Open: Harris Chain practice update with Thompkins

The Opens EQ (Elite Qualifier) Pros who will have competed in all nine Opens will also wrap up their season, as they jockey till the end for one of nine 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series berths.

Here it is, the grand finale of the 2023 St. Croix Bassmaster Open Series. The competition will start Thursday on the Harris Chain of Lakes for the third and final event of Division 1 of the Opens. One more champion will be crowned and one more 2024 Bassmaster Classic berth will be awarded (provided the winner this week fished the previous two Opens in Div 1).

The Opens EQ (Elite Qualifier) Pros who will have competed in all nine Opens will also wrap up their season, as they jockey till the end for one of nine 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series berths. JT Thompkins leads this group going into the last event, so we checked in with him midway though official practice to see how the lake is shaping up.

“It’s pretty bad,” said Thompkins right off the cuff. “I have schools found, like pretty big schools. But I know a lot of people are going to find them, so it’s going to come down to getting on them and getting them to bite.”

In spite of having found fish, the Opens EQ AOY leader still thinks it will be tough on him, and the rest of the field. Fall fishing in Florida can be tough in general. But the main concentrations of fish are offshore, and that’s what’s really making it a challenge.

“There’s so many boats here. I’ve never been to a place more that, you’ll find a brushpile and you’ll go to fish it and a couple people will see you and they’ll just mark you and idle right over. And not just me, everyone I’ve talked to has talked about how they’ve never seen anything that bad, about people driving out to you in the middle of nowhere.”

Hearing about an example from Thompkins’s practice (and having watched it happen with my own eyes while filming an on the water interview with Tyler Williams), it’s apparent that the “hole jumping” is worse than usual out on the Harris Chain.

This will make fishing offshore a particularly brutal and frustrating endeavor this week, but the brush and the shellbeds are where the better concentrations of fish, are according to multiple competitors. Reason being, there’s not a lot of vegetation this time of year, as compared to the spring when most anglers like Thompkins have gathered past experience here. 

“Right now a lot of the structure that I’m used to fishing and used to practicing on and getting a lot of experience with is no longer there. So it’s been a big adjustment for me to figure all this stuff out, but I’m working on it.”

“There’s definitely brush out there. But when I hear people say ‘there’s a lot of brush’, I think of Hartwell or Eufaula, Alabama, where every point you scan over has got brush. But out here, you can scan an entire day and not find a lot of brush.”

Brush is only part of the offshore equation though— shellbeds will be key here too. Perhaps even more so than the brush, or at least that’s what Thompkins is thinking.

“I’ve found shellbeds anywhere from 3 feet to 14 and 1/2. Usually the sweet spots are really small. I haven’t found a shellbed that the fish are congregated in more than 20 feet of it.”

Fishing these schools is how the South Carolina native intends to start his event, unless something changes in these waning hours of practice. It’s the best way he can find to get a big bite, and hopefully multiples of those.

“We’re in Florida. There are big bass and there are big bass to be caught. I think we’re going to see a 25-plus-pound bag. With there being less grass, somebody is going to find a mega school. I think there could be a 30-pound bag caught. But I just don’t see it happening two days in a row, like it would in the spring.”

Thompkins intends to do his best to get on one of the better holes he’s found early. But he understands that doing so will most likely burn that spot for the remainder of the event. He believes that is just going to be how whoever wins this event will have to approach it.

“They’re going to get on a mega school one day. Then the next day there are going to be 40 boats in front of them and a couple of boats are going to know where it’s at, and it’s not going to work out for them.”

This is why Thompkins thinks consistency will be so difficult this week. Though he believes a couple big bags will be caught, and it will likely take 45 pounds to lead after two days, he’s expecting a substantial drop-off and an angler to fish his way into Day 3 with around 31 pounds. Even 12 to 13 pounds will be solid and likely worthy of a check.

“I see probably 15 and 1/2 a day getting into the Top 10. Florida is hard to gauge on winning weights. If I had to be a betting man, I’d say 22 a day will win. If not, a little less. There is a chance at a little more if someone can find an isolated school that no one else has found, and pull up and wreck them every single day right quick.”

We’ll see soon enough. Day 1 starts on Thursday, with the full field competing on Friday and the Top 10 heading out onto the Harris Chain Saturday. There will be Bassmaster LIVE coverage on Saturday, and all the marbles will be handed out afterwards. Congrats to JT Thompkins and the rest of the EQ anglers on an impressive season. Looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out.