Giant spawning bass kept popping up in the weigh-in bags of some of the FLW Tour’s heavy hitters during the first two days of the Harris Chain event, which was presented by Lowrance. And after Friday’s weigh-in it looked like spawners might produce the kind of mega-bag that it takes to win in Florida.
They didn’t. Whether the biggest spawners were just fished out or the spawning wave was finished, that program dried up to a trickle on Saturday, and only three pros made the top 10 by leaning on spawning bass. They were Glenn Browne, Jared McMillan and Anthony Gagliardi, who only had one good day of bed-fishing. The rest of the top 10, including four of the top five, were camped out offshore where they caught prespawn and postspawn bass and capitalized on a shad spawn.
Browne fished Apopka all week, and McMillan went to Denham. John Hunter fished Little Harris. The other seven top-10 finishers spent the majority of their time in Lake Harris, where the tournament’s takeoff and weigh-in were based.
Canadian pro Chris Johnston played the offshore game best and earned his first career FLW Tour win with a four-day total of 79 pounds, 6 ounces. Here’s how the rest of the top 10 handled stop No. 2 of the 2018 Tour.
Jeff Gustafson is a fan favorite among Canadian bass anglers. He’s a television star in his home country, an outdoor communicator and a successful guide. Most importantly, he’s a friendly, approachable fishing celebrity, which is why he’s so popular back home and throughout the Upper Midwest. And he can also flat out get it done in tournament competition.
“Gussy,” as he’s known, has a successful tournament resume in Canada and is showing each season on the FLW Tour that he can get it done on U.S. waters, too. This week, he came closer than ever to winning a Tour event, finishing runner-up to Johnston by less than 3 pounds for his third career top-10 finish.
“You put one on and it’ll last you, like, 40 fish,” he says of the RaZor ShadZ.
On the final day, Gussy hammered away at fish after fish. By lunchtime he didn’t have a keeper smaller than 3 pounds in the box, with a 6-plus kicker to go with them.
“I probably had eight or 10 spots. Most were a hole or edge,” he says. “I had one or two places it was matted on top. If you’d catch them there they seemed to be schooled up better. But I didn’t catch any on those spots today [Sunday].
“You had to fish to find the spots,” Gussy adds. “It was very easy to go an hour or two without a bite, and I think that’s what discouraged a lot of people from doing it.”
Gussy’s best spots were 8 to 12 feet deep.
“I was fishing the ChatterBait like a ‘trap’ [Rat-L-Trap],” he says. “On top of the stuff I was reeling it like normal. On the ‘edgy’ stuff I’d fire it out, let it sink and just rip it up off the bottom. I was popping it. A few of these spots I think you could’ve caught them on a trap, but on a lot of them it [the grass] was too thick.”
An important key to Gussy’s presentation was his rod selection – a G.Loomis NRX 894 7-foot, 5-inch, 4-power (heavy). The stiffer rod helped with ripping the bait through grass and with setting the hook at the end of a long cast. He paired it with 20-pound-test fluorocarbon.
Pre-weigh-in estimates for John Hunter’s final limit ranged from 20 pounds to nearly 24 pounds, which gave him a lot of buzz on the FLW Live show and social media leading up to Sunday’s weigh-in. Unfortunately, even if he had weighed 24 pounds, Hunter still would have had too much of a deficit to make up to come from 10th place and catch Johnston. He finished with 21-11 and a four-day total of 75-13.
Hunter was consistently around the 20-pound mark every day except day one, when he weighed in only 13-6.
He targeted offshore hydrilla in 5 to 8 feet of water on large flat in Little Harris.
“I did the same thing every day of the tournament,” he says. “I didn’t fish my primary area the first day until midday. I caught them pretty good, and that’s what clued me in that I was doing the right thing.”
The right thing was throwing a 6th Sense Provoke jerkbait in a solid shad pattern in low-light conditions and a translucent Megabass Vision 110 in the afternoons when the sun got high. He also fished a Z-Man/Evergreen Jack Hammer ChatterBait in shallower areas.
“These fish would gang up on the little holes in the grass,” he says. “There’d be a sand spot, and they’d group up really tight there. It wasn’t a great big spot; it’d be the size of your boat. As soon as I’d catch one, I’d pole down, because if you’d catch one, you’d catch five. There wasn’t much action in between. Sometimes I’d go one or two hours in between flurries.”
Hunter located one or two of the key sand spots in practice and gradually expanded on them during the tournament. He wound up catching about half of his fish on the deeper end of his depth range and half shallower, though he says the bulk of the fish were gradually moving out throughout the event.
The only other keeper Hunter weighed in was a 5-pounder he caught on a prop bait in the early hours of day four.
“I went up shallow because I was struggling to get bit in the mornings,” he adds.
