By Todd Ceisner
Some anglers at last week’s Harris Chain FLW Tour came into the event with the thought that they’d ride a sight-fishing bite as long as they could and supplement their catches with other patterns as the tournament wore on. The conditions lined up for such a strategy to have merit with clear skies and a full moon set for Saturday night.
Bradley Dortch was not among them.
“I did zero sight-fishing,” said after he caught 20-plus pound stringers on days 2 and 4 en route to his first career FLW Tour victory.
Instead, he settled on a couple places in Lake Harris and Little Lake Harris where he encountered some hefty post-spawn bass. The trick, he found, was keeping them hooked on the way back to the boat. During the first three days of competition, he lost several fish he’s certain were 5-plus pounds and for him to still be in contention (5th place, 3 1/2 pounds behind) entering the final day was a small victory in itself.
While he ultimately graded himself an A-plus for decision making, he gave himself a D for execution.
“Looking back at what I lost or broke off, to win knowing what I lost, I don’t understand how I did it,” said Dortch, who’d only competed in one four-day tournament prior to last week. “It wasn’t just one day, it was every day.”
Despite the misfortunes, he kept his head down and kept slinging a lipless crankbait around an isolated patch of hydrilla in Harris Lake and flipping a soft stickbait around pads in both Harris and Little Harris. By Sunday afternoon, he’d averaged more than 18 pounds per day to shuffle out of the Sunshine State with a six-figure payday.
Dortch used to live in Florida, where he sold real estate, a job that allowed him ample time to fish and learn the ins and outs of how Florida-strain bass behave.
“Living down here and fishing Florida was key,” he said. “Knowing what good hydrilla looks like and finding the holes, things like that.”
Here’s how he did it.
While Dortch is a rookie on the Tour this season, he’s no stranger to the pro fishing ranks. He competed as a co-angler for several years in the Southern Opens and practiced with the likes of Matt Herren and Tom Hamlin Jr. He credits his recent success from the front of the boat – he also won the Wheeler Lake Southeastern FLW Series last year – to his time in the back of the boat.
“I know it’s a pain, but there’s no way I would’ve learned what I know now if I hadn’t stayed in the boat for so long,” he said.
When he arrived in Leesburg last week, he checked out every lake in the chain and that included some areas where sight-fishing could be a player, such as the Apopka Canal. He had a decent day in Lake Carlton and tried to develop a plan for Lake Dora because he didn’t feel it’d get as much fishing pressure as other lakes.
He also visited Lake Griffin and uncovered some fish relating to scattered hydrilla clumps mixed in with eelgrass. During his time in Lake Harris, he figured 14 to 15 pounds was possible there and would be a back-up plan if he got in a pinch and needed to catch enough to earn a paycheck.
Mostly, he discovered that reaction baits got plenty of attention in practice in addition to Florida staples like flipping pads with a soft stickbait.
“I looked at it like a post-spawn deal,” he said. “A lot of fish that were out that looked good and were getting fat again.”
> Day 1: 5, 15-04
> Day 2: 5, 21-02
> Day 3: 5, 15-01
> Day 4: 5, 22-02
> Total = 20, 73-09
Dorth had initially planned to kick off the tournament with a run to Lake Griffin. Those plans changed when he drew boat No. 121.
After a windy and cloudy practice session, sunny, calm conditions greeted the field Thursday and Dortch opted to stay in Lake Harris for a bit. He caught two 4-pounders pretty quick, but when 10 a.m. rolled around, he was still toying with the idea of running to Griffin.
“I was torn between running there and finish my limit or drive around and stop on what looked good,” he said. “On my way to Griffin, I saw some pads and turned around. My brain said, ‘Go to Griffin,’ but my gut said, ‘Turn around and go to the pads.’”
Almost immediately, he broke off a kicker-quality fish, then his co-angler landed a 7-pounder.
“I told my co-angler, ‘We’re not going anywhere,’” Dortch said.
He eventually cobbled together a 15-04 stringer, which put him in 30th place.
