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An Interview with John Murray

By Russ Bassdozer

John Murray won $100,000 in the Busch Shootout on a "mystery lake" location this past weekend (October 30, 2004). I caught up with John today for this interview.

Click here to visit John Murray's web site

Life must be good for you lately, John Murray. I remember we talked a couple years ago in 2002 after your first Classic appearance. You said you were in a winning groove then. You talked about angler performance moving in cycles (good, fair, and poor cycles). At that time, you felt you were moving toward a peak in your fishing cycle - and you still are. For several years now, you've maintained a peak performance level, consistently placing highly in most events. How are you doing it? How are you keeping at your peak?

It's hard to tell why that is, but I am glad it is happening. One thing, I am deliberately simplifying my fishing in recent years. After twenty years at it, I can look at a lake, pick out what I like about it, what parts of it fit my techniques, and have confidence that I am in my niche, my groove. You need to find your place on a lake, where you have confidence. I trust my confidence, not what anyone else is doing or saying. I am increasingly less and less affected these days by outside influences. Confidence in what you are doing is the key factor above all else. Maybe the only factor.

We can all practice, perfect our skills, strive to learn a lake, but how does a guy get that vital ingredient, the confidence you are talking about, John?

Let's use as example a guy who has a favorite lake versus a lake on which he has not done well. Confidence is directly proportional to how many fish he has caught on that lake. The more fish you catch there, the more confidence that you will catch fish there. It's in your mind. You get a few bites, you start feeling you're good on that lake, you feel you know how the fish are reacting there, and the features you should be fishing there. When I arrived at the Busch Shootout, the mystery lake which turned out to be the James River, it was that first bite that gave me confidence. Until I got that first bite, it was hard to be confident I was doing the right thing. I was wondering if I was going to spend the whole day not knowing if I was doing the right or wrong thing? Then... tap, tap on the line, and the confidence was right there for the rest of the event.

John, are you changing, evolving, growing? Are you experimenting - expanding sideways into new techniques or just drilling down deeper into your own strengths?

I am definitely evolving new techniques, Russ. Dropshot wasn't something I was doing a few years ago. Now it is one of my strongest techniques. Some of what I'd call my strengths five years ago are not now. New ones are. So I've gained new techniques which replaced old ones. You've got to.

John, we hear pros talk about fishing their strengths. Often it's about strengths with specific lures/techniques. Not knowing what mystery lake or what techniques you would use when you got to the Busch Shootout, did you put special emphasis on packing your "strengths" - meaning lures? Most of us anglers try to emulate what pros say about this - to fish our strengths - meaning to concentrate on lures and techniques. Is this what we should be doing?

You're right on when you say lures are strengths - and techniques are also - but it's mainly lures. What I mean is flipping is a technique, but where you really are strong is not flipping, but flipping a worm or flipping a jig would be one's strength. Denny Brauer is strong flipping a jig or a tube. One of Larry Nixon's strengths is with a worm. So yes I did pack my strengths for the Busch Shootout, the lures I had caught fish on all across the country. Then I packed all the other things too, that aren't my strengths, like ten-inch worms. I don't normally use ten-inch worms, but if the mystery lake would have been a monster bass fishery, I would have needed them.

Aside from lures, there are other strengths that each pro possesses - maybe a certain kind of fish-holding location, a certain type of water - a man-made impoundment versus a natural lake versus a river. For instance, the Busch Shootout on the James River, I fished a backwater pond off the river. Even in a river, this location was more like a lake where I felt stronger confidence than dealing with the current, the mud flow in the main river. So you can pick a body of water apart too, and fish your strengths that way too.

John, you earned a $100,000 payday at the Busch Shootout. Is that the biggest cash prize of your career?

Yes, by far.

You've won the WON BASS U.S. Open twice in 1997 and in 1999 you netted a total package valued at $112,000 including cash, a boat and a truck. Are those your biggest wins ever?

The Busch Shootout and the 1999 US Open are. In the 1997 US Open, I totaled $80,000 in winnings, but not just for first place. It included a boat for a big bass award.

John, how many times in your career have you gotten to fish for a first place prize in the six-figure range?

I've competed in tournaments for twenty years. There weren't too many (if any) six-figure winner's prizes I ever competed for until about five years ago. I think 1999 was about the first time the U.S. Open went over $100,000. My first of three Classics was 2002. That's a $200,000 winner's purse since then. I'm not sure it was a six-figure winner's purse much before that.

