LAKE WALES, Fla. — Byron Velvick called it an eclipse. One spawning bed he was looking at Thursday suddenly went from white to black.
Sight-fishing on bass spawning beds unexpectedly became a huge factor in the Bassmaster Elite Series Citrus Slam, presented by Longhorn. Lakes Toho and Kissimmee are the primary waters being fished by the pros in the Kissimmee Chain, which also includes Lake Hatchineha and Cypress Lake.
During the three practice days leading up to the tournament, few anglers saw enough fish on spawning beds to think they could take advantage of that when the four-day event began Thursday. But when the temperature rose into the 70s under clear skies, coupled with practically no wind, it created ideal sight-fishing conditions.
Both Velvick, who had the Berkley Big Bag on Day One with 25 pounds, and Terry Scroggins, who took second place, with 23-2, took advantage of the new wave of spawners moving onto beds.
"In Florida, we don't have those massive (spawning) waves," said Bryan Hudgins, who is from Orange Park, Fla. "We'll still have some fish trickle onto beds into April."
And the spawn began in December, according to Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla., who noted on Wednesday that he and his brother, Elite pro Chris, were catching bass off beds here then.
The first goal in sight-fishing is finding a spawning bed with a bass on it. There are lots of empty beds in the Kissimmee Chain now, where at least 80 percent of the spawn is over, according to the pros. Those beds are easily visible in shallow water, appearing as round, light-colored patches of lake bottom, with darker-colored, silt-layered areas around them. Bass prepare a bed by using their fins to fan away the silt before the female lays her eggs there and the male subsequently fertilizes them.
Velvick saw one bed Thursday in Lake Toho that suddenly blended in with the rest of the lake bottom around it. The clearer the water, the easier it is to see exactly what is occupying the bed. This one was in fairly deep water, so the fish wasn't easily visible.
Velvick wasn't able to entice a bite from that bed, but found out later that Scroggins caught not one, but two big females off that spot.
"Usually you just watch the white spot change shapes and you know what's there," Velvick said. "But this one, all of the sudden, it just went from white to black, like a lunar eclipse."
It Ain't Easy
It may sound easy to catch a bass off a spawning bed — throwing a soft plastic lure into that white spot until a bass bites — but it's not easy. Shaw Grigsby of Gainesville, Fla., is known as one of the better sight-fishermen on the Elite Series tour. But he was able to catch a limit weighing only 9-4 Thursday while concentrating on bedding bass.
Scroggins mentioned spending three hours trying to entice a bite from a 6-pounder on a bed. It took the lure in its mouth 15 times, according to Scroggins, but he never set the hook.
"It just wouldn't take the bait right — just bite and spit it out," Scroggins said. "Those big fish, if you hook them, you pretty much mess them up if you don't get them in the boat."
Velvick, 43, has been sight-fishing since he was 16 years old, where he grew up angling on the clear waters of Nevada's Lake Mead.
"It's about boat position," he said. "It's where you are putting the boat in relation to the fish, how close you are getting to the fish, how much time you're spending on them and where you reposition the boat.
"It's a West Coast technique.
"It's really a cat-and-mouse game. They might not want to take a bait at one angle, so you reposition and come in at a different position."
As far as how close he'll get to a bed, Velvick said, "It depends on what the fish will allow. They'll allow you different distances."
If Velvick can't get a bedding bass to bite his lure, sometimes he'll troll his boat right over the bed, which would ordinarily be a no-no.
"I'll sweep them," Velvick said. "I'll go right over the top of them. When you go in, all the little baitfish will follow you in. The baitfish come in three to five minutes after the boat has gone by. It's aggressive fishing."
Bass begin aggressively protecting their nests when egg-eating smaller fish get near. So they may chomp down on a fishing lure, something they'd previously ignored.
"But, basically, sight-fishing is all about boat positioning. That's 90 percent of sight-fishing. The (lure) is not really that important."
The Lure Is Important, Too
Velvick says in one breath that the lure isn't important, then in the next, he talks about all the different soft plastic lures he'll toss into a spawning bed.
You need to be prepared to offer a wide variety. So, Velvick's point is correct in one aspect; it's usually not one particular lure that's important in a day of sight-fishing.
"It's a mess down there in my boat," he said Friday morning. "I just keep picking up stuff and trying it.
