I’ve spent a lot of time in Florida this winter, so I felt that the Toho Open was a great opportunity to show how well I’ve dialed in the bite. I proved to myself that I’m fishing well, but unfortunately despite making some great adjustments I ended up just over a pound short of the victory. A fourth place finish was a great way to start the year, but it still leaves me wanting more.
I started off my practice with a day in Toho itself, but I spent the rest of the time in Kissimmee. Once I got down there and saw how much better the fishing was, it was an absolute no-brainer. The better quality fish were relating to the thickest mats in areas closest to the main lake, which meant they were both going to the spawning areas and coming from those same areas – a constant stream of bass. Of the 30 to 40 bites I got each day, I only swung on about three but I still managed an 8 pounder each of my practice days there, so I knew they were the right fish. In fact, I felt early on that I had a decent chance to win, even if the weights went through the roof, as they often do in Florida.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Florida tournament without a cold front, and we had one blow in the last day of practice. I didn’t even go out. I knew the wind would muddy some areas, but I would just have to adjust on the fly.
Apparently just about everyone else figured out that the best bite was in Kissimmee, because out of just under 200 boats in the field, approximately 160 decided to lock down. That complicated matters because there was a real chance you wouldn’t make it back on time if you cut it close to weigh in. On the first day, I had to be back at 3pm, so I left Kissimmee at 1pm to be safe. Unfortunately, the sun didn’t pop out until about 11, which gave me a very short window of opportunity. The fish bit funny that day, too. I probably had about a dozen bites where I never got a hook in them and only ended up with a little over 9 pounds.
In order to counter the troubles I’d had on Day One, I felt it was necessary to make some adjustments. First, I downsized from my standard D-Bomb to a smaller creature bait. I couldn’t reduce the size of my 1 ¾ ounce tungsten weight, but in order to get better penetration I dropped from 65 lb. braided line to 50 lb. braid. That helped me get through the thicker mats with ease. I also had time on Day Two to fish an area I hadn’t hit on Day One, and that’s where I caught two of my biggest fish. They were just enough to push me into the Day Three twelve cut by a few ounces.
On the third day, the sun was out and with the water warming I knew the better fish would be on the move. There was an area I’d fished on Day Two, but only caught a bunch of small guys. Something told me it would be worth hitting again because the females would be moving in right behind them. I was only about 5 pounds out of the lead heading into the final day, so I knew that if I could intercept those big girls and sack 22 to 25 pounds, I had a shot at it.
I started at the north end of Kissimmee, where I’d caught my biggest fish on Day Two, but after hitting the heaviest mats for 90 minutes all I had in the livewell were four rats. At that point I made a move to the area I’d been watching and in another 90 minutes I had over 18 pounds. At that point it was 10am, and I felt like with another 6 to 8 pound bite I could make a run at the victory and the Bassmaster Classic berth that would come with it. Unfortunately, the bite died after that and none of my subsequent bites would allow me to upgrade.
All 12 boats had locked down that final day, and as we sat in the lock and then in the weigh-in line, there was some light chatter that I tried to tune out, even if I couldn’t help listening. It seemed that most of the field had struggled. I hoped for the best, but knew I’d probably come up one bite short. Indeed, the eventual winner, Richard Howes, caught a fish on his last pitch to tie Daniel Lanier and force a Day Four fish-off. That happens, and there’s nothing you can do about it, but it still hurts.
I’m certainly disappointed that I didn’t win. To come that close, with so much at stake, and not finish it off, it really bothered me at first. Now that I’ve had some time to digest it, though, I’ll take the positive out of it – I’ve got a great start to the Open season and I’ve taken the first step toward qualifying for the Elite Series if I choose to go that direction. Either way, I’m fishing well, making good decisions, and that allows me to stay focused. Next up is an FLW Major on Okeechobee and I hope I can keep the momentum going.
15 fish, 45-15-lbs