Southern Division starts with 260 boats at the Harris Chain - Major League Fishing

Southern Division starts with 260 boats at the Harris Chain

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February 1, 2023 • Rob Newell • Toyota Series

LEESBURG, Fla. – The Harris Chain of Lakes has the honor of kicking off the 2023 Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats Southern Division. Since it’s the season opener, 260 pros and Strike King co-anglers are going to sample the Harris Chain on the prespawn to spawn side of the card this year. The last two years, the Toyota Series event on the Harris Chain has been mostly a postspawn event, held in May of 2022 and March of 2021. With the change to early February, some big weights are expected due to rising water temperatures and a growing moon. Tournaments in recent weeks have seen some huge limits and a rash of double-digit fish.

About the fishery

The Harris Chain of Lakes in Central Florida is somewhat like an amusement park of Florida bass fishing, offering up to 10 different lakes to fish and plenty of weedy real estate to cast at. In all, the 10 lakes total some 50,000 acres that include open water, canals, rivers, creeks, swamps and sloughs. If you don’t care for what one lake offers, just jump over to the next one.

The four biggest lakes in the system include Lake Harris (and Little Lake Harris), Lake Griffin, Lake Eustis and Lake Apopka. All of these lakes have bigger open basins that average 10 feet in depth and are known for harboring bigger populations of bass than the smaller ponds such as Dora, Carlton and Horseshoe.

The Toyota Series will launch in Lake Harris, but anglers will be allowed to fish any of the other lakes in the chain. Leaving Harris, however, requires giving up fishing time to navigate through extensive idle zones, canals and small locks. The longest of the commutes would be either a trip to Lake Apopka (about an hour and 15 minutes) or a trip to Lake Griffin (nearly an hour). Either one requires multiple idle zones and passing through a lock.

Offshore fishing has played a big role in Harris Chain success in the last few years due to later tournaments and forward-facing sonar technology. This week, however, could be a throwback to more sight fishing in the canals.

What the Harris Chain has to offer

Current conditions

Central Florida experienced some freezing temperatures in December, around Christmas time, which flushed the water temperatures.

“The water temperature got down into the low 50s, which is pretty cold for here,” said Jonathan Semento of Okahumpka, Florida, who won the last Toyota Series event on the Harris Chain. “Since then, it’s been on its way back up. It’s getting back up into the mid-60s now and with the full moon coming Sunday, there should be a big wave headed to the bank this week.

“Whenever we get some severe cold down here and then it warms back up like this, it tends to bunch all the fish up on the same spawning waves with the moons,” Semento said. “I believe that’s going to here happen this week. The clearwater canals will probably be a madhouse.”

“It’s definitely setting up to be a slugfest,” said local pro Bobby Bakewell of Orlando, Florida. “We have stable weather the rest of the week, with temperatures into the 80s to the weekend. This is the window when sight fishing can play and we’re going to hit that just right.”

“These bass are as big as they are going to get all year,” Bakewell said. “The females are full of eggs and the males are still stocky since most of them haven’t become skinny from guarding beds.”

Both Semento and Bakewell say the entire chain is in good shape right now. Healthy eelgrass and hydrilla can be found in most of the lakes.

Tactics in play

Due to the intensive advancements in sonar and electronics over the last decade, the Harris Chain has become known as an offshore fishery. Certainly, there will be some prespawn and postspawn fish caught from the spotting scopes. But the old-school sight fishing game of cruising canals, pockets and marshes on the trolly in search of bass locked down on beds looks like it’s going to play, too. With that in mind, blind-casting weightless Senkos and pitching soft plastics pegged to light weights to eelgrass holes is always an old Florida standby during the spawn. In addition, whenever there is this much fishing pressure in Florida, the bass will bury up in the thick stuff and a big weight could pay off as well.

Critical factors

  • Stable weather + Rising water temperatures + Growing moon = Smashfest.
  • Extreme pressure – Over the last few weeks, the Harris Chain has hosted several high school and college events, as well as a couple of other tournaments. It’s estimated that the lakes have already seen some 500 to 600 boats in recent weeks. Now add in the Toyota Series field, which is maxed out at 260 boats carrying 520 anglers and these bass are seeing plenty of lures.
  • Boat number – Boat draws for takeoff order are always a factor in tournaments, but it’s particularly a factor at the Harris Chain, especially with 260 boats. The lock to Griffin holds about nine boats at a time. And the lock to Apopka only holds three boats at a time. Add to that the numerous idle zones and that’s a lot of chokepoints hindering a late boat number. On the flip side, an early boat draw to be first through the locks gives an angler the pick of low-hanging fruit, especially with sight fishing in play.
  • Middle of the week – With so many boats in the Toyota Series, many competitors are thankful that the event is being held on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as opposed to into the weekend. With such beautiful weather in Florida right now, there is little doubt the pleasure boaters will be out in full force on Saturday.
  • Fog delays – There is a chance of fog over the next few days. A lengthy fog delay one of the days could really throw a wrench into the decision-making process.
  • Apopka ace in the hole – In the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit event in 2022, Christian Greico of Tampa, Florida, won the event by qualifying for the Top 10 in Harris and then traversing the tiny lock into Apopka on the final day when there was no wait. It was a smart strategy on his part and one that could be duplicated this week. Once the Toyota Series field is cut to 25 boats on Friday, getting through the lock will be much quicker, giving an angler more fishing time.

Dock talk

Big bass have been the talk of the town in Leesburg recently. In one tournament over the weekend, there were two bass over 10 pounds and two bass over 11 pounds caught.

Some believe a 30-pound plus limit or two is possible this week.

“I know it can be done here,” Bakewell said. “During the holidays, my dad and I won the Black Friday Open the day after Thanksgiving with 36 pounds, which included one over 10. So I think it is possible to see a 30-plus limit sometime this week. If not, high 20s is certainly in the cards. The conditions are right and there are going to be a lot of fish caught.”