Just before sunrise on a warm morning, an overcast sky filters the early daylight, casting colors in all directions as the air hovers around a temperature just crisp enough to notice steam wafting from the tailpipe of an idling truck. An aluminum Ranger fishing boat powered by a Mercury 150 engine drifts away from the confines of its trailer, and as one angler tethers the boat to the dock, the other one parks the truck and trailer.
After everyone is aboard, the Mercury engine roars to life, and the line is stowed in a small bow compartment just beneath the electric trolling motor. With the motor in reverse, the boat drifts away a safe distance from the dock, bobbing up and down on the water’s light chop. Then, with a smooth transition, the engine’s screw changes direction and propels the boat forward to the vastness of Lake Murray’s open water. As soon as they exit the no-wake zone, the angler at the helm throttles the engine and cuts through the broken water at high speed to their favorite point in these perfect bass fishing conditions, praying they reach their honey hole before “first bite” and hoping they hook the largest largemouth bass in all of Lake Murray.
Black bass is a hearty freshwater fish with two main subspecies known as smallmouth bass and largemouth bass, which are also the primary species referenced in the sportfishing world and sought by anglers. And though fly fishing culture can trace its lineage back to Europe, bass fishing developed entirely in the United States.
Around the early- to mid-19th century, black bass were fished for subsistence instead of sport with cane polls and live bait. Their hearty disposition made them good table fare for people needing to travel long distances with their catch. Their habitable range spanned most of the early United States, and as the nation expanded they were transported to the Western territories, where they eventually thrived from being farmed and transplanted.
Along with their expanded range, the technology used to catch bass increased well into the 20th century and continues today. Bass fishing became less required for subsistence and more popular for sportfishing during this time. When an angler sets the hook on a black bass, the fish fights hard on the line — one of the valued virtues of a sportfish species. Several companies developed specific products for the bass fishing industry. Products such as monofilament nylon fishing line, artificial rods and spinning reels, plastic bait worms, and electric trolling motors gained steady popularity and were considered mainstream after the 1950s.
Some of the advanced electronics for bass fishing can imitate the sounds of schooling bait fish, leading to some controversy about whether or not these tools should be used in bass fishing tournaments. And as technology continues to develop, seasoned anglers are reaching for their fly rods to challenge themselves.
Regardless of how developed the technology becomes, the catch-and-release culture around bass fishing ensures these fish maintain healthy populations for future anglers. Taxidermists no longer require a harvested fish to create a perfect reproduction as a memento, just a vivid photo and accurate measurements of the once-in-a-lifetime lunker will suffice.
Fortunately for South Carolinians in the Midlands, one of the best venues for bass fishing is located only half an hour from downtown Columbia. Lake Murray draws anglers from around the state and across the country for its well-stocked population of trophy bass. Ben Lee, a long-time resident on Lake Murray and fishing guide, says, “Columbia is very fortunate to have a place like Lake Murray. The bass fishing here is phenomenal for being so close to a major metropolitan area.”
Ben credits the healthy bass population to the catch-and-release culture, as well as the conservation efforts of state and local governments. “I’ve lived here for years and the quality of the fish is amazing. It’s now the best I’ve ever seen it.”
Both novices and advanced anglers can be successful on Lake Murray if they understand its bass population. “Bass are oriented to either habitat or bait, and on Lake Murray they’re oriented to bait, particularly the blueback herring,” Ben says. All lakes in South Carolina are man-made, and when Lake Murray was created, blueback herring was not part of the original fish stock. This species of bait fish was introduced by anglers trying to catch stripers, another popular species in the waters of Lake Murray. The largemouth bass of Lake Murray happen to like blueback herring as well.
Casting toward the shore into visible cover with top water bait is often the best method of having a bass hit the line. “When the water temperature hits 70 degrees F, throw top water bait mimicking the blueback herring in these shallower waters, and you’ll absolutely hammer ‘em,” Ben insists.
Since the bass on Lake Murray are bait-oriented, they follow the spawning cycle of the blueback herring, and when these bait fish come to the shallows to spawn, the bass follow them. After the spawning cycle, the blueback herring and bass return to the depths of Lake Murray. “When the herring leave those shallow points, the bass go deep with them. They’ll suspend themselves in 60 feet of water and wait, then strike as the school swims by,” Ben says.
Lake Murray’s reputation for exceptional bass fishing extends beyond the borders of South Carolina. Keith Odom, partner and owner of the Big Bass Tour, says, “When we’re looking for a new location to expand the tour, we greatly rely on the fishing community to help us out.” The Big Bass Tour started in 2010 with the goal of starting a tour for amateur anglers on some of the best bass fishing lakes in the country, and Lake Murray was added soon after in 2012.
“We are a completely amateur event, so we’ll get anyone from kids to grandparents out there competing. We had a teenage boy win a boat at one of the tournaments. He couldn’t drive yet, but he caught the best fish out there — so the boat was his,” Keith says.
Typical bass tournaments weigh five fish per competitor at the end of each day, whereas the Big Bass Tournament has seven hourly weigh-ins, each with 10 prizes of $1,000 for the biggest bass caught during that hour, during the three days of tournament fishing. Anglers may only enter one bass per hourly weigh-in, and each three-day tournament offers a total of 210 hourly cash payouts. Additionally, the angler with the overall biggest bass wins the grand prize of a new Nitro Z19 bass boat powered by a Mercury 200HP engine.
Brayden Rakes of North Carolina competed in the 2018 tournament at Lake Murray in addition to several other tournaments on the Big Bass Tour. “I love the Big Bass Tour format. Instead of having to catch a bunch of fish, you only need to catch one big one. This allows you to take your time and fish slowly; it typically takes a 7-pound bass or better to win the tournament,” Brayden says. He has bass fished and competed in tournaments since he was 12 years old. “I grew up reading Bassmasters Magazine and just about every book I could get my hands on about bass fishing,” he admits.
This past tournament year on Lake Murray, a cold front blasted through the Midlands, and the adverse conditions made fishing difficult. “Before a cold front, the bass eat a lot, but once it sets in the bite can be pretty tough. Though you don’t want glassy water, you don’t want so much wind that it’s tough to keep the boat in place,” Brayden says. With the Big Bass Tournament on Lake Murray being held in the fall and spring, the weather can be advantageous or adversarial.
After a full day on the water — with vesper light on the horizon and mirror-flat water — the time to leave the lake has come. And though the record bass may have escaped the hook this day, the hours many spent on Lake Murray were not in vain. As with most outdoor pursuits, the emphasis placed on the catch becomes secondary as the angler matures in the sport. Success is measured differently as it becomes more rewarding to introduce a family member or friend to sporting life. Successful days afloat or afield quantified by these metrics ensure a vibrant future for outdoor sports and natural resources — making everyone the victor.