By Todd Ceisner
The grass looks good. The water's clear and the bass are in all phases of their spawning routine. It's shaping up to be a decent week on the Harris Chain of Lakes for the second FLW Tour event of the season.
It's the second straight year FLW's premier circuit has stopped at the central Florida chain, but it's a few weeks earlier on the calendar this year. Unlike the season opener at Lake Okeechobee, shifting and gusty winds shouldn't be an issue this week and with clear, sunny skies and 80- to 85-degree temperatures in the long-range forecast along with a full moon coming next week, the stars could be aligning for a Florida shootout.
Last year's derby saw Tour rookie Bradley Dortch use a combo pattern of flipping and a lipless crankbait in Lake Harris and Little Lake Harris to capture the win. Floridian JT Kenney sampled the same lakes over the first three days before walloping 27 pounds on the final day in Lake Griffin. Third-place finisher John Cox, who led the first three days, relied mostly on sight-fishing.
It could be a carbon copy this week with many of the same patterns in play in many of the same areas across the system that features 10 lakes connected by canals and no-wake zones.
The weights last year resembled a teeter totter - up one day, down the next and up again. It's Florida, so that's to be expected. Consistency is measured by whether someone can come in with one or two fish in the 4-plus pound range each day.
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: Remarkably stable and warm with light to moderate winds through the weekend
> Water temp: Upper 60s to mid 70s
> Water visibility/color: Each lake has its own personality, but most are clear to slightly off color
> Water level: Slightly higher than average
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Some pre-spawn, some on beds, some post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Flipping/punching, lipless crankbaits, Texas- and wacky rigged plastics, shallow cranking, vibrating jigs, topwater
> Winning weight: 73 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 30 after 2 days): 28 pounds
> Check weight (Top 60 after 2 days): 25 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Harris
> Biggest factors: Not sharing fish with others
> Biggest decision: Which lake to start in and how long to stay
> Wildcard: Stumbling on a new wave of fresh spawners
With the help of the the Navionics Web App, here's a close look at the Harris Chain of Lakes:
Shaw Grigsby is hanging around his home this week in Gainesville, Fla. Oh, how he'd love to be competing at the Harris Chain, where he could employ his world-class sight-fishing skills and try to reprise his Elite Series win there from 2011.
"They couldn't have hit it at better time," he said. "I wish I was fishing it."
He says all the ideal variables are present this week for an angler-friendly event.
"This is what I call the perfect time because we've already had a couple spawns, but they'll spawn for a while," he said. "We have some still coming and on beds now and a bunch are post-spawn so you might catch giants in the grass or on beds. They couldn't have timed it better."
He said the weather this month has been more in line with historical averages after a colder-than-normal January. That could have had two effects - either some fish are going to spawn out deeper than normal or they're only recently starting to get the itch to move out of staging areas and into their spawning habitat.
Regardless of how big a factor bedding fish are, Grigsby says the conditions and timing should open things up so a wide spectrum of techniques could be productive this week.
"If you like throwing a Red Eye shad in the grass or a ChatterBait, whatever technique you like, you'll have everything in position to excel at your particular expertise," he added. "This is the perfect time."
Brian Latimer was hoping the fishing would be better at the Harris Chain than last year, but practice revealed it to be about the same.
Where To Go? How Long To Stay?
Grigsby thinks the fishing should be "universally good" across the chain simply because the weather has been so stable and will remain so through the event. Still, competitors will stick with what they got comfortable with in practice or have had good experience with in the past as far as which lakes they spend their time on.
Lake Griffin isn't so much a wild card because it's long been a productive, big-fish lake, but it's a time commitment to get there and back (roughly 90 minutes each way) so it might not leave someone time to call an audible late in the day.
"Every lake has its little neat deal," Grigsby said. "It's rare that I haven't found enough fish in each lake that I don't want to spend an entire day there. It comes down to how many of those lakes can you practice or do you put all of you eggs in one basket and get good on one lake?"
Grigsby sees there being three distinct groups of fish to target this week - bedding fish, of which there may be a dwindling supply, post-spawners in their recovery phase and pre-spawners on their way in. Whomever can find an area that's basically an intersection for all three could have a strong showing.
"I think you'll catch one or two on beds and then move offshore might be the primary deal to catch 'em," Grigsby added. "I'd look for main lake fish for a limit, then go into the canals for big ones. You've had the warm weather that has pumped the water temp up to a point where you'll have main lake spawn and spawners in the canals."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"It's a lot different than 2011. There's more hydrilla than I've ever seen. It's not everywhere, but it's in a lot of places. If this place stays the way it is, it could be one of the best lakes in the whole country. It's topping out in 12 feet of water.
"For me, the fishing has been tough. I feel like I'm going through the roller coaster where I get on something and it runs its course. I fished in Harris, Little Harris, Eustis and Dora. I tried not to spread myself too thin and I feel like it's hard to find sight fish. There are a couple to be found and I'm sure they're somewhere on the chain, but I haven't come across them. We at the time of year where they could show up at any second and we're definitely at a place where most people in the field are probably thinking about bed fish. I'm sure they'll play a big role.
"I feel like I know where I'm going to go. It's one of those things … you spend practice hoping to find a place or pattern to win with. I don't know if I've seen that. At the same time, I haven't camped out in an area. I was moving even when I'd get a couple bites."
"It's been pretty tough on me and from what I heard, it's been tough on everybody. I saw quite a few bucks on beds, but no good ones. I just plan on fishing the outside grass and hopefully catch a limit here or there.
