By Todd Ceisner
There’s an unwritten rule when it comes to bass fishing in the spring in Florida. If there aren’t any trucks and trailers at the ramp bright and early, that can be a tell-tale sign that the fish at that particular lake may not be biting well lately.
On the morning of March 2, the only activity at the boat ramp on the west side of Blue Cypress Lake was the shirtless man taking his dog for an early-morning walk after stepping out of a small motorhome.
While the 6,500-acre lake is secluded and surrounded by undeveloped shoreline, save for a small cluster of cabins and houses situated on a series of canals near the boat ramp, surely someone had a Blue Cypress fishing trip circled on their calendar this day, following an early March full moon the night before. Nope.
Instead, it was six Major League Fishing anglers – Andy Montgomery, Takahiro Omori, Skeet Reese, Greg Hackney, Mike Iaconelli and Bobby Lane – headed out on the cypress tree-encrusted lake formerly known as Lake Wilmington that also serves as the headwaters for the St. Johns River. Their goal – catch 20 pounds or be among the top 4 finishers at the end of the day in order to advance to the final round of the World Championship.
Lane, the winner of the first world championship, had been to Blue Cypress years ago with his grandfather, but hadn’t been back since. The other anglers seemed puzzled by the 20-pound cut weight.
“I thought it was a joke,” Iaconelli said while prepping rods. “We’re going to have to cover water with it being 20 pounds.”
After seeing a paper map and getting a glimpse from shore, Reese declared Blue Cypress looked like a “classic Florida lake,” but that the forecasted winds could reduce the fishable water.
The wind started to pick up as anglers made their first casts at 8 a.m. and it seemed to be a harbinger of things to come. It took more than 30 minutes for a legal fish to be caught – Hackney landed a 1-15 at 8:31 a.m. It was another 27 minutes before the next one hit the scoreboard – a 5-11 tank that ate Montgomery’s topwater. Guess the locals don’t know everything.
Omori started his day pecking around in the canals. Baitfish were breaching the surface all around him, but he couldn’t coax a bass to bite. His first fish didn’t come until 11:36 a.m.
It was a struggle for Reese, too.
“Well, this is fun, huh,” he muttered sarcastically as he hunted for his first bite late in the first period. A few minutes later, he pulled a 1-03 keeper out of some Kissimmee grass to break the ice.
Montgomery’s giant was the highlight of the first period that saw just nine fish caught. Most of the action was concentrated around the clusters of cypress trees and wispy Kissimmee grass as the field tried to feel out what Blue Cypress was willing to give up.
The second period was a grind as it became evident 2-pounders were going to be extremely valuable. Hackney caught a 2-15 to close the gap on Montgomery early in period 2 and a 2-08 just after noon to take the lead. Montgomery rebounded with a 1-00 15 minutes later to regain the lead with 9-07 overall.
With Hackney and Montgomery starting to edge away from the other four competitors, it appears the focus today will be on the third and fourth positions. With Omori stuck on one fish after the second period, that race looks to be a three-man race between Reese, Iaconelli and Lane, with the latter failing to record a keeper in the second period.
The pressure of wanting to qualify for the final round starts to show, but Hackney and Montgomery seem immune to it. Hackney’s first fish of the third period was a 3-03 that pushed his total to 12-00. After Montgomery boated a 1-05, Hackney notched a 2-06 and a 2-01 minutes apart to get to 16-07.
Montgomery answered with a 2-02 and a 4-pounder to move ahead of Hackney, albeit briefly. Hackney’s next fish was a 2-01 and got him to 18-08 a little after 3:20. Five minutes later, his work was done, thanks to a 1-11 that pushed him past the 20-pound threshold.
As Iaconelli and Reese traded 1-plus pounders, Montgomery used a 1-00 and a 2-14 to finish off his round, topping the group with 20-10.
Iaconelli picked up the pace after that, catching four fish in the last 45 minutes to reach 16-09 and secure the third spot. After catching a 1-11 at 4:27, Lane applied some pressure to Reese for the final qualifying spot, but wound up with 6-04 total, 13 ounces shy of Reese’s 7-01.
On this day, Montgomery and Hackney didn’t catch the most fish – they each had nine while Iaconelli boated 10 – but they certainly managed to tap into the better quality that allowed them to gain separation from the other four names on the leaderboard. They were the only anglers to hit the 20-pound mark while Iaconelli and Reese rounded out the group that earned a ticket to the championship round.
“I really thought someone would go out in the first period,” said Hackney, the first competitor to hit the 20-pound target weight. “We were off a little bit. It’s a good lake. It’s got ‘em.”
Montgomery said Blue Cypress reminded him of an oxbow lake like the ones used during the 2018 Challenge Cup near Natchez, Miss., and Vidalia, La.
“When we pulled up there, everybody thought 20 was going to be low, but as soon as we got out there, I told the guys in my boat this lake probably isn’t that good because it lacks vegetation,” he said. “It may be a good lake. I did catch some good ones at the end of the day when they started biting, so maybe it was just bad timing. These Florida fish are finicky. They bite when they want to bite.”
Here’s a recap of how each finalist made it to the championship round of the 2nd annual MLF World Championship:
Path to Championship Round
> Shotgun round: 20, 41-08 (1st)
> Sudden Death round: 9, 20-10 (1st)
> Shotgun round: 13, 27-02 (6th)
> Elimination round: 20, 47-05 (33, 74-07; 2nd)
> Sudden Death round: 9, 20-03 (2nd)
> Shotgun round: 30, 58-13 (2nd)
> Elimination round: 7, 10-06 (37, 69-03; 2nd)
> Sudden Death round: 10, 16-09 (3rd)
> Shotgun round: 30, 70-15 (1st)
> Sudden Death round: 5, 7-01 (4th)