Nowadays, the six-figure events are definitely growing. There are the six Tour events and the FLWs... the Classic, the AOY, the FLW Championship, the Busch Shootout, and the U.S. Open. That makes about 16 or so. They're all six-figure winner's prizes today.

Do you fish differently in recent years now that a $100,000 payday is on the line every time?

At first when it was new, it influenced me, but that wore off quickly. I fish the Tour, not to win one, but to get a good finish each time, to get to go to the Classic. I like to finish solid, place consistently high, but I don't gamble that away by trying to win. If I gamble, I could win $100,000 but I could risk losing points and a shot at the Classic. I'd rather not lose the Classic shot.

The Busch Shootout wasn't about points or placing. So the Busch Shootout was a great opportunity for me to go for the gusto. When only 13 guys fish a one-day tournament for $100,000 - that's not small potatoes - and those are great odds! Almost too good. I definitely appreciate the Busch and BASS people who made it possible for me to be a part of it. They treated us like royalty. Steak & lobster dinners, spas for our wives or girlfriends, just first class all the way. All expenses paid and every angler made at least $5,000.

Did you feel this was done more for the pros? Or why have this event, the Busch Shootout? With a mystery lake concept, it wasn't exactly for the fans, they cannot attend it, except of course on television.

It was a made-for-TV event. From the minute we landed and got off the plane, there was a camera on us. I liked it. It was a highlight of my season. I am glad I made it. I think a small field is the only way they can do a mystery lake event, and then televise it for everyone.

How would you equate it to the Classic, the Bassmaster Open Championship or to a regular Tour event?

The difference is you would usually prepare so much for any other tournament... prefish, map work, GPS'ing, using the depthfinder, trying to figure it out... you could spend weeks at it and you would be hooking up with, be around or be in contact with lots of other guys also preparing, prefishing and trying to figure out any other tournament. For the Busch Shootout, the only thing you could prepare was your tackle bag. There was nothing else to do. That's it. I just prepared my tackle for everything from 6 lb. test dropshot to flipping with 65 lb. braid.

As everyday anglers, we often hear pro advice along the lines of "fish against the fish, not against your competitors". What do you think of that? Do you only fish against the fish, John, or does fishing against the competitors factor into your normal tournament strategy?

I definitely fish against the fish. If you start fishing about your competitors, you can easily psyche yourself out.

Was the Busch Shootout different? You didn't have any fish to fish against, no pre-fish, no spots. Did you find that "fishing against the competitors" was more of a factor in this tournament?

It only was on the final day because it was such a small pond, I could see the other five finalists and paid attention to what they were doing because every 80 minutes, we rotated spots with the other guys. I could see they were using spinnerbaits and crankbaits, so I knew I needed to slow down and flip and pitch some of those spots. We were rotating through each other's water, and I decided the only way to be effective was to fish slower than they were. There was just no way I was going to fish spinnerbaits in a spot that Kevin VanDam had just fished spinnerbaits. No way I was going to flip a jig behind Denny Brauer.

Was it more competitive or more pressure going against a field of 13 heavyweights as opposed to one hundred or more anglers? Or at your advanced level, do you feel you really only compete against the top 15 or 20 heavyweights in any tournament anyway, regardless of how many other anglers are in the event?

On the Tour, there are 60-70 quality guys who can win any tournament. I liked the odds better with only 13.

In the Busch Shootout, you had no idea where it would be, no pre-fish or pre-info, no spots you knew or no reports on where the last tournament was won or whatever. Speaking of spots, we read at times that the pros have established spots. It's a situation where you go to a lake, and so-and-so pro has this spot there. Maybe so-and-so discovered this spot, won a tournament there, and although there's no rule against it, the rest of the field really shouldn't go in there, shouldn't fish there, like it is so-and-so's reserved water. Is that the case? Does that present a problem?

It can be like that and was 5-6 years ago, but not as much today. Today, reporting is so detailed, everything is revealed in print or televised, so much so that those spots don't hold up because of it. They get torn up. By the time a Tour event gets back there, they're old news, no longer the spots to go to.

The Busch Shootout format was brief. You had two half-days in the preliminary heats on the James River. You're really working against time. Did you have any time to review a contour map or anything? Did you spend time trying to find things with your depthfinder?

