LEESBURG, Fla. — Back in the day, the Harris Chain was a favorite stop for the pros and a hotbed for fans, igniting a mania the likes of which had never been seen when BASS visited the central Florida fisheries in the late 1980s and early 90s.
The first visit came in 1986 with the dawning of the Bassmaster "MegaBucks" format, envisioned by BASS as a made-for-TV event in which the drama of the competition played out on a watery, links-style course in Little Lake Harris. Fans could literally walk or drive from hole to hole, following the pros under the same context as a PGA golf event with its galleries of roving fans.
The format was a blockbuster hit, both with TV and fans. Missouri veteran pro Denny Brauer, currently competing in this week's Bassmaster Elite Series on the Harris Chain, recalls how the fan factor came into play. Back in 1986, Brauer finished 28th in the inaugural MegaBucks.
"It really opened our eyes to what potential we could have when holding a fan-friendly, TV-driven competition with a lot of money at stake," Brauer recalls of the $100,000 first-place check cashed by winner Roger Farmer. "It was sort of a distraction, but in a good way."
"There was this one hole that was divided by a highway bridge, and I remember coming in there and literally seeing people lined up on both sides of that bridge, from one end to the other," he continues. "We had never seen that before and it really created a lot of excitement."
"And it kept growing every year we returned, with more fans in boats and then on shore with fans making signs and banners," he adds. "I think it helped us build a strong fan base by coming back for the next several years.
With great hoopla, the Harris Chain Megabucks run went from 1986 through 1990, making the fledgling "The Bassmasters" TV a ratings hit.
"It was exciting back then and I think we really had something special going, but it's changed since then," Brauer says. "This used to be one of my favorite lakes, but now the vegetation factor has been eliminated and these lakes are on a down cycle."
Floridian Bernie Schultz, who fished the MegaBucks run, offers a more concise explanation.
"Everybody talks about the lack of shoreline vegetation, which is true and accurate. But the real issue is the lack of offshore vegetation," he says. "That takes out the replenishment factor. When the shallow fish are caught in a tournament, there aren't any fish out in deeper water to replenish what was caught. And that is because the offshore cover is not there to sustain the complete population of bass in the lakes."
Schultz predicts the lakes will rebound and meanwhile the fans are still around, due in part to the level of stage hype and presentation rolled out by BASS and the ESPN coverage.
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Sunshine Showdown on the Harris Chain of Lakes, from Leesburg, Fla., March 6-9, 2008. Daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 4 p.m. ET. "Hooked Up" will air Sunday at 10 a.m., noon and 3:30 p.m. ET. Daylight Savings Time starts Sunday, so remember to set your clocks.