By Todd Ceisner
Pick a lake, any lake. It seemed like that was a viable strategy at last week’s Harris Chain FLW Tour. Just about every one of the 10 lakes that were in play produced decent catches, either in practice or during the event.
Ultimately, Bradley Dortch plied the water of Lake Harris and Little Lake Harris with a flipping and rattlebait combo pattern to collect his first Tour victory. Meanwhile, runner-up JT Kenney fished the same two lakes over the first three days before catching the biggest stringer of the event on the final day in Lake Griffin, where several other top-10 finishers spent considerable time as well
Lake Eustis produced a top-5 finish and sight-fishing anywhere throughout the chain was also a worthwhile endeavor, evidenced by John Cox’s 3rd-place finish.
Bottom line: The Harris Chain proved itself to be a worthy and healthy fishery and the mix of spawning and post-spawn scenarios forced the field to make tough choices amid challenging spring conditions when so much can change in a hurry.
Below is a rundown of how the rest of the top 5 finishers did their damage:
2nd: JT Kenney
> Day 1: 5, 16-12
> Day 2: 5, 17-14
> Day 3: 5, 10-00
> Day 4: 5, 27-03
> Total = 20, 71-13
Not much about how the Harris Chain event played out surprised JT Kenney. He’d only been there twice before for tournaments, but he quickly got tuned into how the event might unfold.
“I figured there’d still be spawning and on beds,” he said, “but I never went into a canal. I didn’t feel like fighting with 10 guys for a 3-pounder. That’s a good way to not do well.”
He said it played out similar to how his win at Lake Toho two years ago played out.
“It wasn’t the ones you could see,” he said. “I knew people would be running back to the canals. I also knew there’d be post-spawn fish. I looked around for shell beds because I know from the Kissimmee Chain and Okeechobee that post-spawners will go to that stuff. When I found them in practice, I caught one 4-pounder and that made me think there could be something to that.”
He spent the first three days in Harris and Little Harris, targeting arrowheads, cattails, pads – “spawning type stuff the first two days,” he said. “With the moon coming, I thought maybe they’d keep doing that.”
He also worked a Gambler Ace soft stickbait through shallow eelgrass. He worked his way into the top 10 after day 2 with a 17-plus pound average, but slipped into a tie for 9th on day 3 with a 10-pound stringer.
“It’s not like I lost big ones,” he said. “I never had a big bite. It was not what should be happening with the moon coming.”
Sensing it was time for an audible, he headed to Lake Griffin for the final day and checked the shell bed that had produced the 4-pounder in practice.
“I figured, ‘What the hell? I’ll go do that,’” he said.
He recalled the fish spawning pretty much anywhere he looked at Griffin during the Bassmaster Southern Open in late January, so he figured they’d be in their post-spawn migration and the shell beds were perfect stopping off points since they had plenty of bait around them.
“They tend to hold a lot of bait,” he said. “I don’t think the fish give a darn about the shells. They’re there because the bait eat that algae and the bass, especially the post-spawn ones that want to eat, are there.”
His call to go to Griffin resulted in a tournament-best 27-03, with two coming on a lipless crankbait, two more coming on a Carolina rig and another on a square-bill crankbait.
Regarding his rattlebait retrieve, he said, “I was working it and doing some stop and go. If you hit (the shell bed) on a straight retrieve, they’d hit it and some would hit it while I was hopping it.”
> Flipping gear: 7’6” medium-heavy Halo Titanium JT Kenney Signature Series casting rod, Ardent Apex Grand casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. Reins Tungsten worm weight, 5/0 Lazer TroKar Big Nasty flipping hook, 6” Gambler Fat Ace (green-pumpkin black/blue).
> Lipless crankbait gear: 7’10” heavy-action Halo Fishing Cranking II casting rod, same reel, same line, 1/2-oz. Strike King Red Eye Shad or Booyah Hard Knocker.
> Kenney swapped the stock hooks on the rattlebaits for size 2 TroKar trebles.
> Carolina rig gear: Same rod as flipping, same reel, same line (16-pound to 14-pound leader), same weight (5/8 oz.), 5/0 Laser TroKar HD worm hook, 5” Gambler Ace (green-pumpkin).
