The night leading up to Championship Sunday at the Marathon Bassmaster Elite at Lake Murray, Drew Benton was angry. He could hardly sleep.
After claiming the Day 2 lead with back-to-back bags over 23 pounds, Benton barely made the cut for the final day after catching just 14 pounds on Semifinal Saturday.
He felt like he had cost himself a potential win. But in his restlessness, Benton had a revelation.
“I woke up four times last night just mad,” he said. “I woke up and I looked at the weights and I was about 5 pounds back. Someone weighed in 26 pounds this week. That was my goal weight, 25 or 26.”
Benton accomplished that goal Sunday, landing a five-bass limit that weighed 26 pounds, 7 ounces coming from behind to win with a four-day total of 87-0. He earned his second career blue trophy and a $100,000 first-place prize.
“I started to — not doubt myself — but wonder if it was ever going to happen again,” said Benton, who earned his first Elite Series victory five years ago on Lake Travis in Texas. “I finished second in an Elite; finished second in an Open I should have won. Am I snakebit? Can I close the deal anymore? So, this feels great.”
Benton’s strategy this week revolved around sight fishing for spawning bass. After seeing 30 pounds of bass on bed the first day of practice, he caught bags of 23-0 and 23-9 the first two days of the tournament.
His primary area not far from takeoff had water temperatures that maxed out around 70 degrees, several degrees cooler than the rest of the lake. That set up perfectly for him to target largemouth with a Texas-rigged watermelon red/green pumpkin laminate Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog rigged with a 5/16-ounce Elite Tungsten sinker and a 4/0 Owner Wide Gap worm hook.
He pitched that bait to beds with a 7-foot-3 extra heavy Phenix Rods MBX and an unnamed baitcaster spooled with 20-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon.
“It was the same general area, but I would rotate through new pockets and new creeks,” he explained. “New ones were trickling in I feel like, but I didn’t want to burn up the same water. It is a mental thing for me. I needed to be in a new place looking.”
Wind, rain and clouds entered the area on Day 3, and Benton found it difficult to see any bass on bed in areas he had already picked through the previous day.
On Championship Sunday, with the skies cleared and the winds calmed, Benton started on several sections of riprap bank that Mississippi pro Brock Mosely had described to him before the end of Saturday’s weigh-in. Shad were spawning on these sections, but the key was shade. If the bank had a shade line, Benton could crank a squarebill and catch quality bass.
“I was running from place to place and every time I would hit a place, I would come back and catch one more out of the shade,” he said. “I wasn’t catching a bunch. I had a milk run and I culled up to like 22 pounds or so.”
He started with an olive shad-colored Bagley Pro Sunny B squarebill, but when he hooked a keeper in the side of the face, he switched to a Strike King KVD 1.5 squarebill with a green back and clearer body.
He said one of those crankbait fish he had hooked in the top of the head — but still managed to coax into the boat — reminded him of one of his Lake Travis bass.
“I thought, ‘If I can get this fish in, it might happen.’ And it did,” he said.
At about 11, the shade began to slide away from the bank and Benton decided to go back to sight fishing, but in a different pocket than where he caught his bags in the first two days. It paid off in a big way, with a 6-pounder biting a Big Bite Baits Cliff Hanger worm rigged on a drop shot and a 5-pounder taking the Fighting Frog.
The 5-pounder revealed itself when it followed a topwater bait out of the shade.
“I wouldn’t have seen it if it hadn’t followed my topwater out,” he said.
Hunter Shryock finished second with a four-day total of 85-7. The Ohio native turned Tennessean was in contention the entire tournament, starting off in fourth place after Day 1 with 22-9 before landing in second on Day 2 with 23-5 and third on Saturday with 18-5.
“I didn’t have a whole lot and I evolved during the tournament,” Shryock said. “I gave myself a shot and Drew won the event. I am good with that. I caught everything today and did exactly what I wanted to do. I executed every fish catch.”
After sight fishing most of Day 1, Shryock pivoted and started fishing shallow points he felt the blueback herring were using to spawn. Those points had riprap and rock, and about midmorning, the shade lines got closer to the bank and that was usually when the bass started to feed on the herring. He caught most of his bass on the final day around docks.
A white Berkley Choppo and a green pumpkin Berkley The General rigged wacky style were his best two baits, along with a jig with a Berkley Creature Hawg trailer.
His final-day bag wouldn’t have been possible without some crafty rod maneuvering and good fortune. Shryock’s biggest bass of the day, a 6-14 that earned him Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day, wrapped his line under a dock. To get it out, he had to lay on his belly on the front deck of his boat with his backside pinned against his graph, unwrap his line by putting his rod under the dock and around a post before snapping a couple of vines to get the bass moving toward the boat. Once freed, the largemouth came calmly into Shryock’s outstretched hand.
“I didn’t realize how big the fish actually was,” he said. “I saw her flash and the hole she went through was not very big. She was only in about a foot of water. There were rocks and the post and she was below the crossbeam and out. I feel like I kept my cool pretty well in that situation.
“If I had to do that 100 times over, I couldn’t do it again. When I caught that one, I thought we were only two bites away from winning this thing.”
From there, it was another grind of a day, as he filled his limit around noon and then upgraded with a 3-pounder just before 2 p.m. But he would fall just short of his first Elite Series title.
Benton took home an additional $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program while Florida’s John Cox earned $2,000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, South Carolina’s Patrick Walters earned an additional $2,500 as the highest-placing entrant and Georgia pro Drew Cook claimed an additional $1,500 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
With his final-day catch of 26-7, Benton also won the VMC Monster Bag of the Tournament award and earned a $2,000 bonus.
Matt Arey won $2,000 for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Tournament with the 7-11 largemouth he caught on Day 3; however, South Carolina angler Brandon Cobb’s 8-12 at Lake Okeechobee is still leading the field for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Year honors.
Along with his eighth-place performance, veteran pro Bernie Schultz of Florida won the $1,000 BassTrakk contingency award for the most accurate weight reporting.
With his Top 10 this week, Cobb took the lead in the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year race with 286 points. Tyler Rivet from Raceland, La., is second with 281 points, followed by Australia’s Carl Jocumsen with 275, Alabamian Kyle Welcher with 269 and Cook with 267.