October 5, 2023
LEESBURG, Fla. — It’s a familiar venue in a less-familiar time frame, but anglers should find the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Harris Chain of Lakes rich with opportunity.
Competition days will be Oct. 12-14 with daily takeoffs from Ski Beach at 7:30 a.m. ET and weigh-ins each day back at the launch site at 3:30 p.m. Full coverage will be available on Bassmaster.com with FS1 broadcasting live with the leaders on Saturday morning beginning at 8 a.m.
Recent years have seen all levels of Bassmaster tournaments, from the High School and Junior series to the Elite Series, visit the Harris Chain. All, however, have been spring events, so this season-ending finale presents the field with an atypical shot at Florida fall fishing.
“Fall opens everything up,” said Lakeland, Florida’s Bobby Lane, who lives about an hour from Harris Chain. “I don’t see anyone winning it off of one spot. The beautiful thing about the Harris Chain of Lakes is you have shellbars, brushpiles, Kissimmee grass, buggy whips, docks, canals — you have everything.
“The local tournament weights have been OK for this time of the year. Nothing out of the ordinary, but nice stringers are coming in.”
Comprising eight lakes — Harris, Griffin, Eustis, Dora, Beauclair, Carlton, Apopka and Yale — the chain covers approximately 75,000 acres. All but Yale are linked by rivers and canals, so there’s plenty of room to spread out. While Lane believes much of this central Florida gem could contribute to the winning limit, he’s fairly certain no one lake will dominate the show.
“Normally, you can predict where it will go down. In the spring, we see Apopka become a huge player with the big fish up shallow,” Lane said. “There’s a huge group of fish in Apopka, but with the run from the takeoff site in Lake Harris, you only get three or four hours to fish.
“That creates a challenge in the fall because you need a little more time to fish. You might catch one or two big ones early, then you might catch one at noon, then you catch one at 1 or 2 o’clock, and somewhere in between you need a 2-plus-pounder to go with all of that.”
Basically, anyone investing the time to run down to Lake Apopka or north to Lake Griffin must calculate the idle time through the connecting waterways they’d have to traverse. Time management is critical, and if anything goes wrong, the trip could turn into a big goose egg.
“You’re cutting your time so short, if you’re really not on ’em or, for some reason, something isn’t the same as it was the day before, you’re putting yourself in jeopardy,” Lane said. “Even if you fish closer in Lake Dora, Lake Beauclair or Lake Eustis, all of those canals take time to idle.
“That opens everything up, and it’s going to make for a lot of fun. A lot of burning gas. No one’s going to roll up on a shellbar and win the tournament.”
Wherever anglers end up, Lane said the Harris Chain water bodies are in good shape, largely due to favorable vegetation levels. From non-native hydrilla to native eelgrass, the lakes benefit from water filtration, along with vast habitat for bass and the forage they seek.
“The Harris Chain of Lakes is in great condition. We’re starting to get some grass back in all the lakes,” Lane said. “This year, we’ve had more grass than we’ve had in a while. I attribute that to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) believing in bass fishing and doing a good job of managing the (invasive submersed aquatic vegetation).
“Aquatic vegetation can take over, but it can be maintained in certain areas. I think it makes for a healthy fishery and a good pleasure boat scenario.”
As Lane points out, the spring season puts an emphasis on shallow cover, but bass utilize Florida grass throughout the year. While shallow areas with scattered hard bottom attract a lot of fish during the spawn and prespawn, autumn brings another set of dynamics.
“In the fall, you deal with wind,” Lane said. “It blows bait from one end of the lake to the other. If you can find the grass with the bait in it, the bass will move to these areas.
“The wonderful thing about aquatic vegetation is that bass don’t need to leave, so you can have a great bass population there. The grass contributes to a great fishery and it leads to better weights across the board.”
Lane said the fall season definitely opens up tactical possibilities, as many of the fish will be scattered and disjointed. He’s looking for topwaters like the Berkley Cane Walker or Choppo to get a good workout, while flipping shallow cover always plays on Florida lakes.
Offshore, anglers will target deeper grass, shellbars and subtle contour changes with bladed jigs, big worms and drop shots. Lane suggests pairing a diverse arsenal with an open mind.
“There’s a lot of fish to catch, but it’s going to boil down to that 4-plus-pound fish,” Lane said. “In spring, we would talk about a 6- or 7-pound fish (when more large bass move shallow to spawn), but this time of year, a 4-pounder is a big fish.
“This time of year, they get off the bank, they roam around, they suspend, they just eat bait out in the middle of the lake. They swim around shellbars and brushpiles. They kind of have the whole lake to do whatever they want until it’s time to head to the bank and spawn.”
Given the lack of concentrated giants, Lane predicts 15 1/2 to 16 pounds a day will make the Top 10 cut and 18 a day will win. However it shakes out, this season finale will see dreams flourish and fizzle.
In addition to the top cash prize, the top pro will receive an automatic berth in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota scheduled for March 22-24 on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees near Tulsa, Okla.
Also, this tournament decides the final Elite Qualifiers (EQ) points totals for the season. Anglers who committed to all 2023 St. Croix Bassmaster Opens events (three divisions with three events in each) will be eligible for one of nine Elite Series invitations based on the EQ standings.
JT Thompkins of Myrtle Beach, S.C., leads the Bassmaster Open Elite Qualifiers standings with 1,480 points. He is followed by John Garrett of Union City, Tenn., (1,461), Trey McKinney of Carbondale, Ill., (1,417), Robert Gee of Knoxville, Tenn., (1,372) and Japanese pro Kenta Kimura (1,355).
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Title Sponsor: St. Croix
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew’s, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC
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The Bassmaster Tournament Trail includes the most prestigious events at each level of competition, including the Bassmaster Elite Series, St. Croix Bassmaster Opens Series, TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Series, Strike King Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops, Strike King Bassmaster High School Series presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors, Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Team Championship, Yamaha Rightwaters Bassmaster Kayak Series powered by TourneyX, Yamaha Bassmaster Redfish Cup Championship presented by Skeeter and the ultimate celebration of competitive fishing, the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota.