It was clear right from the start that the offshore grass found across the Harris Chain would be the deal for the Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI National Championship presented by Lowrance. In past FLW events on the chain, the grass was best in Griffin and Harris, but this time Dora, Beauclair, Eustis and Harris provided most of the top bags. Targeting hydrilla, eelgrass and hard spots, prespawn and postspawn fish were the focus for the vast majority of the top schools.
Stephen F. Austin State University’s Hank Harrison and Ethan LeGare had a milk-run of three points in Beauclair, Dora and Eustis that helped them sack up 56 pounds, 5 ounces over three days to claim the title. Most of the other top teams ran similar gameplans, but there were a few notable differences among the top squads in the National Championship.
2. Eelgrass patches provide for Sam Houston
Catching the second-biggest bag on the final day – 19-1 – Jayce Garrison and Mason Hoke nearly won the tournament by rotating through two main stretches of bank in Lake Dora.
“We were just keying on wind-blown eelgrass patches that were out in 4 to 6 foot,” says Hoke. “It’s where the perch were spawning and the big postspawn females were out there waiting for them to swim by.”
The duo dialed in their pattern by putting the trolling motor down.
“We actually had to just fish to find [the eelgrass] and that’s why we just stuck to one lake and really figured it out,” Hoke continues. “We couldn’t get bit that much in practice, but we were getting quality.
“We had two milk-runs that were just two, mile-long stretches and we would just put the trolling motor down and fish,” Garrison adds. “Typically, we’d get five or six bites off each of them each time we went through.”
Hoke and Garrison leaned on a vibrating jig for their runner-up finish. Trying to key on bigger bites, Hoke used a Terminator Shuddering Bait matched with a Yamamoto Zako for a bigger profile bait and different vibration to try to select for kicker fish. Garrison stuck with a Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer, but started the day with a 6th Sense Divine swimbait trailer before they had a limit and switched to a Lake Fork Live Magic Shad for bigger bites later in the day.
3. Bethel goes offshore in Griffin, looks for kickers
John Garrett and Kyle Palmer of Bethel University had a pretty consistent game plan for the week. And though they never could duplicate their 19-1 bag from day one, they had no issue getting bites.
The duo targeted an offshore area in Griffin to get the ball rolling with a decent limit. Once they had that, they ran around the rest of the day looking for a kicker bite or two from spawning fish.
“We really found a special spot on Griffin, but it didn’t end up holding out for us,” says Garrett. “We found a hard spot in the middle of a depression and it held fish in low-light conditions. So, we went there first thing and had a good start to every day – [Friday] was our worst start – and from then on we just went bed fishing, running new water to find them.”
“We spent the majority of our first two days in the canals in Griffin,” Palmer says of where they searched for spawners. “[Friday] we thought we had used up our canals in Griffin, so we left and just started running new water and found a big one on bed at the end of the day that helped us out.”
Palmer doesn’t have any Florida experience, but Garrett does. Considering his track record in the Sunshine State, their performance this week was much needed redemption.
“This is my third time here and I do terrible every time I’m in Florida,” Garrett says. “I had a preconceived notion that we had to find fish offshore. Every time I’m here I want to catch fish up shallow and it never happens, so we spent the whole time fishing offshore and got lucky and found a good spot.”
With a deck full of rods, the Bethel squad tossed a Texas-rigged Strike King Magnum Cut-R Worm, Thunder Cricket or spoon on their offshore juice. For the bed fish, they flipped a Strike King Rage Bug.
4. Slippery Rock stays close
Fishing in his fourth-straight National Championship, Nathan Quince and partner Cody Neal got dialed on a pretty special spot, though, if it wasn’t for a mechanical issue to start practice they may have never stumbled on it.
“My jack plate broke in practice, so we couldn’t really run far or fast because it was stuck all the way up,” Quince says. “We knew we couldn’t go far and knew it was going to be windy, so we went into Helena Run and didn’t see anybody and the water was crystal clear. We caught three little keepers, so we figured we’d start there and see what happens.