When we found out the location was the James River, and it was a falling tide, I knew it was going to be all visual fishing, that I was going to fish what I could see was there - sunken barges, pilings - so I wasn't spending time to find depth contours or using the depthfinder. The timing was really tight. We were given maps and the boats had good Lowrance GPS units on them, but I used those more for navigating. I had decided to fish a lake-like backwater about one hour drive each way, which left me only two hours fishing time (they were half-day sessions). That was a little nerve-wracking, fishing only two hours for $100,000, and driving the other two hours. But those are the decisions you make.

About the Busch Shootout

The BUSCH Shootout is not a single event, but a season-long $200,000 incentive program - primarily for participating pros on the CITGO Bassmaster Tour and Bassmaster Elite 50 circuits.

One level of incentive is a $1,000 cash awarded to participating pros who produce the heaviest daily total weight at the 10 stops of the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail (Tour and Elite 50). These are 4-day events, so $40,000 ($1,000/daily for each of 10 four-day events) is awarded this way. The Top 10 (out of 40) daily heavyweights from the Tour and Elite 50s qualify to go to the BUSCH Shootout Tournament - on a "mystery" lake - where another $160,000 is awarded.

A second level of incentive is for the anglers with the heaviest single-day catch at the Bassmaster Open Championship, the BASS Federation Championship, and the Bassmaster Classic - who may not necessarily be Pro Tour or Elite 50 anglers.

These 3 qualifiers (one each from the Open, Federation and Classic championships) and the top ten heavyweights from the Tour/Elite 50 were then flown in, all expenses paid, to compete on an undisclosed "mystery lake" in late October, 2004. Seven of the 13 got finished off in the preliminary round, so to speak - two half-day periods on the James River, Virginia. The remaining 6 went on to the single-day BUSCH Shootout where the winner, John Murray, pocketed $100,000. The other 12 participants each received $5,000, for a total purse of $160,000.

This final day BUSCH Shootout day between the 6 anglers was held on Wareham Pond, a 35-acre impoundment within the Kingsmill Resort and Spa in Virginia. The six anglers fished a series of three holes, with two anglers alternating through them every 80 minutes. For the final hour of competition, "The Busch Happy Hour," anglers could fish anywhere on the pond.

A third level of incentive. In addition, Busch Beer offered $1 million if a pro angler sets a new BASS record for the largest five-bass tournament limit during the qualifying portion of the Tour and Elite 50 events. The current one-day record was not broken and still stands at 45 pounds, 2 ounces set by Dean Rojas in 2001.

John, you used creature baits, but you almost ran out of them. You started with a Yamamoto Kreature bait, ran out of them, then went to a Brush Hog, and finished using a Reactions Innovations Beaver. Did you not expect to be using creature baits?

Funny thing, it was supposed to be a one-day tournament, so I had packed a bag of each creature, which was plenty for one day. It turned out to be a half-day Friday and Saturday - and then the one-day final. No, I did not pre-plan to use creature baits, but I still had brought enough for one day. What keyed me to use them were a lot of bait-sized crabs I saw scuttling about the bottom. Creature baits, I thought! Now each creature bait model has different actions. The Yamamoto Kreature, with the two side legs, was perfect. It moved just like the crabs. But between the barnacles, fishing tight to barges and pilings, and catching fish, the baits got torn up. By the end of the first day, I was all out of the Yamamoto Kreatures.

Why do you carry three different kinds with you? Are there unique differences between each, John?

Definitely, they each have their strengths. The Yamamoto Kreature is the newest, and moved just like those crabs. The Brush Hog, being one of the first, I just have a long run of confidence with it. The Brush Hog swims more like a fish, with its long tails. On the final day, the location changed to Wareham Pond, which is land-locked. There were no crabs there, but there were crawdads. The Beaver, because it is so flattened, glides more like a crawdad. Especially around laydowns, the Beaver glides from limb to limb and settles down to perch on the wood or on bottom like a crawdad. I know they are all called the same thing creature baits, but each one is different to me.

Do you rig them differently, or all the same?

I rig them the same, pegging a 1/4 oz Kanji tungsten bullet sinker in the nose with a toothpick, 20 lb fluorocarbon, and a 2/0 Owner hook.

A 2/0 Owner? I would have expected you to say something larger - 3/0 or 4/0?

This is something I learned from the Japanese pros. They taught me that the smaller hook holds on better, even on big fish, and I have adopted this philosophy. So earlier you asked if I was evolving, changing my fishing, and this is one way I have. I was always a 5/0 advocate, but not any more.

