By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

Dissecting the Harris Chain of Lakes in three days of practice is challenge enough. Miles upon miles of nearly identical shoreline cover in addition to the lengthy and fertile canals connecting the diverse assortment of 10 lakes could keep an angler busy for what seems like weeks on end.

When a persistent wind is added to the equation, along with the resulting impact such big blows tend to have water clarity, the task of identifying the highest-percentage areas on the system can seem daunting at best.

Rather than kick off its season in the Sunshine State as has been the norm, the FLW Tour waited until the second week of March to visit Florida and the 160-plus pros in the field have discovered that many of the bass throughout the chain are in their post-spawn phase. Some anticipate another late wave of spawners to come into view this week, but few expect this to turn into an all-out sight-fishing derby.

“When the water’s this warm (70 degrees), even if they do go up and do their thing, the fry hatches so quick,” said veteran pro David Dudley. “It’s like less than a 24-hour process. When they first move up, they could be there 3 to 5 days, but the later you get in the year, the quicker the eggs hatch. If you catch one on the bed, it’s because they found it that day.”

BassFans will recall that prior to the 2005 Bassmaster Tour stop at the Harris Chain, Dudley proclaimed at the pre-tournament meeting that he purposely stuck a bunch of bed-fish on the final day of practice as a way to counter his drawing out in a later flight. He never copped to whether he did it or not, but the seed was planted in the heads of many of his opponents. For the record, Dudley doesn’t anticipate making a similar declaration at this week’s angler meeting. In fact, he says he isn’t planning to do any sight-fishing.

The tournament comes on the heels of a soft cold front and a full moon later this week should draw in some additional spawners. Mild conditions are expected for much of the tournament with winds tailing off until Sunday.

While a few bed-fish will find their way to the scales this week, it’s highly unlikely they’ll carry someone through the weekend. The canals – and the still-water ponds where some canals terminate – will no doubt attract a crowd tomorrow, but it’s expected a majority of the field will focus more on post-spawn fish. Don’t forget that during the 2011 Harris Chain Elite Series, winner Shaw Grigsby and runner-up Grant Goldbeck fished literally side by side for the final three days.

It will be, as some put it, typical Florida fishing, where the odd big fish (5 pounds or bigger) will be joined by a squadron of 2- to 3-pounders to make up a stringer.

That means much of the field will be “just fishing” and trying to pry fish from the scattered pads or offshore hydrilla and eelgrass while mixing in some looking. Several FLW Tour pros competed in the Harris Chain Bassmaster Southern Open in January and it surprised some this week to find that water temperatures have not fluctuated all that much in the intervening weeks.

Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the Harris Chain.

BassFan Lake Profile

> Lake Name: Harris Chain (10 lakes – Big Lake Harris, Lake Apopka, Lake Griffin, Lake Eustis, Lake Dora, Lake Carlton, Horseshoe Lake, Little Lake Harris, Lake Denham and Lake Bueclair and the canals within this chain)
> Type of Water: Relatively shallow chain (5-7 feet, some holes that are much deeper)
> Surface Acres: Unavailable
> Primary structure/cover: Lily pads, eelgrass, Kissimmee grass, hydrilla, stumps, docks, dropoffs
> Average depth: 6 feet
> Species: Largemouths only
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: A decent fishery, but it gets a lot of pressure and is very sensitive to cold fronts
> Weather: Winds were the highlight (or lowlight) of practice, but conditions will stabilize for the first half of competition. Overnight lows will be in the low 60s and daytime highs will push into the 80s. Wind won’t be a major factor until Sunday.
> Water temp: 65 to 70 degrees
> Water visibility/color: Varies throughout the chain. Some canals are stained and some are quite clear.
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn, but some spawners are still lingering
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing (day 1 and maybe day 2), flipping, worms, Carolina-rigs, topwater, shallow cranking
> Winning weight: 68 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 32 pounds
> Check weight (Top 54 after 2 days): 25 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Harris
> Biggest factors: Areas that were blown out in practice could be where the tournament is won.
> Biggest decision: When to abandon a spot/lake/area.
> Wildcard: An overlooked bedding area with 2 days’ worth of fish.

With the help of the the Navionics Web App, here's a close look at the Harris Chain of Lakes:

Don’t Sleep On Beds

Despite the calendar being open to the March page and with the official start of spring less than two weeks away, there are still bass in Florida preparing to spawn or in the midst of the process. Certainly, there have been multiple waves go through the process prior to this week, but a full moon is coming toward the end of the week and that will naturally draw more fish up, whether it’s in the canals or around other shallow cover.

