a trailer I might even be able to just pay for parking. While I was scoping things out, a couple guys from CT pulled up doing the same things as me. We chatted as we all got ready and headed out on the water.

As well all pulled away we naturally spread out a little exploring different areas. I cut northwest towards some points and areas that looked promising on the mapping. The water was indeed much clearer here with feet of visibility rather than inches. The water was much colder though only sitting at about 52-53 degrees. I was hoping that a warming trend would have the bass starting to pull in towards the shallows. Maybe not right up to the bank, but staging up. In the clear water for me that meant cranking and jerkbaits on main lake points. I was right. 

First fish in the Lure 13.5

I arrived at the first point and grabbed the DT-10. A half dozen casts later and I finally slimed my new kayak! It was a little deformed, but the 16.5-inch bass counted and I was hoping it was a sign of things to come. I didn’t even bother to keep throwing that bait. It was February in SC, I didn’t need multiple bites to tell me a red crankbait would catch fish. I popped a jerkbait on instead and went off checking some docks and other areas. Since the water temps were almost 55, I wasn’t working the bait in quite a traditional spring pattern instead moving a little faster. Jerk Jerk …… Jerk Jerk Jerk…… Jerk………… Jerk Jerk.  I had a really good bass fly up and swipe at the bait near some docks, but she just missed it. Still, I felt I was putting something together here. I was over submerged grass, near deep water, throwing moving baits.

I cruised around a little more and figured maybe I could find some offshore stuff, fish that just didn’t feel like heading shallow quite yet. I went over a deep point and there were arches all over. The point was loaded. I grabbed a drop-shot and sent her down. Nothing! Ok, maybe I back off and throw the A-rig. Nothing! Football jig? DT-16? Swimbait? All nothing. Maybe a different drop-shot bait. Nope didn’t work either. I spent 45 minutes drifting over and around that school and just couldn’t coax anything to bite. It was frustrating as I wanted to know what they were. White bass? Striper? Crappie? Giant largemouth? I couldn’t get em to bite though so I called it a day. I flipped around some docks and boat ramps on my way back to the launch but never got another bite.

That was it. My practice was over and I was feeling…… OK. I didn’t have much to go on. I knew that main point should be holding fish, but that was about it. I changed out some leaders, retied some baits, and just tried to get my mind right for the morning.

Saturday came and it was go time. I got to the launch, unloaded, got my boat all set up, and was ready to hit the water. There were a few extra people there from practice, but not near as many as I expected. It didn’t matter tho. This was a large area and I just needed to focus on me. I knew just what I wanted to do and was gonna milk it for all I could. At 6:00 we were off. It was only a mile or so to my point. I was really hoping to find the fish stacked up and put up a limit fast. But I was also mentally prepared to sit there all day and grind if I had to.

As I drifted around the point waiting, I was constantly marking fish. They were moving around the point and in and out of the adjacent pocket. It just gave me more confidence. Fishing time came and I started whipping that crankbait around. I worked my way back and forth, in and out, and all around that point. It took almost an hour till I got my first bite but it was a good one. The 19.50 didn’t pull hard at first. I even thought this was probably a small fish I had foul hooked, but when I got it close to the kayak the first time she turned and dove right back down pulling drag. Thats when I knew I had a grown one on. Two more times she bull-dogged me back down before I eased her up into the net. Always gotta be careful with those treble hooks because a bad net job can mean quick disaster. But I was on the board, no skunk, and had a great fish to boot.

She came from just inside the pocket and over a small gravel patch rather than the submerged grass. I switched my focus to that structure and kept at it. I still swept out around the point on occasion, but I never left that small area. I just couldn’t find another bite. It was half way through the day and I decided to move on to the docks I had gotten the bite on the previous day. I fished along with the jerkbait but nothing was happening. The fog was lifting and the sun was finally starting to peak out. Without much else to go on, I cut across the bay to the deep point I had fish stacked up on. Sure enough, they were still there. Maybe with some sun they would bite. I rotated through my rods (much quicker this time) to see if anything would play. One soft bite on a drop shot was all I could muster so I wasn’t going to waste any more time.

On the board!

I pulled in towards the shore and went back to throwing the jerk bait. The sun was now out in full and the water was warming fast. I was finding 56 degrees and thats right about the magic number sending fish to the bank. I cast my jerkbait up shallow right on a concrete boat ramp and a twitch later my line jumped. I pulled back and the fish felt solid, but as it got close the long thin profile of a pickerel was revealed. Still, another sign. Go shallow.

I stayed up shallow finding more pickerel. I played with the jerkbait, tossed the jackhammer a little, and flipped a jig in and around the docks and boat hoists. I got one soft bite on the jig next to a pontoon boat but I brushed it off as probably a perch or bluegill. It was just about noon and I was on my way back to my original point when I tossed the jerkbait up in a shallow rocky bay. In between jerks I saw the line dance and without feeling anything, I set the hook. I was right, and I quickly landed a nice 16-incher. There was still 2.5 hours left and while I only had two fish, both were quality. I kept grinding.

