By Todd Ceisner
The hydrilla was there a year ago in Lake Harris, but it was nothing compared to what greeted the field last week for the second FLW Tour stop of the season. With fish in all stages of their spawning cycle - this year's stop near Leesburg was several weeks earlier on the calendar compared to 2017 - the lush vegetation, considered an invasive species by most agencies, acted as a bass magnet and, in turn, attracted hordes of competitors.
Some hypothesized that the bass that completed their spawning duties seemed to high-tail it back out to the comforts of the hydrilla in 8 to 12 feet of water rather than hang around intermediate cover up shallow.
It wasn't a fast and furious way to a limit, though, but the offshore swaths of hydrilla rewarded those who put in the time. The fish seemed to be grouped up in pods or packs and when it was feeding time, those in the right place at the right time reported getting flurries of bites with above-average fish mixed in. Long lulls and many empty casts would follow before another group decided to fire up.
Defined edges and holes in the grass were the key target zones and a mix of reaction baits (vibrating jigs, lipless crankbaits, jerkbaits) all produced their share of fish.
Conditions were textbook perfect for a Florida tournament during the spawn. The only missing element, some anglers chirped, was a full moon, which may have triggered another wave of big females to move onto beds. There was no freak cold front to scatter the fish and the water was as clear as some had ever seen it.
Here's a rundown of how the rest of the top 5 outdid the remainder of the field.
2nd: Jeff Gustafson
> Day 1: 5, 17-10
> Day 2: 5, 17-09
> Day 3: 5, 20-05
> Day 4: 5, 21-03
> Total = 20, 77-00
Jeff Gustafson said it was his dad who helped tap into the offshore hydrilla with a vibrating jig in practice.
"About halfway through the morning on the first day of practice, we were fishing offshore in some hydrilla and I was using a (lipless crankbait), but the grass was too thick to use it in most places," he said. "Most of the fish were in 8 to 12 feet and I know most people won't use a ChatterBait in that stuff. Dad had a black and blue ChatterBait on and he caught a few on it. Around noon that day, we ran into a little pack of them and he caught them every cast.
"From then on, I committed to fishing that stuff. There were times where I'd go a couple hours without a bite, then I'd run into another pack of them."
By the end of practice, he had roughly a dozen spots or stretches identified that were worth a second look during the tournament - all in Lake Harris.
He had most of his 17-10 bag on day 1 in the boat before lunchtime and over the final three days, he focused on the eight spots he liked the best.
"They all had some kind of edge or a hole in the hydrilla on them," he said. "They were 300- to 500-yard fields of hydrilla that's topped out. The edges and holes were the sweet spots."
He said whenever the breeze kicked up, the fishing seemed to improve and each time he encountered a flurry of bites, he often caught an above-average fish out of the group.
"The big ones seemed to be singles, though," he added. "It was all about committing to fishing out there and going with it."
> Vibrating jig gear: 7'5" heavy-action G. Loomis NRX casting rod, Shimano Curado 70 (8:1 ratio), unnamed 20-pound fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Z-Man/Evergreen Jackhammer vibrating jig (white), Z-Man Razor ShadZ trailer (redbone).
> He said he tried a white swimbait trailer, but it didn't get near as many bites as the redbone-hued version.
> He said his combo was unconventional, but it was effective for the cover he was fishing around. "If I made a long cast, I could get a good hookset with that rod and it helped me be more efficient ripping it out of the hydrilla," he said. "On day 1, I caught a 7-pounder three cranks into my retrieve after a very long cast. That reel is a fast reel, which I needed for the way I was popping the bait. I had a lot of slack that I had to pick up quick. If you're just casting and winding, you're not going to want to use the 8:1 ratio."
> Main factor in his success - "Committing to the program I was on and fishing offshore."
> Performance edge - "My 15-foot (Minn Kota) Talons. At Okeechobee, I would've said they're too big, but at Harris, I was poling down in 12 feet of water. Nobody else could do that. I did that Sunday morning and caught 15 fish doing that. The Spot Lock on the Ultrex was great, too, when I wasn't posted up."
John Hunter found his comfort zone with reaction baits around offshore hydrilla in Little Lake Harris.
3rd: John Hunter
> Day 1: 5, 13-05
> Day 2: 5, 21-09
> Day 3: 5, 19-03
> Day 4: 5, 21-11
> Total = 20, 75-13
John Hunter did zero fishing during a three-hour scouting visit to the Harris Chain before it went off limits.
"My rod locker was still locked," he said.