“There’s going to be a lot of spawning going on, but guys won’t necessarily be looking at them,” said Elite Series pro Bobby Lane, a native of Lakeland who has a pair of 3rd-place finishes in B.A.S.S. events at the Harris Chain. “With the full moon and the weather being right, I can see some new beds replenishing. Somebody will stumble on something they didn’t know about on day 1.

“You’ll see some of the better stringers on day 1, but then guys will have to back it up the other days.”

Lane noted that since it’s later in the year and there’s no distinct cold front in the forecast, the consistent air temperatures (60s overnight) may prompt the spawning fish to stay around the beds longer.

Photo: FLW

John Cox needs a strong finish this week to keep climbing the points standings after a rough start to the season.

“I like the guys’ chances who have a few on beds because those fish will hang around on a full moon,” he said. “Plus, you’ll have maybe a new one or two moving in.”

Mix and Match

While Lane is bullish on spawners this week, he knows that will not be how the tournament is ultimately won. He favors those who have built faith in multiple techniques, possibly in multiple lakes. He stopped short of calling it a junk-fishing pattern, but stressed the importance of having numerous back-up plans.

“The guy who wins will have to mix it up between a ChatterBait, flipping and catching big fry guarders along with some sight-fishing,” he predicted.

He also doesn’t envision a scenario where someone can camp on one stretch (or one lake, for that matter) for the duration of the event.

“Maybe in a canal off the beaten path, but that will only hold for a day or two,” he said. “You need a backup plan on day 3 or 4. That could be flipping or a ChatterBait. It won’t be won in one lake or off one spot because it’s so late in the year.”

Despite a triple-digit finish at the Southern Open back in January, Lane was impressed with the quality of fish around the chain and he expects that to carry over this week.

“The weights should be up over normal simply because the 1 1/2-pounders have turned into 2 1/2- to 2 3/4-pounders,” he said. “The reason is every lake there has grass in it now and it’s really helped those fish get nice and fat and healthy.”

Notes from the Field

Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.

Jason Lambert
“The fishing is actually pretty easy, but the big ones are hard to come by. I think you’ll see a lot of 8- to 10-pound limits. It’s typical Florida fishing – whomever catches a big one or two is going to make a big difference.

“I think it’s all the way around, but mostly post-spawn. There will be some pre-spawn and spawn, too, which is typical for Florida bass. They spawn from December to May. It won’t be an issue to catch fish. You can almost catch them on command. I’ve only caught one that I’d call a big one, but I feel pretty decent about what I’ve found. It’s not great, but I’m not dreading it either.

Photo: FLW

Scott Canterbury has been on a roll lately and posted a top-10 finish at the Harris Chain Southern Open in January.

“With the clarity, the only problem is when the wind is out of the east at 20 miles per hour, it changed the color in some pretty important areas. The water here isn’t as clear as it is in other parts of the state.”

David Dudley
“I think it’s going to be a post-spawn tournament. Bass spawn all the time down here. Will there be bass caught off the bed? Absolutely. Is the major push of spawners trickled out over the last week? Yes. I don’t think the canals that are normally big players when the massive waves move in will be a massive player.

“Most of the fish we’ve caught have been pretty skinny so it’s pretty obvious we’re past the major push of spawners. I haven’t even looked because if I started looking on Sunday, that’s five days before I have a chance to get back there and catch that fish.

“There are a few areas I can get bit in, but it’s Florida. You set the hook, set the hook, then connect with a couple big ones and you look like a king. In Florida, you try to get in areas where you can get bit a lot. I just hope to connect with some big ones. Right now, each lake has its own identity with respect to water clarity. You can find whatever color you want. Typically, I like to stick to the cleaner areas.”

Shawn Murphy
“It’s been brutal. Everything looks the same and fishes the same. It’s been so windy you can’t get out and try the offshore hydrilla. You can fish miles and miles of shoreline grass and catch plenty of fish, but catching the right ones is the trick. There are plenty of 2-pounders here.

“I never do well in Florida. I just want to come here trying not to bomb and come out with a decent finish. Anything in the top 50 and I’ll be tickled. It’s just so random here. It’s the same as Okeechobee. You can catch 50 fish a day, but whomever gets that lucky big bite will make the difference. The difference between a 10- or 12-pound limit here is huge.

“Overall, it’s been tough. I can catch several fish, but the big ones come when you least expect it. It all looks the same no matter what you’re looking at. I’m looking forward to exploring some of the deeper hydrilla and eelgrass.”

Bryan Schmitt
“I’ve been to Toho and Okeechobee and to me it’s different than both. There’s plenty of cover and grass. To me, it’s always just a specific deal they relate to. I’ve gotten decent bites in too many different types of cover and not enough quality bites off the same thing. I’m still trying to figure it out.

