My southern Ohio yard was covered with 6 inches of snow when I headed for the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open at Florida's Lake Tohopekaliga at 3:30 a.m. The white stuff finally melted from the landscape when I neared the Georgia state line several hours later.
It was 70 degrees when I drove into Kissimmee, Fla., that evening. I can't think of a better remedy for a Midwest bass angler suffering from cabin fever.
I had entered the Toho tournament as a co-angler. My biggest concern was that I would draw partners that were sight fishing for spawners. That never happened.
My wish was to be paired with anglers that were casting to submerged hydrilla in 4 to 6 feet of water outside the visible fields of Kissimmee grass, lily pads and other aquatic vegetation. That never happened either.
My first-day partner, Mark Mauldin of Knoxville, Tenn., wanted to fish Lake Kissimmee. We had a late flight, so he wisely decided to fish the south end of Toho for a few hours rather than wait in line to get through the lock.
Mauldin picked off one bass by punching a heavy Texas rigged bait through a small mat of gator grass. Reeling a Skinny Dipper through sparse Kissimmee grass put another keeper in his livewell. He also missed a few light biters on the Skinny Dipper.
The Skinny Dipper, from Reaction Innovations, has been around a few years, but I had never heard of it before arriving in Kissimmee. It's a cross between a 5-inch, boot-tailed swimbait and a worm with shallow ribs.
You rig the Skinny Dipper with a big hook and a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce weight. The weight can be on the hook's shank or pegged to the line. This slender bait slithers easily through nasty grass. It's a hot deal in Florida.
The basic retrieve is a slow, steady reel that keeps the Skinny Dipper within a foot of the surface. It's similar to fishing a spinnerbait. When you fish it on braided line, as I did, the bites feel like a hard knock, as with a spinnerbait.
I set the hook whenever I felt that jolt. Big mistake. Mauldin told me that you must stop reeling when a bass strikes a Skinny Dipper. Then you wait until the fish turns before setting the hook.
That sounds great in theory. But I hadn't picked up a fishing rod in months, and I was pumped to catch a bass. I simply could not make myself hesitate when I felt a bass belt the Skinny Dipper. This happened three times that morning. I jerked the bait away from every fish.
Mauldin and I passed through the lock at 10 a.m. We were the 70th boat to do so that morning. Mauldin caught four more bass in Kissimmee. Three by punching gator grass and one by casting to what appeared to be a bed near a clump of Kissimmee grass.
I caught one by punching the thick stuff with a Yum Wooly Bug. I lost another keeper on the same rig. It shot out of the grass when I set the hook and landed next to the boat with a mile of 65-pound braid lying limp on the surface. The bass was gone before I could reel up the slack.
Mauldin's limit weighed just shy of 10 pounds. My keeper went 1-13. When I went through the weigh-in and saw some of the huge bass that were brought to the scales, I realized I wasn't out of it.
A few of those Toho heavyweights the next day would make for a big jump in the standings.
The next day I fished through rainstorms with Lee King of Laurens, S.C. King had culled a small limit of buck bass the first day by swimming a 6-inch Zoom Speed Worm with a 3/16-ounce sinker.
The Speed Worm is another lure I had never fished before. I vowed not to cast the Skinny Dipper the second day, and I wasn't too keen on trying the Speed Worm. The retrieve with both lures is the same.
I boated two bass by punching gator grass with the Wooly Bug. King landed a limit and had several other hits on the Speed Worm. He was reeling the worm through Kissimmee grass and dead lily pad stems in the shallows.
It was getting late in the day, and I needed another fish to fill my three-bass, nonboater limit. King suggested that I try one of his Speed Worms.
I soon had a Speed Worm rigged with 15-pound fluorocarbon line. It took all of 10 minutes to catch a 2-pounder. With about 45 minutes left to fish, I landed a 4-pounder on the worm.
Since you normally must hesitate when a bass bites a Speed Worm, as with the Skinny Dipper, why did I have better luck with the worm? It's because the strike with the Speed Worm felt more like the "tic" you feel when hopping a worm. I instinctively dropped the rod tip before setting the hook.
Was the lighter bite due to the fluorocarbon line knotted to the Speed Worm as opposed to the super sensitive braided line I used with the Skinny Dipper? Maybe. I'll have to experiment to figure that out.
While fishing with King, I noticed that he was using some innovative baitcasting reels from U.S. Reels. They don't have a typical level line guide, which incorporates a worm gear and a pawl. An angled, rotating bar does the job.
Also, the spool on the SC1000 that King used to fish the Speed Worm rotates backward. The line winds onto the bottom of the reel's spool, and the spool turns toward you during the cast. King claims that this reduces backlashes and increases casting distance.
Although I didn't fish with King's reel, he easily made long casts and never suffered a backlash.
With any major bass tournament, there's always a disparity in the weights registered by the top anglers and those that fail to earn a check. This was especially evident at the Toho event, which fielded 193 boats.
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Gerald Swindle won with a whopping 80-13. I was happy to see him claim his first B.A.S.S. tournament.
Going into the third and final day, Swindle was leading with 55-5. He was one of 12 pros to qualify for the final round. It took about 31 pounds to make the cut.
Although these weights are impressive, most of the field didn't fare nearly as well. It took only 21-6 on the boater side to nab 40th place and the final check. It's as if most of the anglers were fishing a different body of water from the leaders.
What separated the contenders from the also-rans were Florida bucketmouths that weighed 8 to more than 11 pounds. If your limits on the first two days of the tournament had just one of these gorillas, you were likely to make the final 12 cut.
That's exactly what Chris Lane of Guntersville, Alabama, did. His first-day 19-2 limit was anchored by a bass that weighed nearly 10 pounds. The next day his limit included four buck bass and a largemouth that weighed 5 pounds or more.
Lane caught his biggest bass by blind fishing beds. Some of the other top finishers were sight fishing for bedding bass. The reason so many competitors weighed anemic limits is that few of Toho's big females had moved up. There were mainly buck bass in the shallows, and that's what most of us caught.
However, Swindle stuffed his livewell with giant bass by fishing submerged hydrilla beds with lipless rattling crankbaits and Carolina rigs. His partner on the final day, Marlon Crowder of Tampa, Fla., caught three bass that weighed 21-6 and won the Triton boat.
Swindle was the guy fishing offshore hydrilla that I was hoping to draw. Such is the feast or famine nature of the co-angler.
After the weigh-in, I checked out of the motel and stopped at a Hess gas station to fill my tank. I shucked my rain-soaked tennis shoes and socks and donned dry footwear. I bought a Godfather's pizza and a large black coffee, and I drove north through the night.
I arrived home an hour after sunrise, opened the door and was slapped with -7 degree weather.
I was tempted to head back to Toho.
Editor's note: Mark Hicks is one of the country's most widely read and respected bass writers. He has penned countless articles for Bassmaster Magazine, B.A.S.S. Times and other publications.