ORLANDO, Fla. — He started slowly, but in the frigid weather that marked the first Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open of the year on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, Van Soles was like a snowball. He gathered speed and eventually rolled over his competition.
For each of the final two days Soles posted the heaviest catch in the field. After being mired in 30th place on the first day, he posted catches of 19 pounds, 4 ounces on Day Two and 21-9 on Day Three. His three-day tally totaled 50-15, giving him the win in his first B.A.S.S. professional event.
"I fished the southwest side of Lake Kissimmee all three days, focusing on matted vegetation that had floated up against buggy whips, cattails and Kissimmee grass," Soles said. "The bass were really lethargic and the bite was slower on the last day than on Day Two."
Soles pitched and punched the matted vegetation with a Gambler BB Cricket (Emerald Blue, Black and Blue Flake and Bowen Silver Shadow) fished on a 3/0 Cobra Flipping Hook behind a 1 1/2-ounce Elite tungsten sinker pegged to the line by a Jethro Baits bobber stop. His line was 65-pound-test Power Pro braid spooled on a Lew's Speed Spool casting reel (7.1:1) and mounted on a 7-foot, 11-inch Halo XXX flipping rod (the same rod Jesse Tacoronte used to finish second in the Bassmaster Wild Card presented by Star brite back in December; Soles borrowed it from Tacoronte).
"On the last day, I caught all my fish before 10:00 a.m.," Soles said. "I really had to slow down to catch them. I didn't get a lot of bites and had to work the bait a lot – hopping it up and down 10 or 12 times in a spot before the fish would hit."
True to expectations, Sunshine State anglers dominated this week on the Kissimmee Chain, but it wasn't the Floridians that most would have guessed. Terry Scroggins was 17th, Cliff Prince was 114th, Shaw Grigsby finished 132nd, and the only Lane who qualified for the finals was Russ ... from Alabama and not part of the famed Lakeland-area bass fishing family. Of the "other" Lanes — all pre-tournament favorites — Chris was 42nd, Bobby 46th and Arnie 63rd.
Even the top anglers from last year's Open on the same fishery struggled. Winner Rich Howes battled vertigo for two days and ended up a disappointing 177th. Second place finisher Danny Lanier was only a little better at 137th.
Russ Lane was also the only one of 24 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers in the tournament who made it to the finals, though several others came close. Lane finished 8th.
Both of the top two anglers after the first day missed the cut to qualify for the finals.. First round leader Todd Auten caught 22-10 on Day One, but failed to boat a keeper on Day Two, slipping to 28th place. Elite pro Kotaro Kiriyama had 19-2 in the opener, but just 4-6 in the second round to finish 24th with 23-8.
In all, nine of the 12 finalists called Florida home, and it was Soles of Haines City who ultimately took home the trophy, the big check and (potentially) a spot in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina. He'll need to fish the other two Southern Opens (on Alabama's Smith Lake and North Carolina's Lake Norman) to wrap up the berth.
Among the co-anglers, Bryan Jones of Zephyrhills, Fla., had the best of it, leading his division from wire to wire. Jones posted a limit catch of three bass weighing 16-8 on Day One and never looked back. Though his catches diminished each day, he finished with a three-day total of 27-14. It was enough to win by more than a pound. Mike Spears of Jasper, Ala., was second with 26-7.
Jones punched matted vegetation for the first two days to catch his limits, including a 9-pound, 3-ounce lunker on the first day that led all co-anglers for the entire event. On Day Three, he caught a small limit using a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper.
Making big catches from the back of the boat can be a challenge, but Jones had a plan. "I try to pay close attention to where my pro is fishing so I don't cast to the same spots," he said, "and I try to throw a different type of lure, but one I can fish at a similar pace to what the pro is doing."
The Carhartt Big Bass award of $500 for the largest bass of the event went to Soles, who caught a 10-7 on Day Two that propelled him into the finals. Soles also caught the biggest bass on Day Three – an 8-14.
The Livingston Lures Leader award of $250 was presented to the pro angler in the lead on Day 2 — Jeff Cloud of Lubbock, Texas. The Day Two leader on the co-angler side, Bryan Jones of Zephyrhills, Fla., received a Livingston Lures gift pack valued at $250.
The “Allstate Good Hands, Great Day” award goes to the angler who advances the most places up the leaderboard from Day One to Day Two. On the professional side, Michael Reid of Perry, Ga., earned $250 by jumping 123 places from 166th to 43rd. On the co-angler side, Mike Spears of Jasper, Ala., picked up $150 by going from 138th (tied for last) to seventh.
The Power-Pole Captains Cash award of $500 went to Soles as the highest-finishing angler with a Power-Pole approved product on his boat.
Toyota Bonus Bucks pays $1,500 to the highest placing eligible pro angler entrant and $1,000 to the second highest placing pro. On the co-angler side, the top eligible entrant receives $300, and the second highest placing eligible co-angler gets $150.