I was positioned on the inside edge of a point casting outward when I notice 4 or 5 big shadows on my side imaging. I was staying still so that clearly had to be a school of fish swimming by. I whipped my jerkbait off to the side and as I worked it back, it suddenly felt heavy. This was clearly different and when I got the fish close, it was obvious why. In my net was a slab 14-in crappie. Most of the time in February I’m dreaming of 14-in crappie but thats through the ice and not during a bass tourney.

I worked my way back around the point I started on, and with about 30 minutes left I headed back into the adjacent pocket. I was working the jerkbait when I suddenly saw two GIANTS following it. I paused, they paused. I twitched and they followed. I worked hard and slow on the retrieve but I couldn’t get em to bite. They were easily 18-inch fish and would have been huge for me. I marked em and moved on. A little further along the bank I cam upon another 4-lber cruising the shallows. I threw my dropshot up in front of her but she cruised right by it, not 6-inches away, and that was it. A few minutes later my alarm sounded and Lake Murray I was over.

Two fish for 35.5-inches had me in 51st place. Out of the 158 anglers, only 95 even caught fish, only 22 caught a limit, and fewer than 300 bass were submitted total. It was a tough day so just doing what I did was nothing to scoff at. At the captains meeting talking to others, it seemed like the techniques were all over the board. Jerking was a common theme, but so were spinnerbaits and dropshot. One thing I was told was that ned rigs around the docks were effective. It killed me to hear this because A: I throw a LOT of ned rigs around docks at home; and B: that bite on the jig I blew off as just a bluegill was probably a subtle bass bite. I took that info, put it in my pocket, and started preparing for Day 2.

Sunday morning I planned to start out the same as Saturday. Crank the point in the early hours. But I wasn’t going to stay there all morning like before. If it wasn’t happening, I would head shallow and work my trusty ned rig. I gave it an hour, but things weren’t happening. The water was still warmer, 56 degrees so I went in shallow and started hunting with my finesse rigs. It didn’t take long and I was on the board. At the edge of a pontoon boat, a little 12.75-incher grabbed my skirted ned with a TRD Tinglerz trailer. Not the giants that had been cruising the previous day, but I was still hopeful they were nearby. I cast up behind a submerged rock and the line shot out to the side. I pulled and what felt like a smaller fish pulled back briefly before pulling off. I think the bow in the line caused me to not get the hook in solid. Oh well, I was getting bit and it was early.

After that the bite really slowed. I worked the same water I had the previous day. I was still mixing in the jerkbait and an occasional chatterbait with no luck. I figured I needed to get on new water. I cut across the bay to (for me) unfished docks and made a decision; that spinning rod wasn’t going to leave my hand and I was gonna ned rig the rest of the day.

Around 9:30 (3 hours into the day) I got my second bite. This one was a little better, 16-inches, but my focus was still on just getting five. Once I had a limit I could worry about what my length total was. I burned down the bank just hitting dock after dock. It took till noon when I got number three. Just a measly 12.5-incher. 1:00 and I got number four. She was 14 and at that point I was looking for number five. A little after 1:15 I looked down and my sonar screen was dark. I had a battery box I made with over 40-ah of lithium batteries in it that I hadn’t charged all weekend. Apparently the run time for my new Helix was about 27 hours with that set-up which meant I was dark the rest of the day. However that didn’t matter. You don’t need electronics to throw a ned rig at a dock.

At 1:30 my fifth keeper hit the deck and it my biggest of the day at 17-inches. I took a quick peak at the scoreboard and it was tight. I knew one giant kicker might get me a check. If I could get two culls, I was sure I would finish in the money.  I was rolling at that point with no hesitation. Hit a dock, inside, middle, and outside, burn it to the next one. I had an hour left to cull out the two 12-inchers on my board.

Much Better Finish on Day 2

I wasn’t even concerned that I was working further and further from the launch and my ride back might be long. I just needed to hit every dock I could. I landed a few shorts and finally at 2:17 I made a cull. She only went 14 which was just a 1.5 inch cull. I needed another and I needed it fast. I shot to the next dock and on the second cast I hung up and broke off my ned rig. I was down to the final 5 minutes and I couldn’t spare the time to retie. I needed a giant, so I grabbed the jig. I flipped and cast with both urgency and patience. I knew I couldn’t work it too fast. I remained in a controlled state of chaos but it didn’t matter. The end came and I was just a little short. 

My final score was 73.75 inches placing me 22nd out of 128 anglers. A solid score and a solid finish. Not the victory I hoped for, but a success none the less.  I got to test out the new boat and learn a lot about it handles and operates. I adapted as the conditions changed, overcame finicky fish, didn’t spin out, and pushed forward. I put lessons learned before to use and learned new ones. I know these are all building to something and I know success in the form of tournament wins are coming if I just keep working. 

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