After punching my ticket to the 2016 Classic through last year’s first Southern Open on Toho, I was eager to return and start off 2016 the same way. It’s no secret that I love Florida and it has been very good to me.
I felt like I’d need at least 6 to 10 days of practice to develop a winning strategy. The weather changes so often and so severely at this time of year that it’s necessary to fish various areas through those changes. I wanted to spend time in all four lakes on the chain under the different conditions – and it certainly changed a lot. We saw 40 mile per hour winds, 38 degree nights, 70 degree days and everything in between. I tried to learn something every day and then put it all together one piece at a time.
While the first competition day didn’t provide ideal conditions, the outlook for Friday and Saturday was promising. I set out to dial in as many big fish spots as I could and then capitalize with at least one or two big bites from them every day. On the first day that worked perfectly, as an 8-pounder pushed me up to 4th place with 19 pounds 10 ounces.
Often in Florida someone will jump out to a big lead the first day with a giant stringer, but I try not to pay attention to that because frequently those guys will stumble going forward. In this case, I didn’t need to worry because the winner had a little over 22 pounds. I was close, one bite away.
The second day seemed to set up right, but the fish threw me a curveball. I knew that they’d be moving constantly, so I committed to fishing new areas every day. On Friday in one of those areas I caught a 5+ and a few other keepers, but then my fish in Toho fizzled out. I ran down to Kissimmee and managed to cull a few times to bring me up to my final weight of 14-10. I knew that would put me inside the cut, but I didn’t know exactly where, and I was pleasantly surprised that I stayed in 4th.
Last year heading into the final day my deficit was almost 9 pounds. This time around it was only 3, so I felt good about my chances. Saturday presented calm, sunny conditions, and it was lining up exactly like last year’s final round. I was ready to repeat. I headed out with two flipping sticks on the deck, both rigged with Missile Baits D-Bombs. I never varied from that throughout the tournament and that’s been the key to my success, consistently finding groups of bass that respond to that presentation.
I started off in Toho with a 4-pounder and a heavy 3 in the first hour. Even though I had a short day I felt like it would continue to get better. A little while later I lost a fish that I never saw, but which felt heavy, and then missed two or three that just didn’t get the hook. It was a weird bite. That happens sometimes down there – you’re not doing anything wrong but the fish just get in a funk despite favorable conditions. With time starting to get away from me, I had to scramble and eventually culled up to 11 pounds. That left me in 5th place when the scales closed.
Maybe if I’d fished flawlessly like last year I would’ve made up the deficit, but that’s how it goes down there. I have enough seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths to know that everything has to go right to win. Of course I’m disappointed that I didn’t win, but I did what I could and I can live with that.
Every fish I caught during the tournament came on a 7’11” Lew’s Custom Light extra-heavy flipping stick and a Super Duty 8.0:1 reel spooled with Gamma Torque 50 lb. braid. I varied it up between the 1 ½ and 2 ounce Reins Tungsten Weights, but my best color by far in the Missile Baits D-Bomb was “Love Bug.” Often it’s “Bruiser Flash” but that wasn’t the case this year. It was my first tournament out of my new Phoenix 921 and just like last year a high finish is a great way to break in a new ride.
Next up is the Classic at Grand Lake. It’s been a wacky winter in Oklahoma, with tons of rain making the lake high and muddy, and then getting cold. Hopefully by the time the tournament rolls around the water will be down, clearer and warmer. If that happens it’ll be anybody’s game, but I feel like it’ll fish to my strength. I only live a couple of hours away now, and Grand sets up a lot like Table Rock, which means it should be a fun event.
5th Place; 15 fish, 45lbs-04oz