LEESBURG, Fla. — March in Central Florida typically sees plenty of big bass occupying the shallow spawning zone. But, while this seasonal element will likely play a significant role in the Basspro.com Bassmaster Southern Open on the Harris Chain of Lakes, Keith Carson is betting on the offshore game.
Competition days will be March 4-6 with daily takeoffs from Venetian Gardens (Ski Beach) at 6:45 a.m. ET. Weigh-ins on Days 1 and 2 will take place at Venetian Gardens at 2:45 p.m., and the final-day weigh-in will be held at Bass Pro Shops in Orlando at 4 p.m.
Located northwest of Orlando and totaling approximately 75,000 acres, the Harris Chain comprises eight primary lakes: Apopka, Harris, Griffin, Eustis, Dora, Beauclair, Carlton and Yale. Linked by canals, these lakes sport a diverse array of classic Florida vegetation with plenty of docks and seawalls.
Hailing from DeBary, Fla. — about an hour east of Leesburg — Carson earned his first Opens win at last year’s Eastern Open on Alabama’s Lay Lake. Notably, it was grassy habitat that delivered that December win. While the timing and venue will differ significantly, Carson is no less confident in the vegetation game.
“Harris is probably the best fishery in the nation right now,” he said. “You look at any tournament results in the last two years and it’s on fire.”
Case in point: late October saw Bryan College anglers Cole Sands and Conner Dimauro win the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops at the Harris Chain with a three-day total of 84 pounds, 12 ounces.
“It’s going to take some high weights to win,” Carson said. “I went out there recently and caught a 10-pounder and one that was almost 10. It’s pretty darn good right now. For catching numbers and (quality), it’s some of the best fishing I’ve seen in a long time.”
Carson attributes the Harris Chain’s tremendous productivity to “an explosion of offshore grass.” It’s mainly hydrilla, and the dense, green subsurface jungles offer bass the perfect blend of cover and feeding opportunities.
“Any time you have an abundance of grass, the fish get large, they eat a lot and it’s great for fishing,” he said. “It holds the forage — you have bream and crappie out there.
“A friend who works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told me that they find more crappie in (the stomachs of sampled bass) than anything. That tells me that those fish are offshore. They’re out there eating crappie in the grass, in the brushpiles.”
Notwithstanding the likelihood of shallow fish in all three stages of the spawn — prespawn, bedding and postspawn — Carson is convinced the winning bags will be caught in the chain’s deeper areas. Electronics, he said, will help anglers find sweet spots like points, shellbars, humps and shelves where the grass tops off and then drops to form a vertical wall.
“I see offshore winning,” he said. “Even in the dead middle of the spawn, when you’d think that would be a factor, it’s not (the dominant pattern). There are just too many fish and too much quality offshore.
“Maybe if you’re a sight fisherman, like myself, you can have a good day and catch a 25-pound bag, but there’s no way I can maintain that for three days. The offshore bite will hold up more consistently.”
Carson said the tournament will see a variety of offshore baits, including jigs, jerkbaits, swimbaits, swim jigs and crankbaits like the Berkley Frittside 5 he used on Lay. He said the entirety of the tournament waters should be in play.
Ultimately, he believes a mobile strategy will prove most productive.
“I think if a guy is good enough and he can have multiple offshore spots in multiple lakes, that will be the winning combination,” Carson said. “But as good as the grass is, I wouldn’t be surprised if a guy gets on one stretch that keeps reloading.”
Carson estimates that 23 pounds a day will be competitive. He’s looking for a three-day winning total of about 71 pounds.
Noting that one bite on this Florida powerhouse can dramatically change an angler’s fortune, Carson made a bold prediction: “I think we might see the big bass of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an 11- or 12-pounder weighed in.”
Fans can find real-time BassTrakk scoring updates and stream live coverage of the weigh-ins at Bassmaster.com. To help ensure the safety of all involved, those who wish to attend the tournament in person are encouraged to wear face coverings, maintain proper social distance and avoid congregating in large groups.