KISSIMMEE, Fla. — When a severe cold front ripped through central Florida last week, most of the anglers who were practicing for the CITGO Bassmaster Classic kept their fingers crossed and hoped for warmer weather to get the fickle Florida fish moving.
Mother Nature kept up her end of the bargain today during the last day of practice for the 36th annual Classic. The sun shined brightly, the temperatures climbed into the mid 80s and the water temperature on Lake Tohopekaliga was 10 degrees warmer than it was last week.
Not surprisingly, the 51 competing anglers were intrigued by the changes and returned to shore this afternoon with good reports and high hopes heading into the Classic, which begins Friday.
"I thought the fishing was easy and good, which I expected it to be with the weather like this," said former Classic champion Jay Yelas. "I didn't see a lot of giant ones on beds, but I did see fish on beds up to six pounds. So I'd say it's going to be pretty good fishing. Everyone should have limits."
Davy Hite, another Classic champion, agreed. He said bringing in a 25- to 30-pound stringer wouldn't be unheard of, but it is unlikely to happen for one angler over three consecutive days.
Encouraged by a good practice session today, Hite estimated it will take 55 pounds to win the tournament.
"It was a lot better than last week," Hite said. "I tend to be more pessimistic going into a tournament, more so than some of the other guys. But if I can execute and expand on what I saw today, I've definitely got a chance."
Reigning Classic champion Kevin VanDam didn't fare well in last week's practices, but that all changed today.
"I saw a lot of interesting stuff out there," VanDam said. "I'm very pleased."
Not everyone was so enthusiastic, however.
Aaron Martens, who has been the runner-up at three Classics, said fishing was better today, but he had worries about the spawn (or lack thereof) and angling pressure on the bass from locals, tourists and the pros.
He said the number of boats on the water seems to have the fish, mainly the large females, spooked.
"It was better, but I wouldn't say it was a lot better," Martens said. "But it was definitely different. A lot of fish are done spawning. I don't know how everybody's going to do."
Greg Hackney said he actually preferred the cooler weather the anglers encountered during last week's practices.
"I had a lot of bites today, but I don't really know the caliber," Hackney said. "I think a lot of them were probably small fish. They seem to be biting better, but I just don't know if they're the big fish like they were (last week.)"
Nevertheless, Hackney said he is confident heading into the Classic, a tournament where he said he hasn't performed up to his standards.
"I feel this one might be a little different," he said. "I'm really comfortable with the way I plan to fish."
Hackney said wind and cloudy conditions, which are possible later this week, will have a decided effect on the anglers' chances.
Terry Scroggins, who lives in nearby Palataka, Fla., echoed the sentiment.
"(The water temperature) is in the 70s, so now the fish are going to pull up in the shallows," Scroggins said. "It's definitely going to make them turn on. But it all depends on the weather. If it's nice, it may take over 20 pounds a day. If not, it could be 15 pounds a day."
Competition will begin Friday when the anglers launch from Lake Front Park and the Big Toho Marina at 6:30 a.m. The Classic show begins that day at 2:30 p.m. with weigh-ins to follow.