One thing too, Russ, I wasn't using the full-sized creature baits. The James is a small fish place, so I was using the medium sizes of creature baits.

Did you throw anything else except creatures on the final day?

I used a crankbait, a spinnerbait, a dropshot, they were all rigged and ready on the deck. The Senko I thought would work well. Except for one 11-1/2 incher on the dropshot, I didn't get bit on anything but the creatures. The last day, I was down to just Brush Hogs and Beavers. I had one on each rod, and I kept alternating casts between them. Watermelon and green pumpkin.

In the past you have wisely said jigs are big fish baits, you get fewer but better bites with a jig. Do you feel creature baits are like that too? Or are they different?

Yes, creatures are a lot like a jig. That concept, it's all about a slow-moving bulk that does it. Creatures are a little more finesse than a jig, even though I use the same heavy tackle, it's more subtle presentation. I think a creature catches different fish than a jig. Let's say Denny Brauer is flipping a jig? There's just no way I would flip a jig against him, but I would flip a creature and feel confident I could catch different fish than him. I feel you'll catch some fish on jigs that you wouldn't with a creature - and vice versa. But yeah, that fewer but bigger fish concept with jigs applies to creatures too.

Would you say a Yamamoto hula grub is like a jig or a creature bait? Or is that a different tool to you, with different applications?

Good question. I always say the hula grub was the original creature bait. It's what I grew up fishing, and to me, a hula jig makes more sense than a living rubber jig. It's the original creature bait.

Although the final day move of the Busch Shootout from the James River to Wareham Pond was a close-by location, you carried over what you found worked well on the last body of water (James River) to the next body of water (Wareham Pond).  Do you often find yourself starting off using what worked well last time, regardless of what body of water?

I think you do. You get locked into doing it, it's working. You carry it forward, start right out with it at the next lake. I do that a lot. I had a jerkbait I did well with at one event, and two weeks later, I started the next event with that same jerkbait.

In your long experience, do you find that if you get on some sort of a solid pattern on one water, that it is not unique just to that body of water at that time, but that it's going to work on many other bodies of water within that same timeframe?

Something that just gets hot? Oh yeah! It happens all the time. I had gotten onto something that was working quite well for me with the dropshot toward the end of the FLW Tour stop on Lake Champlain (Plattsburgh, NY) in late June. I just started on the same thing with the dropshot at the next place, which was the Bassmaster Classic on Lake Wylie (Charlotte, NC). So here are these two dramatically different fisheries one thousand miles apart from each other, and I am fishing them both the same way. That was a sweet deal for me since no one else was dropshotting Lake Wylie - but it was working for me. It helped me finish tenth in the Classic. I don't think I would have tried it if it hadn't worked so well last time I fished (on Champlain). It happens all the time, and there's no reason for it. You get on something hot, and it keeps you going for a while. Then you get on something else.

John, you got on the creature bite day one, and stuck with it to win the Busch Shootout. That's something you uncovered after you got there. But before you even got on the plane, how did you prepare for an unknown destination? When you don't know what the water is, how it fishes, how do you know what to take?

I expected it to be a one-day event, so I did not bring more than one-day's worth of anything. But I did take two of almost everything. My tackle bag was kind of like Noah's Ark. It had two of every kind of bass lure. My biggest fear was I would get on the water, there would be a bite going, but I would not have what I needed. For instance, I had 2 jigging spoons, 2 monster swimbaits, 2, 2, 2, right down the line. It makes no sense to bring one, cause if you're getting bit on it, and you lose it, you're sunk. So I had a lot of two of everything.

Did you get ready twice? Hurricane Ivan postponed the original Busch Shootout date (Sept. 18), and it was rescheduled for this past weekend, October 30th.

Actually, the postponement worked out perfect for me. Of course, I regret the devastation that storm brought, but if it had to happen, it was good timing for me. I was fishing the WON BASS US Open on Lake Mead (Las Vegas, NV) and I would have had to weigh-in, drive all night to get home, pack at midnight to make the flight to the Busch Shootout the next day, Russ.

Whoa, you're saying you were to fish for $100,000 against 13 of the best anglers in the country, and you weren't packing until the night before?

Hah! Hah! I had half my stuff packed already. The other half was what I was using in the US Open. So really what I would have had to do that night was re-combine all my stuff back into one pile for the Shootout.

