Some say they were back when willow bushes grew in the back of creeks. Others say it was when most of the boats on the lake were rented from local fish camps and a 10-horsepower outboard was a hot rod.
More recent "good old days" include those when a half-acre of largemouth bass could be found schooling on the surface chasing shad - the fish would stay up for a half-hour or more, and any fish that schooled on the surface would be largemouth bass and not schools of stripers or white perch.
Finally, the good old days to some were when the lake was covered in aquatic grass, while others reminisce about days when you didn't have to clean that blankety-blank grass off your line every time you made a cast.
Doug Lown of Newberry has seen all of these scenarios, and he just keeps right on fishing. A full-time guide, he has been fishing the lake for more than 30 years. Of all the changes he's seen on Murray, he said one of the biggest has been the introduction of blueback herring.
Biologists cannot pin down the exact origin of the lake's herring but suspect they were brought in during the late 1970s and early 1980s for use as bait by fishermen targeting striped bass after stocking of those fish had begun. At that time, fishermen targeting largemouth bass were accustomed to patterning feeding fish by the surface commotion created when bass would trap a school of threadfin shad and tear into them.
Blueback herring created what is often referred to as a "second story" fishery in the freshwater lakes where they are found. Unlike gizzard and threadfin shad, herring do not tolerate warm water very well and typically inhabit deeper, cooler waters except during the spring when they invade the shallows to spawn. According to Lown, this spawning activity is the key to catching largemouth bass during May.
"Herring typically show up to spawn when the morning water temperatures get to 63 degrees," said Lown (803-924-8946). "In a normal year, this is around the third week in April, and we will catch bass on this pattern until the water temperature gets into the 80s."
Of great benefit to fishermen is that as the bass spawn is tapering off, the herring spawn is heating up. In the "good old days" before herring, fishermen had to tough out several weeks as bass recovered from the spawn before returning to a normal feeding pattern. Now, the opposite is correct; bass come off the beds hungry just as herring are invading the shallows.
"It's probably one of the most consistent patterns of the year," Lown said. "In fact, it's not just the herring that turn bass on. I often catch better quality bass on the bottom using a crawfish bait. I believe the reason is that when the herring come in to lay their eggs, the crawfish come out to eat them and make an additional meal for bass that aren't in a mood to chase down herring."
According to Lown, Murray's 50,000 surface acres tends to fish small when it comes to the herring pattern. At this time of year, he ignores the backs of creeks and pockets, all deep water, open-water humps and the vast majority of boat docks. What's left over are long, tapering points with a gradual slope offering less than five feet of water.
"The lake fishes small," said Lown. "The stereotype is to look for red-clay points. You will find bass there, but they'll also be on rocky points and brushy points."
When bass school and begin targeting herring, don't expect to see much, if any, surface activity. Bass are prone to hold on the windward side of the point and let the wind and current move bait to them. Lown prefers to position his boat on the downwind side of the point and cast back across it. He'll make fan casts, looking for a sweet spot on the point.
"Sonar usage is minimal because the area is so shallow," he said. "I'm looking for that rock pile, ditch, or shallow spot on the point that will congregate bass."
Another pro at the bass-fishing game on Lake Murray is Brett Mitchell of Timmonsville, a guide and tournament fisherman. Like Lown, When herring are spawning, Mitchell focuses most of his attention on main-lake and main-creek points in the area from Dreher Island down to the dam. Because the pattern is so widely popular, he expects to do a lot of running and gunning, first to find which points are holding better fish, and second to move around the crowds, especially on the weekends.
"Some guys get too particular about a point they're fishing," said Mitchell. "If the fish are there, you'll catch two or three fish in the first 15 casts. After that, once the school spots the boat, you're done for awhile. There's no sense in squatting on one certain point, because neither you nor anybody else is going to catch fish until they settle back down and regroup."
Mitchell said he'll establish a milk run of the best points and visit each one four or five times over the course of a day's fishing. In contrast to Lown, Mitchell prefers the upwind side of the point, to get some assistance from the wind in making a longer cast across a point. Not worried about the wind pushing him into the school, he deploys a Power Pole to stop the boat and fish with the wind at his back.
"I was one of the first bass guys around here to put a Power Pole on his boat," said Mitchell. "I'll cut my big (engine) off and glide into casting range. Then, I set the pole and start casting. I won't even put the trolling motor down. It's one of the quickest and quietest ways to fish this pattern."
Both Lown and Mitchell agree that topwater baits are the most exciting to use when fishing the herring spawn, but they are not always the most effective.
"From the late full moon in April into the first of May, the topwater bite can last all day," said Mitchell (803-379-7029). "Then it becomes a morning-only bite. A sunny day with decent wind is better. That's when I'll use a Spook or a Pencil Popper on top. One of my best baits during the entire pattern is a Fish Stalker Minnow Shad rigged on a weighted hook."
"One of the ways to detect when the herring move into the shallows is by fishing a spinnerbait," said Lown. "You can feel the herring bumping the line. A spinnerbait is a good sub-surface lure for this bite, too. The important thing is to determine the mood of the fish on that day. Hard or soft swimbaits like a Sebile or a Storm make good herring imitations. If the bass are feeding on bottom, then a Carolina rig, dead-stick Senko or a jig in crawfish colors will produce."
Both experts agree the best retrieve is the faster the better.