Jeff Sprague finished in seventh place during Qualifying Day 4 to move on to the Knockout Round. Photo by Phoenix Moore
By Mason Prince - February 24, 2020
OKEECHOBEE, Fla. – Nothing carries a negative connotation in sports quite like the number zero. Rarely is a zero next to your name a good thing (unless maybe you’re a goalie in hockey).
Both anglers left their first Qualifying Round looking for answers. Areas that they had fished during practice were either blown out by the strong north wind or affected by the chilling cold front that swept through central Florida. Still, even with nothing to show for his first day, Sprague knew he was far from out of it.
“I knew I was one bite away from the Top 20 when I got here this morning,” Sprague said. “It wasn’t a big hill to climb, even though it seemed that way with how tough it has been to get bit this week. I know there’s enough fish and big fish in this lake that you’re never out of it. I just had to stay in a positive frame of mind.”
Climbing Back Into Contention
Although they were both tied for last place in Group B, the two pros were only 4 pounds, 3 ounces back of the 20th-place angler Boyd Duckett to start the day.
Browning’s Stage One ended earlier than he expected after falling from 11th place to outside of the Top 20 during Qualifying Day 3. The Arkansas pro didn’t catch a scorable bass his final day of competition in Stage One. Add on another zero to start Stage Two and he was starting to feel the pressure.
“I needed today to regain some confidence,” Browning explained. “After almost two full days of not catching one here I needed something positive. My confidence went from really low to really high all in about two hours.”
Browning’s Bite Blows Up
The day ended in a flurry for Browning, but the start to his second day was just as miserable as his first. With nothing to show on SCORETRACKER® in Period 1 and a majority of Period 2, Browning made a move back to an area that gave him fits on Saturday.
Why? Because Mother Nature is a fickle mistress.
“The wind started blowing out of the south instead of the north and blew some more water into the area I was fishing,” Browning recapped. “There just wasn’t enough water to even move your boat around on Saturday and I left pretty frustrated. I went back there to end the day today because I knew the water would be up and the temperature would be warmer. I’m glad I did.”
Targeting isolated vegetation with a vibrating jig, Browning said he quickly got some bites from some nonscorable bass, indicating he was on the right track. Finally, with 15 minutes left in Period 2, the breakthrough came in a 2-pound, 1-ounce largemouth.
“I just needed some deeper water,” Browning said with a smile of relief. “When I say deeper, I’m only talking about a difference of inches but every inch matters here. It’s maybe 2-feet deep where I’m fishing, but there seems to be a lot of fish there.”
With an hour and 15 minutes remaining in the round, Browning rattled off six more bass for 16-1 in a span of just 40 minutes. Browning ended the day in 12th place and 5 pounds above the Elimination Line. He will fish in his first Knockout Round of the 2020 season Tuesday.
Sun Shines on Sprague’s Strategy
Sprague, just like Browning, relied on knowledge he gathered in practice to figure out how to get the fish to bite. With only one bass for 2-1 to his name nearly four hours into the round, the Texas pro moved to an area where he found plenty of success in practice. As the sun began to warm up the waters of Lake Okeechobee, it also woke the bass out of their cold front funk.
“When I got there the sun was just starting to get high,” Sprague said. “The fish really moved in and started to set up on beds. I started moving slower after that and I could see more bass moving back in. I picked up a swim jig and worked ‘em pretty well with that.”
The Strike King pro slung the swim jig to perfection, tallying five bass for 13-12 in Period 2 and adding two for 4-6 to end Period 3. Sprague finished the round in seventh place with 20-3, 7-1 above the Elimination Line.
Sprague, Browning and the other 36 qualifying anglers will go “Lines In” for the Knockout Round at 8 a.m. EST on Tuesday. The Knockout Round can be streamed in its entirety with MLF NOW! on MajorLeagueFishing.com, the MLF app and MyOutdoorTV.