With a better boat number on Friday, Dortch opted to bypass Griffin again. By early Friday afternoon, he was starting to doubt himself. Then, around 1:30 p.m., he caught a 7-06 bruiser off an isolated clump of hydrilla in Harris.
“That’s what turned me onto those clumps of grass,” he said.
In fact, the specific clump that produced what turned out to be the big bass of day 2 and anchored his 21-02 stringer wound up churning out nearly 30 pounds of fish for him over the course of the event. The clump, he estimated, was about the size of two bass boats. After practice, he thought it’d be a place where he could top off a limit with some 2-pounders. He never imagined it would be littered with kickers.
“I was having a disastrous day 2 and said, ‘Don’t be a dummy.’ Go catch three or four 2-pounders and cash a check,” he said. “I wound up catching that 7 and a 5 off that one clump Friday.”
There was a bit more of a breeze on Friday and he thinks that’s what triggered some fish to bite.
“The fish in the pads bit better with the sun out and no wind,” he said. “When there was wind, those offshore fish bit better. I bounced between the two depending on the wind and sun.”
He shot up to 5th place entering the weekend, earning the first top-20 cut of his Tour career, and knew he had a good one-two shallow-offshore punch.
He started Saturday on the isolated clump of hydrilla, for good reason.
“I figured if a 7 and a 5 lived there, what else lives there,” he wondered.
He dumped three good bites Saturday morning, but made up for it with an 8-06 kicker caught out of the pads that would’ve been the tournament’s big bass if Aaron Britt hadn’t caught a 9-08 giant the same day.
That fish accounted for more than half his weight and kept him in 5th place with a deficit of 3-07 to leader John Cox entering the final day. He also caught a 3-pounder off the hydrilla clump.
“The majority of these fish were post-spawn,” he noted, “but I think the big one in the pads on day 3 looked like it may have been spawning.”
His memorable final day started with a flurry of big bites, all of which he landed. He foul-hooked a 7-pounder out the hydrilla, then quickly picked up a U-tail worm and within a few casts had another similar fish in the boat.
“It was weird,” he said. “I felt really relaxed after I caught those two big ones.”
By lunch time, he had 20-plus pounds in the boat and figured things might get interesting when he saw Cox frantically pull into an area late in the afternoon.
“I stopped on one last spot and Cox came flying in there and started fishing like crazy,” he said. “I figured he was either trying to finish his limit or cull a small fish. I made one last cull and was ready to go to weigh-in.”
Winning Pattern Notes
> While hydrilla is a known bass magnet, Dortch was able to determine what to focus on. “It wasn’t even stretches of hydrilla, it was isolated clumps,” he said. “Those are the ones that had the fish.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Lipless crankbait gear: 7’10” medium-heavy Enigma Fishing Aaron’s Edge cranking rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel (7:1 ratio), 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 5/8-oz. Excalibur One Knocker (chrome/blue).
> Dortch opted for the big cranking rod that’s built for deep-diving plugs so he could stroke the One Knocker through the thick hydrilla.
> Flipping gear: 7’6” heavy-action Enigma Fishing Phenom casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo ALX casting reel (8.0:1 ratio), 60-pound Sunline FX2 braided line, 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line (leader), 5/16-oz. Picasso tungsten worm weight, 4/0 Owner 4x Jungle flippin’ hook, 5” NetBait Salt Lick (junebug).
> A key bait on day 4 was the NetBait Big Bopper U-tail worm. He threw it on a 6.4:1 ratio Abu Garcia Revo Premier spooled with 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Staying focused and not getting spun out after all the lost fish. I fished from my gut and it was nothing I necessarily practiced. If I saw it and it looked good, I fished it and it worked.”
> Performance edge – “My Blazer Boat. The speed and ride are great. Fully loaded it’ll run 77 miles per hour with that Mercury on it.”
> For BassFans wondering why Dortch wasn’t wearing a jersey on the water or on stage during days 3 and 4, it’s because he wasn’t permitted to due to FLW’s logo policy (Dortch runs a Blazer boat with a Mercury outboard, both of which conflict with exclusive FLW sponsors in the boat and outboard categories). Instead, he wore a T-shirt on the water and stage with approved logo stickers.
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