> He went with a 2-foot leader (at most) on the shallow shell beds.
> Main factor in his success – “Adapting on the last day and fishing the conditions and not trying to protect 9th place. The conditions weren’t good for pitching shallow isolated cover on day 4. It was good for moving baits.”
> Performance edge – “My Lowrance electronics. Marking the arrowheads and reeds I got bit on in practice and being able to come back to the exact same clump in the tournament was key, as was the StructureScan for finding the shell beds I caught them off the last day.”
John Cox sputtered on day 3, but stuck with his sight-fishing game plan to the end.
3rd: John Cox
> Day 1: 5, 25-11
> Day 2: 5, 18-15
> Day 3: 5, 10-04
> Day 4: 5, 14-03
> Total = 20, 69-01
John Cox was in his element last week at the Harris Chain. Since he was a kid, he’d dreamed of a big tournament coming to his home waters that he’d have a shot at winning. In January, he finished 10th at the Harris Chain Bassmaster Southern Open so he had some revenge on his mind last week.
He nearly got it, too.
All four days, Cox scanned the shallows in some out of the way canals and dead end stretches hoping to stumble upon some late spawners. He committed to sight fishing from the get go and it nearly carried him to his third Tour victory in the last 12 months.
“I kept moving and finding random ones,” he said. “A lot of them were super hard to catch. I think that’s why a lot of people gave up on them. All of the ones I had (marked in practice) were gone on day 1.”
Cox has established himself as one of the best shallow-water anglers in the sport and he’d much rather lose doing what he’s good at than getting beat outside of his comfort zone.
“I just like doing that,” he said. “It’s like guys who throw big swimbaits or just go for five bites with a jig. That’s what I did, rather than just go and run into whatever.”
In practice, he made sure to sample the water in every corner of the chain. That way, he wasn’t an easy for competitors thinking they could tap into some areas he’d planned to fish.
“I really covered everything in the chain,” Cox said. “I moved around and put in at different ramps. I think the whole field saw me two or three times every day. A lot of the stuff I was fishing I didn’t see many guys. That’s probably because there were not many fish where I was at.”
After blasting 25-11 on day 1 to set the early pace, his downfall was a 10-pound bag on Saturday. Still, he wouldn’t change anything about how he attacked his home water.
“It couldn’t have set up any better,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get it done Saturday and Sunday.”
> Sight fishing gear: 7’3” medium-heavy MBA MHX casting rod, Lew's Custom Pro casting reel (7.2:1), 15-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, 1/16- or 1/8-oz unnamed tungsten worm weight, 5/0 unnamed round-bend wom hook. 5” unnamed soft plastic stickbait (watermelon or green-pumpkin).
> He also pitched a weightless soft stickbait around on a 7’ medium-action MHX spinning rod.
> Main factor in his success – “Being at home. I’ve probably touched every fish in that pond.”
> Performance edge – “A major part of being able to cover so much water is my PT 20 Crestliner. It allows me to move around easier and get to places other guys can’t.”
Shane Lehew mixed sight-fishing with flipping and casting a reaction bait to score his career-best finish.
4th: Shane Lehew
> Day 1: 5, 23-15
> Day 2: 5, 14-14
> Day 3: 5, 13-15
> Day 4: 5, 13-05
> Total = 20, 66-01
Lehew’s scorecard at the Harris Chain looked like what many thought a top-5 ledger would look like – a big bag on day 1, then a series of average bags that kept him in contention.
Lehew had found some sight-fishing opportunities, but knew he was on borrowed time with them. By day 3 of the tournament, he’d exhausted all of his options and relied mainly on casting a lipless crank. No matter, by then he’d clinched a spot in the top 10 for the first time in his career and went into the final day in 2nd place.
In practice, he focused his efforts in Lake Harris and Little Lake Harris so as to avoid any lock situations around the chain. On the first day of practice, he uncovered an area in Little Lake Harris that had both shallow and off-shore scenarios that he could exploit.
“I knew I could fish offshore with a (Rat-L-Trap) and flip pads,” he said.
On the final day of practice, he visited Lake Griffin and caught 16 pounds, enough that he wrestled with going there to start the tournament.
