We caught up with Michael Murphy fresh off his trip back from Sandusky, Ohio, where he finished third in the Bassmaster Open series on Lake Erie. Murphy amassed over sixty-one pounds of bass during the three-day event, finishing just two pounds, ten ounces behind winner Nate Wellman.
Were you expecting to do well when you saw this event on the schedule?
I have done well on Lake Erie in the past. Only fishing there twice before, I had a Top Twenty finish the first time, and the last time I fished Erie, I caught eighteen pounds the first day and then blanked the second day, primarily due to a huge weather change. Even in the events held out of Detroit, I’d run out to the big water (Lake Erie) to catch them. This is one reason I was excited about this event. It was held out of Sandusky. That meant the run to my favorite area would be much shorter. From Sandusky, the run is only thirty to forty-five minutes. From Detroit, the run is typically about an hour, but bad weather has taken me as long as three hours each way. I knew the extra time with my line wet would help me out quite a bit. I’d get at least an extra hour or two of fishing each day.
So much of a tournament is won and lost during pre-fishing. Did you find them during the pre-fish or the tournament?
I went in with my mind open about what to expect. We are getting into the fall, which is the time of year when the fish really begin moving around. If you look at the Everstart finishes from the week before out of Buffalo, what I thought was interesting is guys were catching the fish deep, but some guys caught them shallow, which to me was like a light bulb going off. It meant the fish were started to move in. Plus, given the year with the weather patterns, a lot of fish just stayed shallow this year. I am not sure if it was the rain or the nutrient runoff, but a good portion of fish seemed to stay shallow all year.
When I drove up, I drove up to Eastern Ohio and started there. I started near where Jonathon Van Dam won the event two years ago. Overall, it was a sub-par day, to say the least. I caught a couple of decent fish, a four-pounder and a three-pounder, but overall I didn’t catch many fish. I did a lot of graphing, and I pride myself on getting good with the Hummingbird side finder graph. I graphed everything from ten to fifty feet, and I didn’t see anything that looked good.
The next day I traveled further west in Ohio and tested the waters there. Again, I didn’t find anything stellar.
I went up early to pre-fish. I wanted to do well and finish the year strong, so I gave myself plenty of time. Erie is a big lake, so I gave myself plenty of time to figure it out.
I finally found my way to Sandusky on the third day and launched there. I ran out to my favorite area, called Pelee Island. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch much other than Walleye and Drum. To make matters worse, there was a bad algae bloom. It was the blue-green algae, which is photosynthetic, cyan bacteria that can make you sick. It was nasty everywhere.
So I was looking at the forecast for the next few days, and it looked like there would be a lot of wind. I backed up and punted, spending the next two days just going largemouth fishing and looking. I was taking everything with a grain of salt. I was sitting back and taking it in as we got closer to the tournament. I figured out how to catch about thirteen pounds of largemouth, which isn’t too great, but catching fish felt nice. I don’t think I’ve ever caught so many fish in one day. It brought the fun factor back into it. On day one, I caught at least seventy bass. It was just nuts.
On the Tuesday before the tournament, I returned to Pelee Island, and this time the wind blew most of the algae out. My goal was to try and find a more accurate depth, and I revisited many of the places I fished in years past.
I was using the graph, and again, I didn’t see a lot of fish. When I did see fish, it was just one or two paired up, and that’s it. So I had a real suspicion the fish were spread out and on the bottom.
I started fishing closer to the bottom. I switched to crankbait, and I started catching fish. Most were smaller, one to two pounds, but I was catching fish. Then I started catching a few fish on the drop shot. The one thing these two techniques had in common was I was catching them in the twelve to fifteen-foot range. I checked a few deeper places, down to thirty to thirty-five feet.
The thing about Erie is that once you find them at a particular depth, you can rely on that is where they are going to be. I switched to a big tube, which I hadn’t fished there for four or five years, then I thought, “maybe they want a snack and not a full meal.” So I switched to a smaller Reins Legend tube on a Sean Hoernke Horn Toad Tackle 1/8- ounce. I caught a four-pounder, then a couple three and a half-pounders, and I was thinking, “OK, I am done.”
I moved about 200 yards away and caught another three-and-a-half pounder. I started looking at the tube hard, I could catch a few on the crankbait, but the tube was the bait catching the better fish. No joke, I was catching them with the Denali Rods Norwood, seven-foot medium-action spinning rod. That rod is so balanced and light that I know it sounds cheesy, but I could tell the difference between a Drum, a Goby, and a Smallmouth. A Drum would hit it with one hard thud. The Gobies would hit it, almost like bluegill, with repeated little thumps, and a Smallmouth with two sharp thumps, similar to that of a Goby, but with not as many thumps. When I felt that Smallmouth bite, I’d open up my spool count to two and set the hook on a nice one.
Many guys fishing around me were nailing the Drum, catching one after another. I was catching four-pound Smallmouth. By the end of the tournament, they were asking me how you are doing that. By knowing the difference in the bite, I was able not to set the hook on a Drum. A Drum would smash the tube, and I’d just let it sit there. Then I’d move it forward just a few feet and get the smallmouth bite. It’s like the Drums were sitting out deeper, and I had to get my bait through them before I could get it to the Smallmouth. I’d almost always get a Drum bite before a Smallmouth bite. Had I not been able to tell the difference, I would have caught a ton of Drum and never got the bait to the Smallmouth. I used the Denali Noirwood rod to decode the bites.
