LEESBURG, Fla. — Building on the momentum of his recent success, Tennessee pro Brandon Lester caught a five-bass limit of 23 pounds Thursday to lead the first round of the SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at Harris Chain.
Two weeks after winning the St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, about an hour south of Leesburg, Lester holds the top spot in a tight Top 10 with only 2-7 separating first and 10th places. Lester will enter Day 2 with a 1 ounce lead over second-place Pat Schlapper of Eleva, Wis.
“People call it momentum, but I think you get into a good rhythm and a good pace,” Lester said. “In tournament fishing, sometimes it’s like you’re out there and the day just flies by; but right now, I’m out there (during a tournament day) and it’s like I have all the time in the world.
“It’s like I don’t have a care in the world. Part of that is the fact that I’ve already qualified for the (2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, to be held in Knoxville, Tenn., March 24-26). That takes a load off. Good things are happening out there and I’m having fun.”
Dividing his day between three different lakes, Lester focused on shallow flipping with a 7 3/4-inch Bitter’s Mega Wand in the junebug color. He spent most of his time blind bed fishing — targeting unseen fish in likely spawning areas.
“I caught one of them that I was actually looking at on the bed,” Lester said. “I was actually just fishing at that time and I looked down and it was like, ‘Oh my.’ I only caught that one off a bed and the other four came while I was just fishing.”
“You have to fish this bait slow,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing in Florida — if you go down a bank just cast, cast, cast, cast — you’ll fish right over top of them. You have to pitch it in there and just shake it in place. Most of the time, after you start shaking it, they’ll grab it.”
Lester said his day unfolded mostly as planned. He secured a limit by 10 a.m. and had his weight by 12:30. After that, he committed the rest of his day purely to sight fishing.
Despite Thursday’s promising complexion — a warming trend coinciding with a full moon phase — Lester said he did not find the shallow action he was expecting.
“After I got a good bag, I just went strictly sight fishing and looking for a great big one,” he said. “I knew I needed a good one to cull. I’m just not seeing the females up there. There are a lot of males all over the place, but the females are not showing up like I thought they would.
“It could be any day. You have to keep checking it, because if you’re the guy who misses out on that and they do show up, you’re going to look like a dummy.”
Capitalizing when opportunity availed, Schlapper is in second place with 22-15. Reporting an active day, he said a midday flurry dramatically changed his outcome.
“I had those two big bites and probably caught another 10 or 11 keepers,” Schlapper said. “My other ones were 2- to 2 1/2-pounders. Those two big fish made my bag.
“In Florida, you just never know when you’re going to get that big bite and I just got two of them and got them in the boat. One was a bed fish and the other one I got just fishing.”
Schlapper said he caught bass on a variety of presentations that included jerkbaits, lipless baits and flipping. He caught both of his big fish by flipping a Texas-rigged Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog in a small canal.
Buddy Gross of Chattanooga, Tenn., is in third with 22-12. Initial disappointment ultimately led him to a successful day, as crowded waters forced a change of game plan.
“I just made some really good decisions today,” Gross said. “Everything I wanted to fish got really crowded this morning and there were 15 to 20 boats sitting where I wanted to go, so I just stopped a little sooner, started fishing and picked up one or two.
“I went to another place and picked up one or two and then I just started keying in on them. They were little to start with but about midday I started culling up and it started getting a lot better.”
Gross said the fishing pressure pushed his bass away from where he thought they would be, but he was able to relocate them on isolated places amid offshore grass. He caught his fish on moving baits.
“I can catch them on anything,” Gross said. “When you find them, they’re biting.”
Jamie Hartman of Newport, N.Y., is in the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with his 8-10 largemouth. Lester’s Day 1 lead has him atop the VMC Monster Bag standings for the event’s heaviest limit.
David Mullins of Mt. Carmel, Tenn., leads the Angler of the Year standings with 186 points. Scott Canterbury of Odenville, Ala., is second with 183, followed by John Cox of DeBary, Fla., with 183, Hartman with 180 and Jake Whitaker of Fairview, N.C., with 178.
Jay Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., leads the Falcon Rods Rookie of the Year standings with 135 points.
Friday’s takeoff is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. ET at Venetian Gardens (Ski Beach). The weigh-in will be held back at Venetian Gardens (Ski Beach) at 3:30 p.m. Only the Top 47 remaining anglers will advance to Saturday’s semifinal round. Full coverage will be available on Bassmaster.com.
The tournament is being hosted by Visit Lake, FL.