“Once we started fishing that spot in the tournament, we caught some bigger ones closer to the pads and figured they were staging up to spawn. Then on day two we found out there was eelgrass off the bank and that’s where the fish were staging.”
Aside from prespawn fish, the duo also had another key ingredient to help get better fish in the boat early.
“There was a shad spawn going on back there in the morning, so I threw a fluke around the pads,” Neal says. “I caught a giant first day on it, but after the front they didn’t want the fluke as much.”
Despite the cold front that pushed through on day two, the prespawn fish they were targeting were eager to push up. By the final day most of the big ones had pushed up on bed and the eelgrass and pad stretches they were fishing only coughed up three keepers.
“We also knew these fish have been getting hammered for like a month straight, so we wanted to get away from the pressure,” Quince adds. “It paid off for two days to get us into the cut, but it didn’t really pan out [Friday].”
5. Bryan junk fishes across the chain
While the majority of the top 10 hunkered down in one lake, the Bryan College squad of Conner DiMauro and Cole Sands weighed fish from a handful of lakes en route to their top-10 performance.
Though they did catch a big one off a bed early in the week, for the most part the pair stayed off the bank. DiMauro is from the Orlando area and has spent plenty of time on the Harris Chain, so he and Sands knew in practice that their time would be better spent graphing for good grass versus fishing in order to find high-percentage areas for prespawn and postspawn fish.
“We looked for any offshore grass and it seemed like the more isolated it was, the better,” Sands says. “Eelgrass seemed to be a real big key, but we also caught a lot of fish out of coontail on day two.”
Isolated grass was the ticket, and it was even better if there was some shell nearby. Having numbers of spots to run definitely helped put the odds in their favor.
“We weighed fish out of Harris, Dora, Beauclair and Eustis,” says DiMauro. “We started the first two days in a creek in Harris, but [Friday] we didn’t start there because we didn’t think we could win out of it. We thought the winning fish were offshore, and we got one of the right bites offshore, but none of our grass areas turned on.”
For the offshore grass, DiMauro tossed a Yo-Zuri Rattl’n Vibe (blue chrome or gold shiner) thrown on Yo Zuri TopKnot 14-pound fluorocarbon. The other main players for Byran College were a Texas-rigged Zoom Z Craw Worm, a Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer and a Rapala Shadow Rap.
6. Badgers camp on staging fish
Sam Medo and Colin Steck of the University of Wisconsin catapulted their way into the top 10 with the help of their 20-pound day-two bag. Focusing on one main area in Harris, the duo was catching prespawn fish waiting to push shallow to spawn.
“We were keying in on what we think was kind of a staging area for a lot of prespawners waiting to move up,” Medo says. “It was eelgrass with clumps of hydrilla mixed in. We were catching a ton of males and every now and then we’d get a key big bite. We fished a 100-yard stretch the entire tournament.”
Having never been to Florida before, the Badger team had a rough practice. They found their magic spot on the last day of practice and it was enough to carry them all three days.
“The whole bay has fish in it, but that 100-yard stretch had 6- and 7-pounders in it,” Steck adds. “You’d Side Image it and couldn’t really tell why they were there, but that was the only spot that we caught our big fish out of and two or three other boats on day two caught big ones there too.”
7. Evansville works offshore grass
Noah Whalen and Blake Knies of the University of Evansville were part of the contingent of teams running to Beauclair and Dora, which was a good call as it took them to the top 10. After two solid days of fishing, a big bite eluded them on the final day, but they still managed to move up a few spots to seventh.
“We caught our fish from offshore grass, mainly eelgrass was key,” says Knies. “There were some areas that were in 5 to 7 feet and patches that were isolated and that’s where we caught most of our fish the first day. Then we pulled up on another spot that was maybe 3-foot deep and there were little sand holes in hydrilla and eelgrass flat. We could see the white sand holes and we caught them out of the holes.”
Their main spot was in Beauclair and it produced a dandy 8-pounder for Whalen on day two, yet the fish moved daily, and they could never get a big bite on the final day.
“We started practice in Eustis and never got a bite,” Everything was just mud bottom and when we went to Dora the second day of practice every time we stopped it was sand bottom and looked nicer. Plus, we got bites, so that’s why we went up there.”
To catch their fish, Whalen stuck with a Gambler Big EZ in green pumpkin/red rigged on a Trokar Magnum Weighted Swimbait Hook thrown on a 7-foot, medium action Denali Lithium paired with an Abu Garcia Revo Winch. Knies went with the tried-and-true ½-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a Z-Man RaZor ShadZ tossed on an Abu Garcia Veritas and Revo SX combo.
8. McKendree milks grass in Dora
Being the only team to break the 20-pound mark two days in a row, the McKendree University team of Nathan Doty and Jacob Louis had quite the event. Unfortunately, due to an inadvertent rule violation on the final day that disqualified their day’s catch, the duo settled into the eighth spot.
The Bearcat team had two main spots, with the juice being a point on the west side of Dora. It had a mixture of grass on it and the two basically worked it meticulously over the course of the day.
To start the tournament, they were able to wind their Texas-rigged Zoom Ultravibe Speed Worm and Gambler Burner Worm over the top of the grass pretty quickly. After the cold front passed through, they had to slow it down to more of a drag, crawling it over the grass clumps.
9. Georgia College flips in Little Harris
Georgia College’s John Garrett Pearson and Rudy Pearson, who are cousins, are very familiar with Lake Seminole, and though they’ve never fished solely within the state of Florida, that didn’t stop them from sticking to their roots to lock up ninth.
“We tried to look offshore, but we just never found anything,” says John Garrett. “The second day of practice I put a flipping stick in my hand and I haven’t picked anything else up since.
“We caught our fish flipping bank grass in Little Harris,” John Garrett continues. “We were just running down the bank trying to drop in front of one. We tried to fish Harris on the first day and that didn’t really work out, so the second day we settled down in Little Harris and dropped in front of five big ones.”
Though other schools tried flipping grass without much luck, Rudy and John Garrett believe that their willingness to stick with it is what carried them to the final day.
“I think what made us separate ourselves from other people is that they’d flip for 30 yards and then go somewhere else, but we would flip for a mile before we got a bite,” John Garrett adds. “Just knowing at any flip you could catch one.”
The Bobcat duo kicked off the tournament split between throwing a War Eagle spinnerbait and flipping a ½-ounce tungsten weight with a Bass Pro Shops Stik-O. By the end of the event they had transitioned solely to flipping and added a Zoom Z Craw (South Africa special) to the mix.
10. Gannon rides big day two to top 10
Coming from Pennsylvania, the Gannon University duo of Nolan Pyle and Aaron Bunting had never caught a bass farther south than North Carolina, but after catching a few of their personal best largemouths this week, they are pretty pleased with how the tournament panned out.
Despite catching just 10 pounds on day one, the Gannon team did work on day two sacking up 24-8 to jump into seventh. The magic didn’t carry over into day three, but it’s hard to complain after a rally like that.
“I’ve never caught a largemouth over 6 pounds, but that changed on day two,” Pyle says. “I broke my PB, and Aaron broke his once, maybe twice.”
Leaning a little on a shad spawn bite in the morning, the real magic happened when they found a shell bed in Griffin.
“Day two we pulled up on a shell bed and they were just on it,” Pyle continues. “After catching only 10 pounds on day one we knew we needed to change something. We found that shell bed during the tournament because it was near an area we were fishing. It was on the side of a point and the wind was blowing on it to make a little eddy and they were just there.”
To do their damage they picked up a ½-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer matched with a Yamamoto Zako to a Lew’s TP-1 Black rod to throw a Carolina-rigged Zoom Trick Worm (junebug) on a ½-ounce tungsten bullet weight.