Give us a quick rundown of the tournament days. How did it all unfold?
On the first day of the tournament, I wouldn’t say it was what I expected, but I caught nineteen pounds and ten ounces and weighed three black smallmouth and two green smallmouths. I’ll tell you what I mean by that here in a minute.
On the second day, I had a lot of pressure on me. Some guys moved into the area, knowing that several leaders were there. On the second day, the water wasn’t nearly as rough, making it much easier to get there. I am the type of guy where I don’t care how rough it is. Even if it takes me an extra two hours to get there, I will take my time and get there. A lot of guys won’t run in the big water like that. I’ve got my Ranger/Evinrude boat rigged to handle the big water. There is an All-Star service team on site, and I have great sponsors that will get it done and fix it for me if they need to. So I don’t worry about it, I go.
I ended up on day two with one black Smallmouth and four green Smallmouths.
On the final day, Nate Wellman was a few hundred yards away, Kurt Dove was a couple of hundred yards away, and one other guy was nearby. These guys were great to fish around, and we gave each other plenty of room. We had about eight to ten fewer boats around us that last day. When I weighed in, every fish I caught was a green Smallmouth.
What I mean by green Smallmouth is once smallmouth get shallow, they darken up. So when I started, I was catching fish that had been there for a while. The green ones were fish that were moving into the spot. Most of the fish on day two and all of the fish on day three were fresh fish. Having a spot that replenished itself each day was the key.
The bite did slow down, but I was catching good quality fish. It was evident that it was the perfect place, and the tournament was won there. The event winner, Nate Wellman, was within a few hundred yards, and I finished third.
I picked that reef to practice in the first place because I knew that would be the first place the fish would move up to. It was a twelve-foot-deep reef way out in the middle of nowhere.
The fish were a little more active in the low light condition and seemed to be up on the flats more. So each morning, I would catch a few with the IMA Beast Hunter crankbait and on drop-shots with the Tabu Tackle Whipped Tail worm in watermelon or black. I guess they probably thought it was a leech. But, whatever it was, they liked it. The crankbait was Fred’s perch color, which looked like a Goby to the fish.
It seemed like the bigger fish didn’t get positioned on the hard edge until the sun was up for a few hours. Then, at about 10:30, or when I had my limit of about sixteen pounds each day, I’d pick up the Reins tube and start catching the bigger fish.
I caught twenty pounds relatively early on the final day and was culling up ounces all day. I was culling out a 4.2 with a 4.4, and I had no idea what I had. So when I finally weighed in, and the scales read over twenty-two pounds, I was tickled.
Could you tell us a little more about the spot?
Pelee Island is about fifteen miles long and four or five miles wide. You can see it on satellite imaging. It’s a vast island. I was fishing shoals around the islands. They are just random areas of glaciation deposits kept clean by the natural current coming around the island's tip. The bottom floor of the lake is very clean. You can see on your side scan in some places where the glacier has pushed one bolder, like fifty yards, and cut a groove in the lake floor. There will be a groove two feet wide by a foot deep, and a giant boulder will be at the end of the groove.
I found small rock areas ranging from a foot to two feet wide and in small piles. I was drifting through my areas, and there were key areas in that drift. Finally, it reached the point where I knew I would get bit in a specific area. So I’d tell my co-angler, “OK, get ready; here you go. In the next ten seconds, you are going to get bit.” If you hadn’t been there in a little while, it was 100% you would get bit.
What equipment did you use for each of the techniques?
I used the Denali Noirwood seven-foot medium-action spinning rod for the Reins tube. I used eight-pound fluorocarbon with that setup. For the Ima Crankbait, I used a Denali Rosewood seven, six-inch cranking rod with ten-pound test fluorocarbon. I also fished the drop-shot on a Denali Noirwood seven-foot medium-action spinning rod, eight-pound fluorocarbon, and a Reins Tungsten weight.
I can’t tell you enough how important that rod was with the tube. That rod is sweet, and being able to tell the bites like I was, made all the difference in the world. My average fish was over four pounds. Those are some rank Smallmouths, and having the right rod with that light line was extremely important.
So what’s next for you?
I am heading for the final BASS Northern on Lake Oneida later in the fall. I set out to fish the BASS opens because it opens the doors to many new media outlets for my sponsors and myself. FLW has unique media opportunities, as does BASS, so I wanted to be diverse this year to increase my promotional reach. Now I find myself sitting in eighth place for Angler of the Year, and the top five qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series. I am not sure what I will do if I make it, but it’ll be nice to have options. I’ll discuss it with my sponsors and my family and make a decision. When it comes down to it, I have to go in the direction that makes the best economic sense.
I appreciate everything FLW has done for me up until this point. However, I am not going to lie. This year has been a struggle. When you are part of the cutbacks, which has nothing to do with your promotion or fishing ability, it puts it on you to do what you must to stay out there. If you don’t make wise decisions, the dream might be over. You might not be able to make it much longer.
There is no telling what is going to happen. I need to start by going to Oneida and taking care of that business. After that, I’ll get together with my team of sponsors and my family and figure out the best business decision for all of us. It would be a business decision if I were to make it to the Elite Series and make the switch.