Forrest Wood Cup in South Carolina
Brent Ehrler contends for the Cup, finishes seventh
Since they all run Ranger boats, Lucky Craft team members Brent Ehrler, Gabe Bolivar and Anthony Gagliardi were all qualified for the full million if they won the milestone event, which was held on Lake Murray near Columbia, S.C.
Lake Murray has a phenomenal record of producing big fish in the springtime when bass are heading to the bank for the spawn.
In fact, the last time the FLW Tour visited Lake Murray in February of 2006, Gagliardi, who lives in nearby Prosperity, S.C., won the event and broke Tour records with his final-round catch.
This time around, however, the Tour visited Lake Murray in the dog days of August for the Forrest Wood Cup and conditions were much different.
Lake Murray has been through a myriad of changes over the last few years. A loss of offshore grassbeds and the introduction of blue-back herring have turned Murray into a new lake, especially in the heat of summer when bass are notoriously elusive to begin with.
Add to that the fact that Murray’s water levels have been high all spring and summer, causing a fresh crop of bank grass to inundate the lake’s shoreline.
All of these factors came together to produce a kind of mystery lake for the 77 Cup qualifiers who fished her waters last week.
Before the event began, many speculated that the tournament would be won deep. With surface temperatures hovering near the 90-degree mark, it would only seem logical that bass would be glued to offshore structure.
But the day before the tournament began, a heavy frontal system passed through the Carolinas dropping 2 inches of rain, cooling Murray’s surface temperatures by some 5 degrees and leaving behind dense overcast clouds for the start of day one.
Interestingly, the trio of Lucky Craft pros fishing the event all had very different strategies on solving Murray’s mysteries.
Ehrler planned to go shallow, Bolivar counted on the deep bite and Gagliardi chose to chase schooling bass in open water.
In the end, Ehrler, who won the Forrest Wood Cup in 2006, came the closest to sacking the $1 million payday by scoring a top 10 and finishing seventh.
Although Ehrler spent a lot of time practicing out deep, when the green flag waved in Columbia, he hit the bank.
“I never really got comfortable with the deep bite,” Ehrler reasoned. “I graphed a lot of bait and fish out there off those points, but there was no rhyme or reason to how the bass were behaving. I’d be drop-shotting a deep point and the fish would come up boiling behind me. When I fish deep, I want something I can pinpoint and I could never dial that deep bite in to the level where I was confident in doing it.”
Plus, the heavy rain and lingering clouds helped lure Ehrler to the bank.
“I did fish shallow one morning in practice,” he continued. “I had three bites and the guy practicing with me had three bites. That was six keeper bites before 11 a.m. So when I saw those low clouds that first day of the tournament, I decided to start shallow. The clouds hung around most of the day and I stayed shallow.”
“Basically, the same thing happened on day two,” Ehrler added. “I planned to start shallow and then go deep, but the clouds hung around, I got a few key bites so I just stayed with it.”
He checked in 11 pounds, 5 ounces on day one and 14 pounds, 12 ounces on day two to qualify for the top-10 in the third place position with a two-day total of 26 pounds, 1 ounce.
After making the finals, Ehrler stayed shallow for a majority of the last two days. He caught a smaller limit on day three weighing 8 pounds, 8 ounces and had just two keepers for 4 pounds, 11 ounces on the last day.
Ehrler’s primary shallow water pattern was casting a Stanley Ribbit buzzing toad to the catwalks of docks, especially along shorelines where there was bank grass mixed in.
Incidentally, this was a very similar pattern to the one eventual winner Michael Bennett used to reach his victory.
Ehrler’s secondary pattern was to pitch a Texas-rigged Senko to the ends of docks.
“Shorelines that had a mix of grass and docks were the best,” he explained. “I’d burn down the bank casting a Ribbit to the bank grass and dock walkways and when I’d get to the end of a dock, I’d pitch the Senko to the corners.”
Ehrler noted that the Ribbit produced most of his catch but the Senko fooled a couple key clutch fish.
He preferred the Stanley Ribbit over a standard floating frog because it allowed him to cover water faster than a floater. He tied the Ribbit to 58-pound test Sunline braid and fished it on Lucky Craft’s 7-foot medium-heavy pitching stick.
His best Ribbit color was green pumpkin pearl and he rigged it on a 5/0 Owner twist-lock hook that features a weight on the shaft.
“That weighted shaft helped keep the Ribbit riding lower in the water,” Ehrler said. “Plus, it casts a lot better with that weight on it.”
As for the Senko, it was Texas-rigged onto a 3/16-ounce Tru-Tungsten T-Rig and fished on the same Lucky Craft pitching rod.
Going into the event, Anthony Gagliardi was the clear local favorite. He has fished Murray all his life and is a previous FLW Tour winner on the lake.
Gagliardi decided to use his local advantage to target bass on open water schooling areas that other pros would have a hard time finding due to the elusiveness of school-oriented bass.
On day one, his plan worked to the tune of 10 pounds, 1 ounce and he was right on track.
But on day two he became a victim of his own game as the schoolers became even too elusive for Gagliardi and he caught two bass, ending the event in 48th.
“I’m not sure if it was the weather or what,” Gagliardi said. “But something changed on that second day and they did not come up (schooling) as much as they should have. Other pros who were targeting schoolers caught them the first day and died the second day, too.”
When targeting the schoolers, Gagliardi used a Lucky Craft Sammy 100 and a Lake Fork Magic Shad.
“When I fish that way, I usually don’t make a lot of casts,” he said. “I stand there with my reel button pushed and my rod ready to cast. When a few fish come up and boil, you have to be able to get a cast right on them immediately.”
Not a single pro fishing out deep at the Cup made the top 10 fishing shallow, and it’s still a mystery to many as to why there was not a stronger deep-water bite going on.
“I don’t know what happened,” Bolivar lamented. “I had some good bites on a drop-shot in about 22 to 25 feet of water during practice and they just disappeared.”
Bolivar weighed in one fish for 2 pounds, 9 ounces on day one and by the time he tried to adapt and go shallow on day two, it was too little too late.
“I was so committed to the deep-water bite that I really didn’t have the right stuff to go shallow at the last minute. I had a handful of Ribbits and I tried to make that work, but it just didn’t.”
After recording a zero on day two, Bolivar said he is ready to go back home to California, clean the 2008 season from his mind and prepare himself for a fresh FLW Tour start in 2009.
“I’m going home and going surfing for a couple of days to clear my head,” Bolivar said. “This year has really been a struggle for me. All year long I have fought and fought to stay on the verge of getting checks and making the Cup. This season was a real gut check and it let me know I need to bear down in the off-season and come out swinging next year.
“I’ve got a couple of FLW Series Westerns left to fish back home and I’m looking forward to those to get back in the groove and right the ship again.”
Article & Photos by Rob Newell / Provided byCox Group