Howes sweet it is!

Rich Howes wins a fish-off to capture the Southern Open #1.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Rich Howes, 39, of Oviedo, Fla., is the winner of the 2013 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in Florida, but it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen fast. It took Howes four days to defeat fellow Floridian Daniel Lanier Jr. The two ended tournament regulation (three days) in a tie with 47 pounds, 2 ounces apiece.

B.A.S.S. rules require anglers who are tied for first place on the pro side of a Bassmaster Open to have a fish-off, so Howes and Lanier met again today to decide the title. On the line was the title of champion, $10,000 in cash, a Skeeter bass boat, Yamaha outboard motor and valuable points toward an invitation to fish the Bassmaster Elite Series next year. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a berth in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic for any Open winner who fishes all three events in that division.

Howes and Lanier adopted very different strategies in the fish-off. Howes elected to lock through from the launch site on Lake Tohopekaliga and run to his most productive area on Lake Kissimmee. It would put him on more productive water, but the long run would consume a lot of time — time that was precious in the five-hour fish-off.

Lanier had been fishing Kissimmee, too, but decided to stay on Toho for the fish-off. He felt the extra fishing time would outweigh being on better water.

Both moves were gambles. Howes didn’t catch a single bass before 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, and the fish-off weigh-in was scheduled for noon. Lanier hadn’t fished Toho at all in practice or competition, so he wasn’t sure where he might find some bass.

“I thought if I could put together a small limit of 10 pounds or so, I could win the tournament,” Lanier said. He was right, too. Ten pounds would have been enough. Howes was only able to catch four keepers that weighed 9-10.

Catching that limit proved to be too tough, though. Lanier managed just four bites all day, missed three of them and came to the scales with a single largemouth that weighed 3-10.

Howes was nervous about his chances as weigh-in approached. He had gambled and made a long run on the chance it would result in a big catch. That didn’t work out, but what he saw as he rode in gave him hope.

“I thought I had a chance when I got near the launch area and realized that Danny had spent all day on Toho,” Howes said. “I know how tough the fishing has been there, and I thought my bag might be enough.”

It was.

Both anglers had key moments that could be singled out as when they won or lost the tournament. Lanier could point to Day 2 as when he lost the event. That’s when he abandoned his best area after an hour of slow fishing. On the previous day, the same spot had yielded the tournament’s largest catch — 27-11.

And if Howes needed to point to one key bass, it would have to be the 2 pounder he caught with two minutes to go on the third day.

“I pulled up to a grass mat within sight of check-in and started flipping and pitching a patch of hydrilla,” he explained. “I told my co-angler, ‘This is it, get your gear ready to head in.’ My bait was all chewed up and the hook was hanging out. There was no time to fix it. Luckily, the fish hit it.”

That 2 pounder made all the difference, putting Howes in a dead heat with Lanier and sending them to extra innings.

Flipping and pitching heavy vegetation played a role in the catches of most of the top anglers, especially Howes and Lanier. The champion used a Gambler BB Cricket or a Bitter's Bug (junebug in dark water and green pumpkin candy in clear water) behind a 1 1/2-ounce tungsten sinker for his bass. He fished them on 65-pound-test Power Pro braid and a 7-foot, 10-inch extra-heavy action Fitzgerald flipping rod.

Much of the field was doing the same thing, Howes acknowledged, but he was fishing shallower than most. “For the first three days, I was catching my fish in 2 1/2 to 3 feet of water,” he said, “and I was right up against the bank. Today (Sunday) I moved out and fished a little deeper — where everybody else had been fishing earlier.”

It was the right move at the right time in a tournament full of strategy.