“I’m definitely going to fish for them. I won’t be sight-fishing. It’s going to be a merry-go-round in each canal. I don’t want to be that guy who finds the 8-pounder and knows you might not get to go to it right away.

Photo: FLW

David Dudley doesn't intend on doing much sight-fishing this week.

“I’m doing what I like to do in grass. There are definitely fish to be caught and definitely some post-spawn fish. Talking to a few guys I know who’ve put a lot of time up there, they’re finding empty beds or a few bucks. Just fishing, I’ve seen beds and they’re all empty. My theory is if I can just fish and be in my comfort zone in the grass, I’ll be good.”

Shane Lehew
“It’s been a little rough. It’s been miserably windy. Most of the lakes you can only fish half of them because anytime the wind blows in Florida, it muddies up one half of the lake. This place is different than any other Florida lake I’ve been to. It’s mostly Kissimmee grass. It just all looks the same. There are some reeds and offshore hydrilla and eelgrass.

“I think most of them are post-spawn. I’ve seen a lot of empty beds and the water temps are the same as the Open. We’re coming up on a full moon so there could be another small wave coming in.

“It seems like you can catch 1 1/2- to 2-pounders and some guy will catch a 7. There are a lot of big fish here, but it’s hard to get more than one of those. For me, it’s been hard to get more than seven or eight bites a day. I think it’s going to be typical Florida with a lot of guys fishing the same areas. There are enough places to get away to, but I see two of the lakes being very popular.”

Top 10 To Watch

With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:

1. Bryan Thrift – Counting the Lake Seminole FLW Series last week, he’s posted three straight 2nd-place finishes in the last month. What would be more impressive – a third straight Mark Rose victory or a fourth straight runner-up showing by Thrift? He thrives on a run-and-gun style and the Harris Chain should offer plenty of opportunity to implement that game plan.

2. John Cox – Back in his neck of the woods, the reigning Cup champion needs a dose of home cooking after two un-Cox like finishes to start the year. He finished 10th in the Open in January so he knows how things progress on this system.

3. Scott Martin – Another Florida resident who’s no stranger to springtime derbies around home. He bounced back from a bomb at Guntersville with a top-30 at Lake Travis and could get back on the momentum train with another good outing this week.

4. Scott Canterbury – He’s on one heck of a roll with eight straight top-50 finishes, including five top-20s, in FLW Tour competition since the start of 2016. He finished 7th in the Harris Chain Southern Open in January and is at his best with a big rod in his hand.

5. Wesley Strader – He’s two weeks away from competing in his second career Bassmaster Classic so here’s his chance to build some momentum going into Lake Conroe. He’s won in Florida in the spring before and nearly won the FLW Tour stop at Lake Toho a year ago.

6. Brandon McMillan – While it’s not Okeechobee, where he’d be the odds-on favorite, you have to consider McMillan a threat in any spring-time Florida derby. He’s coming off a dud at Lake Travis so expect him to come out swinging close to home.

7. Tim Frederick – He’s a Leesburg resident so this is a true home-cooking event for the second-year pro. He’s yet to cash a check in eight events, but this one gives him his best chance at success.

8. Mark Rose – It’s hard to bet against momentum and Rose has as much as anyone right now. This will be his first event as the top-ranked angler in the world, but it’s unlikely he’ll be fazed by his accolades. He’ll be looking to extend his streak of top-25 finishes in full-field events to six straight.

9. Shinichi Fukae – Has proven to be adept at figuring out the sometimes finicky Florida venues over the years with a win at Okeechobee at a top-5 at Lake Toho. He also had a good showing at the Harris Chain Southern Open (20th) this year. Has two top-5s in the last three full-field FLW Tour derbies.

10. JT Kenney – He’s won at Lake Okeechobee. He’s won at the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. He’d love to add the Harris Chain to that list. He got the last paycheck at Guntersville and missed the money by 8 ounces at Travis.

Launch/Weigh-In Info

> Anglers will blast off at 7 a.m. EST all four days from Venetian Gardens (201 East Dixie Ave., Leesburg, Fla.). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will begin at 3 p.m. at Venetian Gardens (same address) and will get started at 4 p.m. on days 3 and 4, also at Venetian Gardens.

Weather Forecast

> Thurs., March 9 – Partly Cloudy – 86°/60°
- Wind: From the NNW at 3 to 8 mph

> Fri., March 10 – Partly Cloudy – 85°/60°
- Wind: From the WNW at 5 to 10 mph

> Sat., March 11 – Clear – 83°/63°
- Wind: From the ENE at 5 to 10 mph

> Sun., March 12 – Partly Cloudy – 82°/62°
- Wind: From the SW at 10 to 20 mph