His goal was to get a feel for what the grass looked like and where the potential high-percentage areas were so he could throw reaction baits and not have to rely on bottom-based presentations like flipping.
"That's not who I am," he said. "I'm not going to soak a worm all day."
He wanted to stay on Big and Little Harris and had a couple solid days in practice.
"I wasn't trying to catch them, but you need to lean on them every once in a while and I caught a 5 and a 4," he said. "I found a few areas and found a lot of things I really liked in the offshore grass."
As the tournament played out, he discovered the fish were grouped up in "pods" and when he caught one, he often caught five or six in the same small area.
"I knew there'd be bite windows," he added. "When you'd get around those pods when they were in the mood to eat, it was like they were eating out of your hand. I'd get a bite, pole down and cast to the same spot over and over again. It was like you had them penned in."
He relied on 1-2 punch of a jerkbait and vibrating jig around offshore hydrilla in Little Harris to catch his weight throughout the event. After bagging a modest 13-07 on day 1, he caught 62-07 over the final three days to notch his career-best finish.
He fished the same way last year in the Southern Open, but finished way back in the pack.
"Coming here this time around, the lake is in way better shape with loads of offshore hydrilla," he added.
The flat that was most productive covered shallow water and terminated in about 7 feet of water.
"You had to find the juicy spots in the giant flat and that spot would change every day," he said. "There were little 400-by-200-yard areas and the sweet spot would be in that zone, but each day that spot would move.
"I wouldn't say they were schooled up. They were more in pods and there'd be multiple 10- to 20-fish pods out there and you had to run into one of those. On day 3, I hit three pods of them."
He estimated only five of the fish he weighed in came from shallow hydrilla patches while the rest were out in 7 feet where there was a couple feet of water on top of the grass. He'd throw the jerkbait in and around the holes and thinner patches and deploy the vibrating jig around thicker grass.
"Pausing the jerkbait was a big deal," he said. "When I'd catch one, then I'd pause it on the next cast. I'd always pause it by the trolling motor because I'd see them stalking it so I tried to get it out further away from the boat and pause it for four or five seconds, then twitch it, and they'd eat it almost every time."
> Jerkbait gear: 7' medium-heavy Cashion Fishing casting rod, unnamed casting reel (7.0:1 ratio), 15-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line, 6th Sense Provoke 106 jerkbait (shad scream) or Megabass Ito Vision 110 (pro blue).
> Hunter opted for the Provoke in the morning because it offered more contrast in the lower light. In the afternoon, when it got brighter, he went with the more translucent Megabass option.
> He preferred 15-pound line because it kept the baits from digging too deep and getting hung in the grass.
> Vibrating jig gear: 7'1" medium-heavy Cashion Elite casting rod, same reel, same line (17-pound), 1/2-oz. Z-Man/Evergreen Jackhammer vibrating jig, Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Zako trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Hunter replaced the stock skirt on the Jackhammer with a Jakked Baits skirt in the badgill pattern, which features green-pumpkin with orange and chartreuse strands.
> Main factor in his success - "I just fished the way I like to fish. A lot of times when I have good tournaments, it's staying in my comfort zone and doing what I like to do."
> Performance edge - "My Falcon boat and Suzuki are the best set up in my opinion. They're a very reliable and smooth ride back and forth. My Lowrance units were a big factor in marking the grass edges and patches and also my Power-Poles and Costa sunglasses were a big deal keeping me still and allowing me to pick apart those pods of fish."
Glenn Browne stuck with what he knew would be a reliable pattern – flipping shallow cover in Lake Apopka.
4th: Glenn Browne
> Day 1: 5, 21-03
> Day 2: 5, 20-08
> Day 3: 5, 17-04
> Day 4: 5, 15-00
> Total = 20, 73-15
Glenn Browne couldn't have picked a better venue or better conditions to make his belated FLW Tour debut this season.
"I laid three flipping sticks out and that was it," said Browne, a Florida native who knows the landscape in central Florida as good as any.
He spent the duration of the tournament in Lake Apopka, targeting spawning fish that were tough to see along reed clumps and arrowheads.
"I probably got a lot of friends mad at me because I've gone and exposed (Apopka)," he joked. "It really only plays this time of year when they pull up to spawn. It has good ones in it and this is the time of year it plays. Not a lot of people do it because it's a long run and the lock holds only three boats."
The water is a bit higher than normal, Browne said, and that made the trip more manageable.