The highlight of the week for him was the 7-pounder that hammered the ChatterBait in front of one of FLW’s cameramen on the final day. That fish hit the tournament blog in the afternoon and eventually fired up a packed weigh-in crowd when Hunter was the first to weigh in and showed off the Harris hawg for the Leesburg bass heads.
A lot of folks believed that if anyone was going to catch Chris Johnston on the final day, it’d be Florida’s own Glenn Browne, who was dialed in on a bed-fishing pattern about 90 minutes away from takeoff in Lake Apopka.
Unfortunately for Browne, the quality bites seemed to taper off during the weekend, and he came up shy.
“I don’t know what happened,” Browne says. “I ran a lot of new water. I don’t know if they’re just finishing up on this wave or what.”
Apopka used to be one of Florida’s best lakes until poor agricultural practices around the lake degraded the water quality. The state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the habitat and stock bass. It’s once again a quality fishery, but the time commitment to get there kept most pros from making the run to Apopka. Only six pros made the trip down on day one, but three of them – Browne, Zack Birge and Jordan Osborne – reached the top-30 cut.
“I generally like Griffin. I live 20 minutes from Griffin,” Browne says. “I went down there [to Apopka] before it went off-limits and got a lot of bites. I got bites several places, but the better quality was down there. Plus I knew there wouldn’t be many other people down there.”
Apopka’s murky water left Browne unable to sight-fish for the spawners he was catching. Instead, he flipped a Copperfield-colored Gambler Ugly Otter on a 1/2-ounce Texas rig to holes and other spots among arrowhead plants and reeds where he assumed bass might be spawning.
“That lake has a real mucky bottom,” Browne says. “They [arrowheads] have a harder root system. They’ll spawn on the roots.”
Most fish ate the bait on the initial fall. When Browne spotted any type of movement or swirl in the water, he’d lock down with his Power-Poles, pitch in and treat the situation as if he was sight-fishing.
Browne’s flipping tackle included a 7-foot, 6-inch Team Lew’s Custom Pro Speed Stick Series Magnum Heavy Cover rod, a Lew’s SuperDuty G Speed Spool LFS Series XHL reel with the Flipping Speed Switch and 65-pound-test braided line.
Buddy Gross didn’t spend every minute of his four-day tournament at one hydrilla flat on Lake Harris, but he might as well have. That’s where he caught the bulk of his 69-15 tournament total.
“I found some holes [in the hydrilla], and I was keying on the holes,” Gross says. “I wasn’t using the edges. It was about 8 feet deep, and the grass came up about 4 feet above the bottom.
“I found an area with about six or seven holes together. It was great until today [Sunday]. I think we just caught ’em all. I was sharing with Bryan Thrift [13th place].”
Gross says every big fish he caught was a postspawn fish, but the spot included a mix. One 2-pounder he caught the last day was dropping eggs.
His go-to baits were a Profound Outdoors Azuma Shaker Z Mime lipless crankbait (chrome), a Texas-rigged Zoom Trick Worm (junebug) and a Z-Man ChatterBait (white). Whenever he found a patch of grass to flip, Gross used a Zoom Z Craw.
Had he not had to share his offshore spot in Harris with several other top-30 pros who, combined, weighed in eight 20-pound-plus stringers over four days, Matt Greenblatt might well have pressed Johnston for the win.
Unfortunately, early limits of 19-11 and 22-1 gave way to 13-4 and 14-1 on the weekend, and Greenblatt simply couldn’t keep pace.
“The big girls left the building,” he says. “I beat up that area pretty bad, but so did many others. And they were there, but they were on the move.”
Greenblatt thinks his offshore spot was so productive because it was close to shore, which meant bass that were staging there to spawn or leaving the nests didn’t have to travel too far to reach the hydrilla he was fishing.
His best areas ranged from 5 to 9 feet deep, with scattered grass on the edges and thicker grass in the middle. The grass was formed into three rows, with two bare areas in between that appeared to form an equal sign.
“I was running the lanes,” Greenblatt says. “They were kind of holding where the void met the grass.”
There were tons of small buck bass in the area, he recalls. Greenblatt says the best way to target a bigger bite was to go big and go fast, so he gradually stepped up his black and blue Yamamoto Senko from a 5-incher to a 6-incher to a 7-incher on the final day. Similarly, he fished his junebug Zoom UV Speed Worm with a fast retrieve.
In his hunt for his first career win as a pro, Tony Dumitras saw everything go just as planned, right up until the final day. He fell out of contention on Sunday with just two fish for 7-6.
“I got five bites and only caught two,” Dumitras says. “I broke off one good one, set the hook too quick on another.”
All week Dumitras frequented four offshore areas in Harris and Little Harris that were located very close to spawning flats. He fished a Texas-rigged black Zoom Magnum Trick Worm at a painfully slow pace, only occasionally working in a gold Strike King Red Eye Shad, Keitech swimbait and Zoom Fluke rigged on a lead-head.
