LEESBURG, Fla. – Mid-December isn’t a time of year anglers routinely expect to catch big bass. But those folks aren’t fishing on the Harris Chain of Lakes.
More than a few of the 142 teams (284 anglers in all) competing in the Bassmaster Team Championship spent a few hours Wednesday proving that central Florida defies conventional wisdom when it comes to December bassin’. On what several anglers described as a “slow day,” 90 tandems brought limits to the stage at Venetian Gardens Marina, and though there wasn’t a steady stream of chunky, bucket-mouthed bass to hoist for photos, there certainly were more than a few fish that made everyone on hand take note.
The heavy bass on Day 1 came courtesy of Danny Lavoie and Sammy Bailey of the Alabama Bass Trail. The 8-7 giant they boated Wednesday anchored a three-bass bag that put them in 40th place with a 12-8 total.
Meanwhile, tournament leaders Keith Ellis and Roger Kendrick of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Bass Association caught a limit of five bass that weighed 22-2. Their heaviest fish weighed approximately 5 pounds and they fleshed out the day’s best bag with a quartet of 4-pounders.
There are a trio of teams within a pound of the leaders, however, so Ellis and Kendrick know they can’t ease up on Day 2 of the championship. The closest contenders on Day 1 included Rodney Chastain and Robby Hipps of South Carolina’s Palmetto Boat Center, who are in second place with 21-12; Mark Condron and Tony Simeri of the Alabama Bass Trail, third, 21-11; and Ryan Kelly and Joshua Schumaker of West Michigan Bass, fourth, 21-2.
Of course, with the Harris Chain seemingly primed to produce a heavyweight bass with any cast, any team has a chance of making a move up the leaderboard.
Chet Wagner, vice president of the Florida B.A.S.S. Nation Central Region, said the chain isn’t as productive right now as it was in late October when Cole Sands and Conner Dimauro of Bryan College caught 15 bass over three days that weighed a whopping 84-12 to run away with the Carhartt Bassmaster College Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops.
For the record, that’s an average haul of 28-3 per day, so it’s not a surprise that the fishing might be a bit “off” in comparison with only 11 days remaining until winter. But a warming trend is expected in Lake County as the week passes, so there’s a chance a really solid bite could be a stupendous bite by the weekend.
“The water temperature has been in the low 60s, high 50s (the past few weeks),” Wagner said. “But still, it’s been producing steady in the 18- to 25-pound range per tournament. I think we’ve had a good spawn the past few years, and it’s produced some big fish.”
Wagner said the invasive hydrilla that flourishes in the Harris Chain of Lakes is the secret to the success. When the aquatic plant is allowed to thrive, it provides solid cover for the bait fish that bass target. Then as the baitfish populations grow, the wily bass feed and get heavier. Anglers get smart too and pinpoint the best hydrilla beds, and the outstanding angling continues.
It’s not a surprise that many of the top teams were fishing hydrilla beds on Wednesday, and they’re likely to do so again on Thursday as they look to lock down spots in the Classic Fish-Off.
But some anglers are confident enough in the fishery as a whole that they’ll take their chances on completely different grass beds on Thursday.
Count Rick Fishback and Blake Felix of Missouri’s Joe Bass Team Trail in that number. They caught a 7-13 largemouth on Day 1 but said they’ll spend Thursday about 50 miles away from the location that produced the lunker.
“I caught it on a white crappie crank bait,” Fishback said. “We catch them all the time at home on that. This is the first time we’ve fished here, and it worked for us here. It was pretty amazing.”
Wagner agreed. “The fish here, if you have the right conditions, they’ll hit just about anything that you throw out there,” he said.
Day 2 of the Bassmaster Team Championship began Thursday with a 7 a.m. takeoff at Venetian Gardens Marina. Weigh-in is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the same location and will be shown live on Bassmaster.com.