Prior to the lake going off limits, he made a visit to Apopka and said it was pretty easy to get bites. It wasn't much different when he checked it out on day 2 of practice. Jordan Osborne and Zack Birge, both of whom made the top-30 cut, also caught their share of weight in Apopka.
"It fishes very small for as big as it is," Browne said.
As the tournament wore on, Browne had to incorporate new water into his routine.
"I fished places I'd never fished before," he said. "When I've been fishing there before, it was a one-day deal. The four-day deal was very different."
He said the fish seemed to be in a specific depth as it related to the vegetation.
"If the boat was deeper than three (feet) or shallower than two, I didn't get bit," he said. "Two was the magic number. I had to be pinpoint with my flips, too. I had to pick out little cleaner spots where you think fish might bed."
He said he didn't have to let his bait soak too long before getting a bite or pulling it back to flip again.
"A lot of times they bit it quick - three jigs or less," he said. "If I saw something move or noticed the cover move, I slowed down."
> Flipping gear: 7'6" mag-heavy Lew's Custom Pro casting rod, Lew's Super Duty XHL Speed Spool casting reel, unnamed 65-pound braided line, 1/2-oz. Reins Tungsten worm weight, 3/0 Mustad 3X Grip Pin worm hook, Gambler Ugly Otter (copperfield).
> Main factor in his success - "My local knowledge helped a lot. I had an idea where the fish were going to go before I put the boat in the water."
> Performance edge - "My rod and reel had a lot to do it. I wasn't using my Lowrance for depth, but used it for navigation and time. I watched it closely and timed each canal and each stop so I wouldn't miss my time."
Buddy Gross modified his Zoom Trick Worm with a small Colorado blade that produced some of his biggest fish of the tournament.
5th: Buddy Gross
> Day 1: 5, 15-01
> Day 2: 5, 16-12
> Day 3: 5, 23-09
> Day 4: 5, 14-09
> Total = 20, 69-15
Buddy Gross made a quick visit to the Harris Chain after the Okeechobee Tour event and located a hydrilla mat that had some bass in it. He'd fished the Bassmaster Open at the Harris Chain last year and did well in Lake Griffin, so he knew that would be part of his game plan last week.
"All that stuff (in Griffin) was holding fish, but the quality wasn't there," he said.
When official practice arrived, he spent 1 1/2 days in Harris and 1 1/2 days in Griffin and let his boat draw determine where he'd start on day 1.
"If I was boat 40 or lower, I was going to Griffin," he said. "I wanted to make sure I had a 12-pound limit each day."
He wound up with boat number 17, so off to Griffin he went. He caught a limit out of eelgrass in Griffin with a lipless crankbait, but came back to Harris and culled almost everything on days 1 and 2. When the reaction bite slowed down, he threw a big finesse worm with a small Colorado blade inserted into the tail to entice bites.
"After I came through the lock on day 1, I stayed in the mouth of Little Lake Harris and caught them for an hour straight to get my weight," he added. "On day 2, I went to the same place but didn't get any bites. Then I went to a big patch in Big Harris and caught all giants."
He went from 41st to 24th on day 2 and rode a 23-09 bag on day 3 up to 6th entering the final day.
"Looking back, I could've done better," he said.
He did all of his damage focusing on holes in the hydrilla located on a large flat. The water was 8 to 10 feet and the grass was 4 to 6 feet tall.
"The holes were the size of a house," he said. "Everything I did was around those holes. It was there (last year), but it had a good growing year. It was probably there last year, but it wasn't near as high."
> Worm gear: 7' extra-heavy Hammer Rods casting rod, Daiwa Tatula CT Type-R casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 17-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. unnamed worm weight, 7/0 Owner oversize round-bend worm hook, Zoom Magnum Trick Worm (junebug).
> To attract more bites, Gross inserted a small Colorado blade attached to a screw-lock swivel into the tail of the worm.
"I did it at Okeechobee and had 50 bites a day, so I knew it'd get bit," he said. "I wanted something different to capitalize on the opportunities on that spot. I knew nobody else did it so I stuck it in there and started getting bites."
> When fishing the worm, he tried to cast it into the grass on the far edge of the hole and work it back into the void. Oftentimes, the fish would eat it on the initial fall.
> He also caught a couple flipping a Zoom Z Craw out of clumps that grew up closer to the surface.
> Main factor in his success - "Persistance on a good quality spot."
> Performance edge - "My Lowrance electronics and Power-Poles to hold me where I needed to be. Even in 10 feet, they held me in place."
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