Did you make any revisions due to the fact that six weeks elapsed between the two dates? Were there things you would have packed for the "mystery lake" on October 30th that you would not have packed for September 18th - or vice versa?

Yes, I took out some topwaters (not all of them) for that late in the season, and I took out a lot of smallmouth type stuff. I felt it had gotten too late in the season for them to put us on a northern smallmouth lake.

Were there any lure types you ruled out, that you decided you would not use? If so, why not?

I don't think so. I tried not to leave anything out. I had all the techniques covered. The last thing I wanted was to know I could have won using something, but not have it. That was my biggest fear, to know I could have done well but not have what I needed. The way I looked at it, by bringing a few of everything, I would at least have a shot at winning. I'd hate to float there watching the other guys spooning them, and me not have a spoon. I went through a lot of "what if" scenarios like that.

Do you think it made you a better angler to go to the mystery lake and conquer it? Do you think you have a better attitude to face unknown waters?

Yes, it definitely bolstered my confidence that I have the techniques and skills to succeed anywhere under any conditions. If I end up somewhere it rains 3 days straight and the water comes up 12 feet, I can look back at the Busch Shootout and draw strength from it. If I had made a list of where I thought the Busch Shootout was going to be, the James River would have been the last place I thought of. So it's given me confidence to know I can handle those unthinkable kinds of challenges that may arise in the future.

Did you practice on any surprise lakes for this? Like throw a dart at a map and go fish wherever it landed?

No, but I had fished the Lake Powell Open the week before, and I had not been on Powell for four years. The water there is 100 feet lower than last I was there. So that was like fishing a new lake, like fishing Powell for the first time again. It was like a pre-fish or practice for me for the Busch Shootout. That's about as close as I've been to new water in a while.

Before you got there, did you decide you were going to target largemouth - as opposed to spots or smallmouth? Did you bet you could probably fish shallow, fish cover, which tends to mean largemouth?

No, I was ready for anything, but once we found out it was the James River, I knew that was the way to go.

What about colors? Do you think lure color is an important or unpredictable variable? Did you bring a ton of different lure colors to the Busch Shootout?

I am a big believer in my confidence colors. I'm big on watermelons, green pumpkins, june bug. I brought mainly them and some shad or light colors too. I don't use many colors in many baits. I keep it very simple. That's where I talked earlier that I'm simplifying my fishing more and more.

There's really only a limited number of pro tour waters that can support the organizations, have the facilities, that have the robust fisheries. Lake Pleasant where you live in Phoenix is one, Okeechobee, Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Eufaula, Guntersville, Champlain, the California Delta, the Hudson, the Potomac - the list goes on, but it is not a very long list. Yet there are thousands of other, especially smaller bass waters. Do you think there is a future for the mystery lake concept, John? Do you think it would be possible with a larger field? How about a field of 50 as in the Elite 50?

I think the logistics would be overwhelming, except with a small group. It may be a good way to go after the elimination cuts on a larger body of water. Let's say there are two days full field competition on something like Lake Mead. The field gets trimmed down the third day, and then the top five or so get switched to a nearby smaller water, say for argument's sake, Lake Las Vegas. This is an example of a small private trophy bass lake, and it sits right next to Mead. So there's no logistical problem with that. You have to pass it on the way into Lake Mead. It's right there. Now Okeechobee or pick anywhere, and there are nearby smaller waters with good fishing. Literally thousands. So it adds an interesting aspect. Get through the cuts on the big water, and then put the finalists on a pond that they've never seen. Speaking as and for the anglers however, it would have to be set up so whoever was switched to a surprise water, they would all have to get a decent paycheck out of it. Maybe that's why it would need to be limited to the top five finalists. So all five would be compensated. We go through a lot of hard work and expense to learn and pre-fish, travel, lodge, time on the road away from home - all that effort and investment is on the tournament location. So, you can't work that hard right up to the end, be that close, be on fish, dialed in... and then have the rug pulled out from under you. If they kept the payout real good, even upped it across the five finalists, that would be great. But you don't want a guy feeling he invested a lot into a lake, believed he would have won it, but you took him off that lake.

Did you celebrate winning the BUSCH Shootout by drinking a Busch beer, John?

Yes I did. Busch had an exquisite selection of fine beers for us after the tournament. I chose a Busch Lite.

Congratulations, sir.

Thank you, every one, for reading. - John Murray

The Busch Shootout tournament will be telecast on ESPN2 Saturday, Nov. 6 from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. ET.

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