“It was easy to get bites, but I stuck with Harris and that ended up being the right decision,” he said.
With his boat sitting over 5 feet of water, he’d throw a lipless crank up into 4 feet and work it through hydrilla. One key feature about his best spot was a big opening in the hydrilla that seemed to produce consistent bites each time his bait came through the void.
“Those were post-spawn fish for sure,” he said.
The pads he flipped were in 2 to 4 feet and the more isolated clumps (two or three pads together) produced markedly better fish.
“I did some sight-fishing on days 1 and 2,” he added, “but I had a feeling it’d be won offshore. In Florida, they move up and out so fast. I was hoping they’d pull out. Those big fish are spread out and the fishing pressure (around the pads) hurt that area.”
> Lipless crankbait gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Fitzgerald Rods Bryan Thrift Signature Series frog rod, unnamed casting reel, 16-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Xcalibur One Knocker (gold/black)
> Flipping gear: 7’ heavy-action Fitzgerald Rods casting rod, unnamed casting reel, same line, 3/16-oz. unnamed tungsten worm weight, 5/0 unnamed offset worm hook, 5.5” Bizz Baits Sassy Stick (junebug or black/blue).
> Main factor in his success – “Catching 23-15 on day 1. You have to have one of those days in Florida to have a chance. That one general area clued me into beat around there more.”
> Performance edge – “I used my Power-Poles a ton all week.”
Matt Reed said a slow presentation was the key to fishing shell bars in Lake Eustis.
5th: Matt Reed
> Day 1: 5, 16-06
> Day 2: 5, 17-08
> Day 3: 5, 18-10
> Day 4: 5, 12-06
> Total = 20, 64-14
Reed was another competitor who ruled out sight-fishing because he says it’s hard to trust Florida bass this time of year. Instead, he uncovered a couple shell beds in Lake Eustis in practice that had fish on them and started searching for more.
“I checked a couple of them in practice and got bit so it was time to go to work with the SideScan,” he said.
The only issue was he didn’t find them until 3 p.m. on the final day of practice and idled until dark that day.
“I found 20 or 30 of them in the last few hours, some of them the size of my boat,” he added.
Other than one fish caught on running a Zoom Speedworm through some eelgrass on day 2, the rest of his fish were caught on a Carolina rig dragged across and along side shellbeds in Eustis. He had high hopes for the eelgrass pattern, but it eventually tapered off. That one fish, though, proved valuable on Friday as it provided a 2-pound upgrade.
“That stretch just went away,” he said. “I found it the first day of practice, but when you’re dealing with 4 days in the spring around the (full) moon, stuff changes so much. I had 20 bites down that stretch Sunday in practice and there were giant beds everywhere.”
Luckily, he was able to build a milk run of shellbeds to notch his best finish in more than 5 seasons.
“I did double back on some areas (Sunday) and I ran more of them than I had been running,” he said, “but all I needed was a bag junebug trick worms and pole to throw a Carolina rig on. I basically didn’t do anything else.
“Fish just like hard bottom,” he added. “The 6-pounder I caught (Sunday) was top of the shell bed and there were shad were schooling on top, so there was bait there.”
Another important component to his success was being deliberate with his presentations.
“I had to be extremely patient and had to fish slow,” he said. “I call it ‘Florida slow.’ I despise it. I’m sure every cast took up to 2 minutes, which is longer than I like to let it sit there. I had to take my hand off the reel and put it by my side. I’d move it a foot with the rod and hold tension.”
> Carolina rig gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Temple Fork Outfitters Pacemaker casting rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Series casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 14-pound Bass Pro Shops TPS fluorocarbon line, 3/4-oz. unnamed barrel sinker, 3/0 Gamakatsu round-bend worm hook, Zoom Trick Worm (junebug).
> Main factor in his success – “Fishing slow was the key to getting quality bites. If there was a big one on a spot, I caught it first. The Harris Chain fished better than I’ve ever seen it fish. It seemed more healthy and there were more lakes that fished really well. The clarity was good all over.”
> Performance edge – “A big key was using lighter line than usual in Florida and that Pacemaker rod was critical so I wouldn’t break my line on hooksets. I have to build in my cushion because I’m going to jerk the same all the time.”
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