I headed my F150 south before daylight on Monday, the first official practice day for the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open on the Harris Chain. I was happy to leave Ohio’s snow and cold weather behind.
It was well after dark when I arrived at the rented house I would be sharing with three other fishing nuts for the tournament. Our group included North Carolina’s Lee King, Pennsylvania’s Jeff Stoner and South Carolina’s Jarrod Nelson. (Photo gallery of Mark's trip)
King had found a sweet $500,000 house in a gated community that was quite affordable. Nicest digs I’ve ever stayed at while fishing a tournament.
King and Stoner were fishing the pro side; Nelson and I had signed on as co-anglers. My roomies told me that a good number of bass had been on beds a few days before I got there, but that a severe cold front had pushed many of them off.
Some bed fish would be caught during the tournament, but it didn’t appear that this tactic would yield the winning catch. That’s how it played out. Chris Lane crushed his competitors on the pro side by fishing soft plastic baits in pads.
On Tuesday, I fished Lake Griffin, the last lake on the Harris Chain, with Oklahoma’s Bobby Myers. Myers is fishing all nine Bassmaster Open tournaments this season in his quest to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Myers had been on the water for several days. His strongest patterns were fishing rattle baits in offshore hydrilla and pitching a Larew’s 3.5-inch Biffle Bug into bullwhips. He had caught a 10-pound bass on the Bug a few days before, and bass up to 7 pounds on a lipless rattler.
The little Biffle Bug is a Beaver-type bait. It has two boot-footed appendages that wiggle like mad when the bait sinks. I was impressed with it and bummed several of the baits off Myers.
Myers spent most of his day looking for bedding bass in Griffin’s canals and on the main lake. He intended to do the same thing on the final practice day. If a wave of bass did move to their beds at the last minute, he didn’t want to miss it.
The outing gave me a chance to soak up some warm Florida sunshine, rig my rods and sort my tackle.
I stayed at the rented house Wednesday and finish an article for Bassmaster Magazine on super deep crankbaits. I hate it when making a living interferes with fishing.
At the official pre-tournament meeting that evening, I drew with Elite Series pro Casey Ashley, an easy-going South Carolina gentleman. He’s a super nice guy.
When our number was called the next morning, we shot straight for the Dora Canal, which leads to Lake Eustis. The canal is a long idle zone through an ancient stand of huge cypress trees.
Tournament Director Chris Bowes told me this was where the first Tarzan movie was filmed. I don’t doubt it. The place looks absolutely primitive. Loved it.
We were part of a long train of bass boats passing through the canal bumper to bumper. The canals that connect the lakes on the Harris Chain are scenic, but they eat up loads of fishing time due to their idle zones.
Ashley’s first stop on Eustis was an isolated dock where he had caught a half dozen bass on a square-billed crankbait. We worked the dock and the adjacent vegetation thoroughly with cranks and soft plastic baits to no avail.
Then we shot across the lake and fished a line of Kissimmee grass. There was sparse, patchy eelgrass and hydrilla beneath the surface outside the Kissimmee grass. I caught two small keepers from the offshore grass on a Lucky Craft lipless rattler using a lift-drop presentation.
Ashley caught one keeper on a square bill and another by pitching a Texas rigged worm into the Kissimmee grass. We stayed there a good while after that with no luck.
“Time to ease on,” Ashley said.
Ashley’s casual Southern drawl is deceiving. I got the sense that we were going to mosey to another fishing spot. I quickly learned that “ease on” means hammer down and 75 mph.
From there, we boated to Lake Griffin, which involved a long trek through Haines Creek, which has several idle zones and a lock. On Griffin, Ashley targeted a pad field that was about 150 yards long. He had caught his biggest bass there on a Zoom Horny Toad.
We made four passes over the pad field. Ashley caught one on a Horny Toad, another on a Trick Worm that had taken a shot at the Toad, and a third one on a Texas rigged worm. All these bass were squeakers.
I showed the bass a frog, a Texas rigged worm, a sinking worm and a Stanley Ribbit. Nothing. Ashley said the Ribbit was a good bait in heavier cover, but that it was too noisy for pads, especially in the clear water we were fishing.
“In pads, the Horny Toad is the way to go,” he said.
When I glanced at the time, it was already 1 o’clock. We had only three hours before check-in and at least an hour of running/idle time. It seemed as though we’d been fishing for two hours. Tournament time happens in a different dimension.
We spent part of that time fishing back at Eustis. It let us down.
Then it was back through the Dora Canal to Lake Dora where we had started. We had maybe an hour left to fish.
Ashley would hit one bank lined with Kissimmee grass or bulrushes for 10 or 15 minutes and then “ease on” to another bank. We had fished four or five spots when Ashley plucked a 3-pounder from Kissimmee grass with a beaver-type bait.
That was our day. Ashley’s limit weighed over 8 pounds. I had 3 pounds, 4 ounces. We both needed a big turnaround the next day to get a check.
That never happened. I drew out with 22-year-old Justin Hamner from Birmingham. He had fished a Bassmaster Open tournament at Harris when the bass were locked on beds, but he fared poorly because he had no bed fishing experience.
Since that tournament, Hamner had schooled himself on bed fishing. He spent most of his first day trying to goad an 8-pound bedded bass into biting in an ultra-clear canal on the Harris chain. He weighed in two small bass.
We went back for the 8-pounder the second day and found a bluegill gobbling up the eggs. We stayed in that canal for several hours looking for a good bass that would hold on a bed.
We never found one. When we left, Hamner had one 14-ounce bass. My livewell held a keeper that I had caught frogging matted grass along the bank.
My next bass came on a spinnerbait with 30 minutes left to fish. We were on Lake Carlton, closer to the official ramp. The wind was blowing into bullwhips that had shallow eelgrass in front of it. The bass belted my spinnerbait in the eelgrass.
That was all we caught. The second tournament day seemed like it lasted maybe 3 hours. What a time warp.
Of our crew at the rented house, Jeff Stoner was the winner with nearly 19 pounds of bass that put him in 70th place. The Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open can’t get here fast enough. (View photos from Mark's trip)