"I caught seven or eight fish each day with one good one mixed in. I know I'm around some good fish, but I didn't go back to anywhere I think there might be more than one. It's a slow process with there being more grass. Usually, I would be happy with these conditions. When it's colder, it seems like they bite better. Maybe that's bait related, but there will be a lot of worm throwing in this one, for sure. There's still a moving bait bite out there, too.
"I'm going to stick to my game plan and fish a couple baits - one slow and one moving bait - and hope I can figure more things out during the day."
"It's been weird. When I got here, I thought it would be way better (than last year). On Sunday, I saw quite a few cruising around and you could catch 'em sight-fishing out to the offshore hydrilla. I was excited and felt like 'Finally, we're going to get an easy tournament.'
Cody Meyer has racked up six straight top-20 finishes dating back to last season.
"It's been hard to put together any continuity, especially offshore. Most of us are fishing offshore and there are a lot of pre-spawners. The ones I've caught offshore I'm 100 percent certain they're pre-spawners. There are a lot of small here and not just 2-pounders. There are a lot of 10- to 13-inchers.
"The challenge is going to be whether to stay really shallow or to get off the bank and fish some of the unforeseen stuff, like the eelgrass and hydrilla. If you give me 12 to 13 pounds each day, I'll take that every time."
"I think it's the worst practice I've had anywhere for size and numbers. It's not been easy to get bites. I found areas to get bites, but only about 8 pounds worth. I had one bite over 3 pounds in three days. That's not good in Florida.
"Usually, I can find something I like to fish and power-fish and wind and not drag anything. That hasn't worked out for me. There's too much grass for the way I like to fish. I will start where I can get bites and hope I get lucky and pick away and get a couple 3- or 4-pound bites.
"I saw the water as warm as 77 (degrees), but I didn't even go looking (for bed fish). That's not my game and from what I hear, there are not many good ones left."
"I wouldn't say it's been great. I got a few bites Sunday in Griffin and Monday I went looking for some sight fish. I saw a few, but unless something drastically changes, I don't think it'll be a sight-fishing derby. The water is up and that makes them hard to see. The places where it was clear last year now have a greenish tint. It's still clear, but there's a little stain to it.
"The main challenge will be getting into one area that's not a community hole. There are fish in the community holes, but I've been trying to find one off the beaten path.
"I did some reflection on why I usually do well at the Potomac and it's because I get in area where I feel there are good fish and I just grind. I did that at Okeechobee and took 41st. I know I can go to Griffin and get bites and catch 10 to 12 pounds. I know the big ones are out there - I'll just have to grind it out."
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. Scott Canterbury - Kicked off the season with a 8th-place effort at Okeechobee and has fared well in the past at the Harris Chain (7th in last year's Southern Open).
2. John Cox - He was the leader after day 3 and wound up 3rd at the Harris Chain last year so expect him to take an "unfinished business" approach this week. Things are about to get hectic for Cox with the Lake Lanier FLW Tour and Bassmaster Classic in consecutive weeks in March so another good effort in his home state will give him some momentum.
3. Tim Frederick - Coming off his first career win at Okeechobee, Frederick followed that up with a 14th-place showing at the Kissimmee Chain Bassmaster Eastern Open. This is a home game for Frederick and his confidence is soaring so expect him to be a factor. He finished 14th here a year ago.
4. Bryan Thrift - Don't look now, but Thrift has finished no better than 48th in his last three full-field Tour events. Sign of a coming slump? Doubtful. He rallied on day 2 at Okeechobee to salvage a 65th plus he had a top-10 at the H-Chain a year ago so he's expected to get things turned around.
5. Chad Morgenthaler - He wakes up thinking about flipping and punching heavy cover and he'll be in his glory this week. Not to mention, he's still riding high after a top-10 at Okeechobee.
6. Michael Neal - Has evolved into one of the most consistent anglers on the circuit and his track record in Florida is above average. He was 13th at Okeechobee and will have to overcome a tough practice to have another strong showing at the Harris Chain, which would set him up nicely for the rest of the season.
7. Cody Meyer - He'll tell you Florida has had his number in the past, but his 14th-place effort at Okeechobee was his sixth straight top-20 finish dating back to last April. He's on a good roll and there's no reason to think he can't keep it up this week.
8. Mark Rose -Rose started the season with another top-5 finish and is fishing comfortably and with confidence and he'll no doubt want to make up for his 65th-place showing at the Harris Chain last year.
9. Jeff Sprague - Had a so-so showing at Okeechobee (57th) and was 50th at the Harris Chain last year, but based on his recent history, he's due to make a cut (he made three of them last season and four in 2016).
10. Andy Morgan - After a miserable opener at Okeechobee (148th), it's safe to assume Morgan will bounce back this week. He should be able to keep a flipping rod in his hand the whole time and see where it takes him.
> Anglers will blast off at 7 a.m. EST all four days from Venetian Gardens (201 East Dixie Ave., Leesburg, FL 34748). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will begin at 3 p.m. at Venetian Gardens (same address) and get started at 4 p.m. on days 3 and 4, also at Venetian Gardens.
> Thurs., Feb. 22 - Clear, Sunny - 82°/66°
- Wind: From the E at 10 to 15 mph
> Fri., Feb. 23 - Clear, Sunny - 83°/64°
- Wind: From the ESE at 10 to 15 mph
> Sat., Feb. 24 - Clear, Sunny - 85°/67°
- Wind: From the SE at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., Feb. 25 - Clear, Sunny - 86°/65°
- Wind: From the S at 5 to 10 mph