LEESBURG, Fla. — Ohio angler Whitney Stephens harnessed the upside of the week’s weather change to catch a massive limit of 32 pounds, 12 ounces and storm into the Day 1 lead at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes.
The fierce weather system that blew through Central Florida Thursday morning forced the cancellation of the tournament’s scheduled start and ushered in a cold snap that sent Harris Chain bass looking for warmer cover. Stephens took this as his cue to head offshore and target the heating blankets.
“It was totally offshore hydrilla for me; just offshore staging areas in 8 to 12,” he said. “They’re setting up to flood the banks.
“I tried to find the thickest patches of hydrilla I could find and just did circles around them. I think the cold night probably got them into the hydrilla a little more. I went flipping one day in practice and maybe had 12 pounds. With the cold weather, I just prepared to fish offshore.”
Noting that today’s catch was his biggest tournament limit, Stephens said he spent all day in one lake. He opted to keep his location confidential, but he said he caught his fish on a mix of reaction baits and slow-moving baits.
“It was a little slow in the morning for me, but from 10 o’clock on, it was good,” Stephens said. “I found two areas with multiple fish, but other than that it was one here, one there. My biggest one was 8-3 and that came around noon.
“I had a good practice and it all just worked out. I’m a little short for words; it was just an amazing day.”
Bryan Schmitt of Deale, Md., is in second place with 27-10. After dividing his time primarily between lakes Harris and Griffin — with a brief stop in Lake Eustis — Schmidt was guarded about which baits he used. But he said he had a particular scenario that produced his fish.
“There’s a certain deal I’m looking for,” Schmidt said. “I had three main areas, and I was able to return multiple times to each spot. It was an even deal. I got a good start and then I had some key culls. I think all of my fish were prespawn. They weren’t ganged up; they were spread out big time.”
David May of Odessa, Fla., is in third with 22-14. Fishing mostly reaction baits, May anchored his sack with a 7-15 kicker. His day comprised a combination of patterns, with flipping baits early and then reaction baits in the afternoon.
“Early on, I was going after the prespawners and stagers shallow,” May said. “I did that most of the day. Then as the day was winding down, I thought I’d do something different and go after post-spawners. That’s where the big one came — in the last 30 minutes of the day.”
Schmidt is in the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with his 8-4.
Steve Robbins of Piketon, Ohio, leads the co-angler division with 18-5. Robbins caught his fish by dragging a Texas-rigged worm through hydrilla in 8 to 14 feet. Approximately 30 minutes before check-in, he boosted his limit with an 8-3.
Tom Sutton of Bidwell, Ohio, holds the Phoenix Boats Big Bass lead among co-anglers with an 8-11.
Saturday’s takeoff is scheduled for 7 a.m. ET at Ski Beach Park. The weigh-in will be held at the park at 3 p.m.