LEESBURG, Fla. — Following their stellar start, Blake Bullock and John Mark Berry of Blue Mountain Christian University in Mississippi backed up their Day 1 lead with a solid final-round effort to win the Strike King Bassmaster College Series at Harris Chain of Lakes presented by Bass Pro Shops with a two-day total of 46 pounds, 11 ounces.
Bullock and Berry buoyed their effort on Day 1 by posting the event’s biggest bag, 29 pounds. Adding 17-11 earned each angler a top prize of $2,599.50. The Top 25 teams qualified for the Strike King Bassmaster College Series National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops. Dates and location are still to be determined.
“College fishing is the toughest competition I’ve faced; there’s a lot of great anglers out there,” Berry said. “We’ve had a blessed week. I just want to thank God for the week we’ve had. It means everything to win these trophies.
“We worked hard. We grinded to the last second. Nobody lost as much sleep as we did. But now we have some weight off our shoulders after qualifying for the National Championship.”
On Day 1, Bullock and Berry led Logan Barrett and Luke Glasgow of Mississippi State University by a margin of 1-7. At the final tally, the winners edged Barrett and Glasgow by 1-1.
Bullock and Berry did all of their work in Lake Dora, specifically on a single spot 30 yards wide. As Bullock explained, the mix of coontail grass and shell bottom in 8 to 10 feet, along with proximity to a spawning bay, created the ideal prespawn staging area.
“It was really green, lush grass and it was thicker in some sections but thinner in others,” Bullock said. “The shad were all in the grass and the fish were there feeding.
“The fish were using the sparse grass to ambush shad. The shad were coming over the thicker grass and going down into the sparse grass, and that’s where the bass were eating them.”
Bullock said the coontail proved particularly beneficial, as its soft, forgiving composition facilitated their primary strategy of slowly working reaction baits through the vegetation.
Bullock and Berry caught most of their bass on a golden shiner-colored Z-Man ChatterBait JackHammer with a Strike King Blade Minnow trailer.
“We threw a 1/2-ounce some, but the 3/8-ounce ChatterBait was the best size for slow rolling through the grass,” Berry said.
The anglers also threw a Texas-rigged junebug red Zoom Speed Worm during midday lulls. On both days the soft-plastic bait yielded keeper bites, but Berry said they only weighed one Day 2 fish on the bait.
“Every day, we had to grind through that lull and wait for the afternoon bite to pick back up,” Berry said.
The final round saw a stingy afternoon, but Day 1 saw Bullock and Berry catch a 7-pounder and a 6 on their final two casts.
Weather for the win
A cold front arriving just before the tournament left anglers fishing the dreaded bluebird post-frontal conditions. Fortunately, warm weather preceding the event had pushed a wave of fish toward the shallows.
Bullock believes the timing worked to his team’s advantage.
“I really think the cold weather helped us by keeping those prespawn fish in the grass, instead of going up to spawn,” he said. “They were close to spawning; they were all super fat. It was a magical spot, it really was.”
Barrett and Glasgow finished second with 45-10. They added 18-1 to their opening-round limit of 27-9. While their Day 1 limit included a 9-9 and one nearly 7, their largest Day 2 fish was a 5-pounder.
After throwing a mix of reaction baits and flipping on Day 1, Barrett and Glasgow stuck with 1/2-ounce chrome/blue Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap and a 3/8-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait JackHammer with a Yamamoto Zako trailer.
“I think the cold front really messed up that shallow bite,” Glasgow said. “I think the people who were bed fishing had a hard time getting the shallow bite going. We caught a couple off beds yesterday, but today, I knew we didn’t need to go to them, so we went (directly) to the offshore deal.”
Carson Kamien and Tyson Verkaik of the University of Florida finished third with 44-4. One of the most numerically consistent teams, the Gators anglers placed fifth on Day 1 with 22-12 and rose two spots in the final round by adding a limit of 21-8.
Verkaik said he and Kamien fished the same spot both days and caught their fish by flipping shallow vegetation with a Texas-rigged Gambler Fat Ace.
“We were just covering water and making as many flips as possible,” Verkaik said. “It was mostly beds in this area, but there were probably some prespawn and postspawn fish because this weather really threw them for a loop.”
Verkaik said he and Kamien adjusted to the weather by targeting thicker vegetation where bass were likely to seek shelter from the bright sun.
“I’m happy with our consistency,” Kamien said. “Whenever you can put up two big bags in Florida, you’re doing something right.”
Big bass bonanza
While the Harris Chain couldn’t break the 30-pound mark for a single day weight, the tournament saw four teams weigh in double-digit bass.
Anderson Jones and Max Muzones of Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., won the $200 big bass award for their 11-5, while Colton Hill and Tomas Matual of McKendree University caught an 11-4. Montevallo’s Dalton Head and Peyton Harris had a 10-8 and Garrett Warren and Jake Peck of Auburn University added a 10-7.
On Sunday, teams competing in the Strike King Bassmaster High School Series presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors and Bassmaster Junior Series tournaments will launch from Venetian Gardens (Ski Beach) at 7 a.m. ET. The Junior Series weigh-in starts at 2 p.m. with high school teams beginning their weigh-in at 3 p.m. Full coverage will be available on Bassmaster.com.
The tournament is being hosted by Visit Lake, the City of Leesburg and the Greater Orlando Sports Commission.