LEESBURG, Fla. — Stellar bass fishing is one of the many reasons folks visit Florida, and it looks like we’re about to see this natural attraction on full display during the SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at Harris Chain.
Competition days will be Feb. 17-20 with daily takeoffs from Venetian Gardens (Ski Beach) at 7:30 a.m. ET and weigh-ins each day at the same venue at 3:30 p.m.
Comprising eight primary lakes — Apopka, Harris, Griffin, Eustis, Dora, Beauclair, Carlton and Yale — the chain covers approximately 75,000 acres. Linked by canals these lakes are full of submersed and emergent vegetation, shellbars, cypress trees, docks and seawalls. Yale, which is part of the chain but not connected by any navigable river or canal, is not part of the tournament waters.
With recent cold fronts and their ensuing warmups priming central Florida waters for a big spawning wave, the event’s timing appears nearly perfect. While the Florida bass spawn can start as early as the fall, Elite angler John Cox of DeBary, Fla., said the year’s first quarter typically sees the most action.
“Those fish are going to be on the move; it’s probably going to be a really good week,” he said. “I think the timing of this tournament is really good.”
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Typically, it’s the youth anglers watching the top-tier pros accomplish great things, but you can bet that 94 Elite anglers were paying attention two weeks ago when college, high school and junior anglers brought some impressive numbers to the scales during a weekend of red-hot Harris Chain fishing.
A quick recap of relevant details:
Brothers Lafe and Matt Messer of Kentucky Christian University won the Strike King Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops with a two-day total of 61 pounds, 13 ounces. The Messers’ Day 2 weight of 36-7 broke the College Series single-day record. Their winning weight also broke the Series’ two-day catch record.
Bryce Balentine and Dalton Loos of the Central Florida Youth Anglers won the Abu Garcia Bassmaster High School Series presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors with a limit catch of 25 pounds, 6 ounces. Benjamin Hester and Mason Caldwell of Rhea County High School won the big fish award with a 9-7 largemouth.
In the Bassmaster Junior Series, Ty Cooper and Landen McLauchlin of the Central Florida Youth Anglers finished second with a two-fish bag that went 11-12. Their limit included Cooper’s personal best 9-9, which earned big bass honors.
Setting the stage
These youth events took place in late January — and with conditions lining up well, projections for the third week of February indicate the potential for an absolute slugfest. Also worth noting, many of the college, high school and junior teams reported catching fish in offshore grass or over shellbeds — two common prespawn staging scenarios.
Tournament week will see daytime temperatures reaching into the low to mid-80s before slipping into the 70s for the weekend. More importantly, the overnight lows will remain in the upper 50s to mid-60s — compared to the low 40s a week prior. Add to this the full moon on Feb. 16 and the fish should be ready to go.
What to expect
While the deep offshore grass scene has played in years past, Cox believes that this event’s timing — possibly on the very cusp of a spawning movement — will bring the shallower staging areas into the spotlight.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be more of a closer-to-the-bank thing — like, the college kids, it didn’t seem like they were that far off the (shoreline) grass,” Cox said. “It’s kind of like Kentucky Lake, where you have all your guys on the main ledge and then you have those guys on the points connected to the shore.
“I think that’s going to be more of our middle area where the fish are going to be wanting to go to the bank to spawn, so they’ll be on that next setup area before they go into the grass, canals, lily pads or whatever they’re going to spawn on.”
Noting that the event could see some mix of prespawn and spawning activity, Cox said the tournament will likely comprise three main patterns: “I still think someone’s going to find some good grass and crank it or fish it with a bladed jig, I’m sure a worm in the lily pads will (produce) and you’ll see a lot of guys sight fishing.”
If the event turns more heavily toward the spawn, anglers will likely find clusters of spawners. That’s generally the way Florida bass work, but Cox said the amount of muck lining the bottoms of these lakes puts a premium on the cleaner, hard-bottom spots.
“Once fish come into a good area and decide that it’s a prime spot to spawn, you’ll have multiple fish spawning on that spot,” he said. “You can catch them one after another on the same cast.”
After a warm and mostly stable fall and early winter, the cold fronts that arrived in January and February definitely put the brakes on spawning activity. Despite the pause, the Harris Chain fish know it’s time to do their business, so the shoreward rush may end up looking like a Black Friday doorbuster stampede.
“Instead of them trickling, you could get these massive waves,” Cox said. “So, someone could sit in one place and just crush them.”
Looking at the Harris Chain’s broad potential, Cox observed: “All of the lakes are pretty good. What I think is going to happen is two or three of the lakes will turn on and the other ones will be farther behind. But it might be a perfect storm where they’re moving in all the lakes and everybody jacks them. Florida is so unpredictable.”
One thing that’s not so vague is the potential for heavy bags — and many of them.
“I’m thinking the winning total will be close to 90 or 100 pounds,” Cox said. “To make the Top 10, it could easily be close to 20 pounds a day.
“There are so many big fish in those lakes and we’re hitting it at such a good time.”
Full coverage from all four days of the SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at Harris Chain will be available on Bassmaster.com and the FOX Sports digital platforms. FS1 will also broadcast live with the tournament leaders on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 19-20 beginning at 8 a.m. ET.
The tournament is being hosted by Visit Lake, FL.