"I caught a fish (Thursday) on a bait I love, and I hadn't thrown it in three or four years. It's one of my favorite sight-fishing baits, but with all these new swimbaits and things with eyes on them, I haven't put that bait on lately.
"I hooked a fish on a swimbait, so obviously it was conditioned to that. Then I picked up that (old) bait, and I caught the male and the female, too, off that bed."
And just what was that old bait?
"I'd rather not say right now," Velvick said.
In the Bassmaster Classic last month on South Carolina's Lake Hartwell, sophisticated new electronics played a big role in Alton Jones' title-winning performance. Using traditional downward-facing sonar, and relatively new Humminbird Side View sonar, Jones was able to find the areas that were holding fish, at depths of 15 to 25 feet.
But you don't need that high-tech gear in Florida, according to Scroggins, who lives in Palatka, Fla., and has won the last two BASS events held at Camp Mack, the takeoff and weigh-in site of the Citrus Slam this week.
"You can pretty much turn your depth-finders off and fish everything you're going to fish," he said. "Some guys are scared to run up as far as you need to get. I was up in there (Thursday) where it looked like there was no water."
The Kissimmee Chain of lakes features mostly shallow water and an abundance of various species of aquatic vegetation. That vegetation — in the form of lily pads, Kissimmee grass and hydrilla — can be so thick in some areas it appears to be growing on dry land.
Scroggins said most of his bedding fish were caught in 2 feet of water.
Lane Sticking With Kissimmee?
Bobby Lane was one of the first anglers to weigh-in Thursday. He took the early lead with 18-10. And he caught his fish in Lake Kissimmee.
"I didn't want to get mixed up in that crowd (at Lake Toho)," said Lane, who finished fourth in the Bassmaster Classic and was third last week on Florida's Harris Chain of Lakes in the 2008 Elite Series season opener.
Before he'd seen most of the field weigh-in, Lane said, "If they start moving up (on spawning beds) at Toho, they are a lot easier to catch there. It's easier to see the fish.
"Hopefully, a big wave doesn't move up there. That would be the only reason I don't have a chance of keeping myself in the game here."
Lane may be having second thoughts about that strategy today. By the end of Thursday's weigh-in, Lane's 18-10 had dropped him into seventh place. And a lot of those bigger bags came from Toho, including the top three caught by Velvick, Scroggins and Kelly Jordon (22-14).
On The Move
Moving from Kissimmee to Toho was the reason Mike McClelland was able to keep himself in contention Thursday. McClelland, coming off a win at the Harris Chain, had a limit weighing only 6 1/2 or 7 pounds at noon.
"I caught one weighing about 5 or 6 pounds at Toho on the last day of practice," said McClelland, who is now the only pro with as many as three Elite Series titles in the two-plus seasons of the tour. "I made a move, and I'm really glad I did."
It took McClelland 35 minutes to boat from his spot in Kissimmee to a new place in Lake Toho.
"It was well worth it," he said. "I culled everything I had in the box."
McClelland, from Bella Vista, Ark., weighed 15 pounds Thursday, which leaving him in a tie for 17th place with Jared Lintner.
And it left him full of confidence. In winning last week, McClelland had daily limits weighing, in order, 15-13, 15-4, 13-1 and 15-0. That Sunday 15-pound bag enabled him to overcome a 9-14 lead that Brian Snowden had at the beginning of the day. Snowden zeroed on Sunday.
"I've caught 15 pounds four days now in Florida over the last two weeks," McClelland said.
If he stays that consistent, it should keep him in contention at the Citrus Slam. Just like last week, there were some 20-pound bags on the first day at the Kissimmee Chain. McClelland was in 11th place on Day One at the Harris Chain, so he's accomplished at moving up the leaderboard.
Chains The Same
Although many Elite Series pros thought fishing might be tougher this week on the Kissimmee Chain than it was last week at the Harris Chain, the Day One totals of those tournaments were amazingly similar.
Last Thursday on the Harris Chain, the totals were as follows: 515 bass caught, 92 limits, 1,103-7 pounds of total weight weighed by the 109 pros.
This Thursday on the Kissimmee Chain, the totals were: 490 bass caught, 84 limits, 1,040-5 pounds of total weight weighed by the 109 pros.
No one zeroed on Day One at either Harris or Kissimmee.