LEESBURG, Fla. — There’s a reason Florida-strain largemouth are stocked in major fisheries from Texas to California — their massive growth potential. But on the downside, these green monsters are a bit soft when it comes to cold weather, a truth that may impact the course of events during the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open at Harris Chain of Lakes.
Competition days will be Thursday through Saturday, with daily takeoffs at 7 a.m. ET from Venetian Gardens and weigh-ins Thursday and Friday at Ski Beach Park at 3 p.m. Saturday’s weigh-in will take place at the Bass Pro Shops in Orlando at 4 p.m.
With more than 75,000 combined acres, the Harris Chain offers a diverse array of habitat from offshore grass, humps and holes to shallow hydrilla, cattails, docks, wood and bridges. Spawning areas are plentiful, but South Carolina pro Jason Williamson is not looking for a lot of bed-fishing opportunities. Reason being, a major cold front making its way through the Eastern United States could send Central Florida air temperatures to below freezing during its Sunday or Monday arrival.
“It’s going to be warm by tournament time, but it’s not going to be a warming trend leading up to the event; it’s actually going to be an event starting on the tail end of a cold front,” said Williamson, who is also a regular on the Bassmaster Elite Series. “My outlook is that there are going to be a lot of big fish caught — it’s Florida, it’s the Harris Chain — but I don’t know if it’s going to warm up quickly enough to bring sight fishing into play.”
The area is expected to quickly recover, with daytime highs reaching the upper 70s again by Wednesday. The key, however, will be how quickly water temperatures regain what the front steals.
If Florida bass don’t have at least upper 50s — preferably 60-plus — they won’t be spawning.
“I think it will be a prespawn tournament,” Williamson said. “I’m sure some of the fish have already spawned, but the guy who finds the prespawn females that are fattened up and ready to go is the guy that’s going to weigh in a 30-pound bag and that’s going to carry him all the way to the final day.
“A lot of guys are going to have (smaller bags), but in Florida, you gotta get a big bite. I love to sight fish there, but I just don’t think it’s going to warm up enough for a bunch of fish to make a major move.”
Ultimately, Williamson says he believes the event will be won offshore by focusing on deeper grass with bait schools present. Intentionally snagging and ripping crankbaits or bladed jigs through the vegetation usually triggers reaction bites from staging prespawn bass, while dragging a lizard or creature bait on a long-leader Carolina rig will also deliver.
“If the weather were to stay warm, I think it would allow all the guys to compete by fishing shallow,” he said. “But in my opinion, the cold front will give the locals a little bit of an advantage by knowing where the offshore shell beds and isolated clumps of hydrilla are.”
The Harris Chain’s sheer vastness can be overwhelming, but Elite Series angler Chad Pipkens of Michigan says he’ll approach his first visit with a strategy focused on time management. He’s fared well in past Elite Series events in Florida, so he’s bringing the same disciplined game plan to this tournament.
“Florida is all about finding an area,” Pipkens said. “Those fish move up and down so much throughout the day, it’s not a place where you run and gun. It’s a place where you need to find your area, mill around and change with the conditions.
“My plan is to see which areas can funnel fish in to spawn and then pay attention to the details in front of those areas — the offshore grass lines, points and humps. I don’t want to have to run from one lake to another to another, but I’d like to find an area or two with the right habitat.”
Pipkens expects a jerkbait and bladed jig to produce, but he’ll also keep a topwater bait handy in case the late-week warmup spurs a surface bite. Elsewhere, pitching a stickbait and swimming a worm will handle his shallower searches.
The local host for the event is Lake County, Fla.