Bassmaster Southern Open – Lake Toho
Kissimmee, Florida
43rd Place
10 fish, 20-11

People think of me primarily as a finesse fisherman, but I also love to flip and sight-fish, and those techniques are the ones that most frequently come into play in our early season Florida tournaments. I have a pretty strong track record in the Sunshine State. In fact, a lot of people may forget this, but in the 2001 event that Dean Rojas won and set the single-day record with a limit of over 45 pounds, I weighed in 34 pounds the first day and ended up third overall.

The more I fish in Florida, the more I believe that luck plays a really big role down there in many of our events. There are just certain areas that seem to produce, and certain stretches within those areas, so instead of focusing on patterns, you’re hoping to stumble onto the right spot.

I spent the first day of practice looking for some bed fish, and I found a bunch but they were all 1 to 2 pound males, so after a few hours of searching I pulled out my punching rod and got to work. Over the next four plus days I was able to get used to my new 7’10” Megabass Black Jungle Punching Rod and I don’t know that I could have made that many flips with any other stick on the market. It’s got a lot of meat to it – I think you could lift a 7 or 8 year old kid off the ground with it – but it’s super-light, like a 7 footer. I gave it a good workout, too, as I averaged somewhere between 12 and 18 pounds for my best five fish each of the five days of practice.

Usually I like Toho the best on that entire chain of lakes, but it was like a ghost town during the practice period. Lots of those Open guys will prefish for 10 days or two weeks, but by the time I got there they were mostly down on Kissimmee. That lake typically hasn’t been good to me, but when I headed down there on the fourth day of practice around noon, I could tell that it was the place to be. I got more bites, and the average size was much better. I had just been wasting time on Toho. I got five hours down there that day and a full day the next day and I managed to identify some key stretches to flip.

I was boat number 97 the first day and it seemed like at least 160 of the 198 boats decided to lock down. On most bodies of water that wouldn’t be a huge problem, but the lock at Toho only holds 14 to 16 boats. On top of that, the wind was blowing 20 to 25 miles per hour straight into the lock and everyone was bouncing around. Furthermore, some less-than-ethical competitors decided to bypass the standard protocol and push their way in past everyone else. You could hear the fiberglass crunching and the cowlings cracking. I’m not kidding – it was that bad. After 20 minutes or so, I’d had enough. I was pretty upset and didn’t want it to get to me, so I left and fished Toho for a while. I caught a few, too, but not the quality you need to do well there.

By the time I got down to Kissimmee it was close to noon, but in a matter of 40 minutes I’d caught six more and culled out the two I caught in Toho. At that point I ran down to the lower section of the lake to see what the water was like to plan for Day Two. It was muddy, but both my co-angler and I got bit in the first five minutes, so that got me thinking as I headed back to weigh-in with a little over 9 pounds in the livewell.

On Day Two I was once again in the middle of the pack at take off. That was absolutely the worst position to be in. If I’d been at the beginning one day and the end the other, it would have been much better. You really wanted to be first or last. Once again, everyone crowded into the lock and courtesy fell by the wayside. If it had been an Elite Series event, I might’ve pushed it a little bit harder, but I wasn’t going to do damage to a brand new boat in an Open. I bet a third of the guys cracked their cowlings. Wraps were ripped off and you could hear the fiberglass breaking to the tune of three or four thousand dollars. I wanted the people who were squeezing in at 3,000 or 4,000 RPMs to be disqualified but there was nothing I could do. Still, I made it down to Kissimmee a bit earlier, probably by 9:30, as soon as the mess cleared out. Once again, pitching with that unbelievable Black Jungle Rod, as well as the Randy Blaukat 777 model, I had a limit in about an hour. I bettered my first day weight by about 2 pounds, but once again I never had a big bite, and you can’t do well without those in Florida.

I only had the two Megabass rods on the deck of my Phoenix boat for most of the tournament. I spooled up my reels with some of the new 50 pound Sunline Braid. I’m not quite sure what’s different about it, but it just seems much more abrasion resistant in the thick nasty stuff. I flipped a soft plastic craw on a Gamakatsu Superline Worm Bend hook and used an ounce and a half of tungsten weight to get it down to the fish. That’s typical Florida fishing and it shouldn’t surprise anyone, but I really encourage you to try out the Megabass rods – you’ll feel more bites, which will translate into more fish landed, and you won’t get worn out.

Next up is the Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake in Oklahoma. To be honest, I really haven’t started getting ready, but I guarantee you that everything will be perfect by the time I get there – no rust, no bent hooks, nothing that isn’t 100% tournament-ready. It’s been a warm winter there, so I think there will be a variety of lures in play, including jerkbaits, crankbaits, spinnerbaits and swimbaits. I have some particular Megabass products in mind that should give me an edge, but I can’t talk about them quite yet. I’ll be glad to tell you all about them after the tournament. I also have some new prototype Gamakatsu treble hooks that I’m dying to use. They’re short-shank O’Shaughnessy models with what they call tour grade wire. The wire is 20% thinner but they are every bit as strong and they’re extremely sharp. That’s especially important when it’s cold. You can bet that all of my hard baits will be equipped with them. This tournament is one that I feel good about and I can’t wait for it to start.