Chris Lane and the rest of the Bass Pro Tour field will be swinging for big fish at Heavy Hitters on the Kissimmee Chain. Photo by Phoenix Moore
By Joel Shangle - May 9, 2020
TULSA, Okla. – Time to get back to the business of catching and weighing bass.
After a 2 1/2-month pause in the tournament-fishing schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the MLF Bass Pro Tour will resume action in early June with a return to the fishery where the circuit started: Florida’s Kissimmee Chain.
The 80-man Bass Pro Tour field will compete June 7-12 in the Heavy Hitters Presented by Venmo big-fish event on Lake Tohopakagila, Lake Kissimmee, Lake Cypress and Lake Hatchineha in Central Florida (the site of five competition rounds in the inaugural Bass Pro Tour event in 2019). In addition to the $745,000 payout for the six-day competition, the event will also be counted as regular-season Bass Pro Tour stage, with points counting toward qualification for REDCREST 2021.
The Kissimmee Chain was originally slated to host the first-ever Heavy Hitters competition May 16-20, an event designed for 30 anglers who would qualify through their performances in Stages One through Five. But with COVID-related travel and socialization restrictions still in place throughout much of the country in May – and the Stage Four and Stage Five events in North Carolina and Oklahoma postponed/canceled – MLF reorganized the schedule to combine Heavy Hitters with a Bass Pro Tour stage to restart the 2020 season.
That means that both the $745,000 Heavy Hitters payout and REDCREST 2021 points will be on the line when the schedule commences in June.
“The thing that’s so positive about our league is the flexibility to turn on a dime to make corrections that benefit our anglers,” said MLF Co-Founder Boyd Duckett. “We knew how great and unique Heavy Hitters was going to be, but because of this unforeseen worldwide pandemic, our season was shortened and we were forced to make adjustments. But this is a really cool adjustment: we keep Heavy Hitters, and we turn it into a points event to qualify for REDCREST. It’s an awesome restart to our 2020 schedule.”
Heavy Hitters and Points Earners
The June 7-12 event will award $200,000 in big fish prizes: $100,000 for the big fish on the final day, $50,000 for big fish in the Knockout Round, and $25,000 apiece for biggest fish in two qualifying groups. The additional $545,000 in prize money will be awarded for anglers’ overall finish in the event, with the winner cashing a $100,000 check, second place taking home $40,000, and all 80 anglers receiving a minimum payout of $4,000.
“Stop and think for a minute about what we’ll get to see at Heavy Hitters,” said MLF NOW! analyst Marty Stone. “We’re going to have a camera on all 10 boats on the final day, so we’ll get to see somebody hook, fight, swing and land a $100,000 fish – and try to keep their composure while they’re doing it. In all my years in this game, I’ve never seen the swing of a rod that I knew would be worth $100,000, and we’re going to watch that happen live! If you’re that guy, and you’re reaching for that fish, you know you’re reaching for $100,000. That’s a different kind of pressure, I don’t care how long you’ve fished.”
An Early Look at Kissimmee in June
The Kissimmee Chain has long been a top-tier destination for tournaments of all levels, with hundreds of national and regional events running out of Big Toho Marina over the years. But those events have almost all been held in the dead of winter or early spring – late January through March – and the early-June largemouth fisheries on Toho, Kissimmee, Cypress and Hatchineha have flown under the radar for almost all but Florida locals.
Local tournament results show that Florida’s bass crowd has quietly had a big-fish bonanza to itself in early June, though: an annual benefit team tournament held on the Kissimmee Chain the first Saturday in June since 2015 has demanded a 6- to 7-pound average on five fish to win. That one-day tournament typically produces a winning five-fish bag between 34 and 35 pounds, and several fish between 8 and 10 pounds.
“I think Heavy Hitters is going to be really good: There’s this weird window from mid-May to the second week of June where that fishery fires back up again, and the weights go through the roof,” said MLF NOW! analyst JT Kenney. “Nobody outside of Florida ever hears about this, but the locals around here look forward to that little window. There are no cold fronts, everything is pretty stable, and all of a sudden, it takes 34 to 35 pounds to win a five-fish tournament. And it’s not just one 35-pound bag and a bunch of small bags – you have to catch 28 to 29 pounds to be in the Top 5.”
Lake Champlain Follows Up
The MLF season will continue July 10-15 with the Evinrude Stage Five Presented by Covercraft on Lake Champlain out of Burlington, Vermont. Originally slated to host Stage Eight July 20-25, Champlain became a viable option for a slightly earlier event when the host city and organization (Experience Vermont) confirmed that facilities would be available as part of the State of Vermont’s phased COVID opening.
The mid-July tournament date on Champlain puts the field on a familiar tournament lake – eight Bass Pro Tour anglers have won tour-level events on the sprawling 314,000-acre fishery – at a time when the both smallmouth and largemouth should play heavily under the MLF variable-weight-limit format.
“That’s the cool thing about Lake Champlain: you have options,” said Berkley pro Adrian Avena, who won an FLW Series event on Champlain in 2011. “It’s generally not dominated by one particular species. If you want to target largemouth, you can catch a bunch of largemouth. If you want to put all your eggs in the smallmouth basket and fish for smallies, you can do that, too. (The two species) live so close to each other on Champlain – which is pretty rare – that you see a lot of tournaments won on mixed bags.”
Stage Five Champlain will be the final regular-season event of the 2020 season, and the final opportunity for the field to qualify for REDCREST 2021, which will be contested Feb. 23-27 on Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees in Oklahoma.
“We worked hard to create a schedule scenario where our anglers can ‘stay in the game’ in a pretty challenging time,” Duckett said. “Two more events to fish in a five-event season still gives guys a fighting chance to qualify for REDCREST if they’re down lower in the points standings. It’s a good, angler-focused solution to a pretty major interruption to everybody’s life and schedule.”