His best area was 8 to 10 feet deep. Shad were spawning in hydrilla, providing a good morning bite that on the final day produced a 6-pounder right after takeoff. The flurry just didn’t last.
“They moved up,” Dumitras says. “I believe they did. But the thing about it is I couldn’t trim my motor to go up and get them. It went out.”
Texan Kurt Dove was in the offshore camp as well. He exclusively fished hydrilla flats in Lake Harris.
Dove fished two primary areas that were very close to one another. His best spot was one he shared with Anthony Gagliardi. It was 11 to 12 feet deep.
“I started off really good. I had 19-4 on day one fishing outside hydrilla,” Dove says. “Anthony and I fished real close all day. It was an all-day bite.
“Day two the morning bite was slower. I had 16-5. I got a limit real quick for about 13 pounds and then had to go middepth – about 8 feet.”
On the shallower spot, Dove targeted “barren ground,” or open holes in the grass where bass were grouped up.
He worked the combo approach again on day three and landed 14 pounds early offshore, then upgraded later with a few better fish, including a 6-pounder, to get to 19-6. The final day went slowly all around, and Dove finished up with just 12-1.
“Whether it was deep plastics or jerkbaits, I had a hard time getting bit,” he adds. “I couldn’t get any quality bites.”
Dove fished an ima Flit 120 jerkbait in chartreuse shad on his shallower areas. He found the deep spot while punching some thicker patches of hydrilla, but in the tournament he wound up catching the deeper fish on a Yamamoto Senko in black blue fleck.
“Whenever it was high and sunny, the deep bite stayed good all day,” he says. “When it was cloudy I switched to a jerkbait.”
Only Jared McMillan and Harry Moore made the long idle trip into Lake Denham, which is located just west of Lake Harris. To most observers, there wasn’t much to like about Denham, but that’s what McMillan liked about it: There wasn’t much fishing pressure. His strategy earned him a top-10 finish and landed him in second place behind Chris Johnston in the Angler of the Year race after two events.
“There’s a lot of slime,” McMillan says of Denham. “In practice I found a bunch of beds there, but just no fish on most of them.”
Although bedding fish weren’t prevalent, in practice McMillan did spot a 10-pounder and a 5-pounder on beds, and several good fish cruising. And he picked up a couple 4-pounders while burning a ChatterBait. That was enough to convince him to give it a shot.
“I figured if I got a bite in there it’d be better quality,” he says. “And I figured there wouldn’t be much pressure because of the slime.”
McMillan wound up catching a couple of keepers on the ChatterBait every day except day three, when he caught his entire limit sight-fishing. The rest of his keepers on the other three days were also sight-fished.
“There weren’t anymore [fish] moving up, and there was tons of fry,” he says of the final day, when he weighed his smallest limit – 11-1. “They’d already done their deal. I just got lucky and found a couple good ones.”
McMillan used the Z-Man/Evergreen Jack Hammer ChatterBait in green pumpkin with a Bruiser Baits Super Swimmer trailer. If he felt the fish were lethargic, he swapped the Super Swimmer for a Yamamoto Zako. He sight-fished with a Bruiser Baits Crazy Craw and Big Stick.
Former Forrest Wood Cup champ Anthony Gagliardi loves to sight-fish. Yet, for the first two days of the tournament, his primary pattern was fishing slowly in offshore hydrilla in Lake Harris. That’s how he caught his limits of 22-7 and 10-9 on days one and two, respectively.
After the struggle of day two, Gagliardi decided he’d been too stubborn. So on Saturday, he started deep, sacked about 13 pounds and left before he crashed and burned again.
He went sight-fishing and blind-casting for bedding fish in some canals located off the southwest corner of Lake Beauclair and upgraded to 24-13 to make the top-10 cut.
That’s when his luck ran out.
“Today [Sunday] I started deep,” he says. “It reminded me of day two, where it just seemed like it wasn’t going to happen.”
He abandoned the offshore pattern with less than a limit and ran back to the canals. Overcast skies that lasted late into the morning hurt him, as did dingy water in the canals. But better sight-fishing conditions likely wouldn’t have helped. Gagliardi’s fish just never moved onto the beds.
“Yesterday [Saturday] gave me a false sense of hope with those spawners up there,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t going to catch 24 pounds offshore, so I had to try. It was terrible. I didn’t actually see a bedding fish at all.”
Gagliardi picked up a few fish by blind-casting in the canals and then struck out at the end of the day on the offshore grass in Harris. A last-ditch effort to find a spawner on the bank at Harris was also fruitless. He assembled a limit of 7-4 for the day.
Gagliardi’s best offshore spot featured what he called “scattered, clumpy grass.” He caught fish there using a Carolina-rigged Black Flagg Grande Worm. In the shallows, he used a Buckeye Lures J-Will Swim Jig, but switched to a white-colored Black Flagg Slikk Shadd on a drop-shot for sight-fishing. A wacky worm produced a few bites on the final day.