Positivity Perseveres - Justin WINS!
By Justin Largen
On March 19, 2022, The Bassmaster Kayak Series visited the Harris Chain of Lakes in Leesburg, Florida for the second stop of the year. The official practice period started on Wednesday, the final day of the MLF Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit event and just a few weeks after the Bassmaster Elite Series visited the chain. This recent fishing pressure made fishing a little tougher for the kayak anglers. The forecast was encouraging though, with the warm, sunny, Florida weather expected. We finally had an event with no cold front! There was also a full moon the day before the tournament, which I hoped would bring some late spawners to the shallows.
I had done my homework and identified a handful of places that looked promising on Google Earth, mostly backwater areas that might not receive as much pressure as the main lakes. My first stop was the Apopka-Beauclair canal, and I decided to spend some time looking for beds. It paid off quickly. I didn’t find many active beds, but the fish I found were the right ones. I located and marked several along a 2-mile stretch, and most of the females looked to be four pounds or better. I threaded a Missile Baits Quiver worm onto a screw lock with no hook to check these fish. I needed to see if they were catchable, but I didn’t want to burn any in practice. Not using a hook was the only way to guarantee I wouldn’t accidentally or impulsively stick a fish.
I shook off several males and managed to get two, big females to bite after only a few casts. On my way back to the ramp I found another big female. At that point, I was confident there were enough quality fish in the area that I could afford to burn one. I wanted to see if I was overestimating the size. It was also in the back of my mind that targeting bed fish can be a risky tournament strategy. They can disappear overnight, other competitors can get to them first, or they can be moody and just not eat. Knowing there was no guarantee that I would get another opportunity, I wanted to catch at least one of the big girls. It took some work, but the female eventually bit. She measured 23 inches and weighed 7 pounds.
After doing some quick math, I estimated that I had been looking at a 30-pound bag in that canal, which would have been my heaviest limit ever. My heart and head were racing. If those fish were there on Saturday, I could win this thing!
Knowing there were still two more days before the event, I decided to explore other areas to try to find a backup plan. On Thursday I visited Trout Lake and looked at sections of Big Harris and Eustis. Trout was by far the best that day. I had several bites along a stretch of Hydrilla and an adjacent sea wall on a Hybrid Hunter Jr. Most of the fish were average, but one was a 5 pounder. Still, my mind was on that canal. I was seeing those beds in my head, remembering how the fish were set up, and trying to decide which fish to start on.
The plan for Friday was to quickly check those beds – I didn’t want to be seen in there – and then look for more beds further into the canal. While waiting for the sun to rise, I talked with a few other competitors who were using the same launch. We were figuring out where everyone planned to fish, so that we wouldn’t get in each other’s way. One angler told me that he encountered a fisherman in a jon boat the day before who said he “wrecked them” in the area I was going to fish. My heart sank, but I hoped a few of the less obvious beds had not been found. I spent the next few hours checking each of my waypoints multiple times, but the big females were gone…all of them. A few of the males were still there, but they were small and wouldn’t be much help in the tournament. I spent the rest of the day fishing the pads and matted grass in the canal, hoping to find some quality fish still in the area. But it wasn’t working, and by the end of the day my confidence was shot.
Back at the ramp, I talked with another competitor from Virginia, lamenting the disappearance of my big fish. We talked about spots back home, general tournament strategy, and Florida fishing. At one point we discussed how everything in Florida looks fishy. You just have to keep covering water until you find a group of them. I was thinking about that conversation later, while trying to formulate a plan for Saturday.
I felt like there were three options for tournament day, blind fish the area with the vacant beds, go back to Trout, or look for completely new water. Revisiting that conversation from the ramp, I decided that the best option was to start in Trout. It didn’t make sense to focus on Apopka-Beauclair since I no longer had confidence in the area. It also seemed silly to try an area I’d never seen before, when I had a spot in Trout that held some fish. So, the plan for Saturday was start in Trout, then relocate to Apopka-Beauclair in the afternoon if I still needed to fill out a limit.
On tournament day, I was surprised to have Trout Lake to myself. Though my hopes of winning vanished with those spawners, I was determined to enjoy the day and try to earn a few points for the AOY race.
The wind was stronger than forecast that morning. It was blowing directly into the seawall and the stretch of hydrilla, almost identical to the wind from two days before. I pedaled my Hobie Outback to the seawall and set up to make my first cast at the mouth of a canal. I got my first fish within a few minutes on the Hybrid Hunter. The second came fifteen minutes later in the grass. Not giants, but they were solid keepers. After a few more passes through the grass with nothing to show, I decided to make a color change. I’d caught everything to that point on a gold-colored bait, but I switched to a more subtle shad color. It’s basically a bone with some pink in it. A few casts later I had a big one engulf the plug. When she jumped I couldn’t even see the bait! After burrowing in the grass and getting my heart rate up, she found her way to net and measured 21.5 inches.
It was a little after 9:00 AM at that point, and I had already been starting to think about leaving. That fish convinced me to stay a while longer. After pounding the grass a while longer with no more bites, I decided to let it rest and spend some time on the sea wall. Keeper number four, a small 12-incher, came at 10:00 on the wall.
It would be almost two hours before I got another bite. This was probably the most critical part of the day. The voices in my head were starting to get loud. Having caught several fish in practice and several that morning, I was starting to think that the spot was cooked. I started weighing options. Do I venture into the canals and fish a few isolated grass patches? Do I cross the lake and explore a canal that I hadn’t fished in practice? Should I flip in a nearby pocket with reeds and pads? Or should I pack up, go back to Apopka-Beauclair and try to pluck a few males off beds?
Ultimately, I decided not to leave the area. I believed that I could get one more bite somewhere on that lake. I spent some time in the canals, then ventured back out to the grass and the wall. At about 11:45, I was casting the plug along the wall and thought I heard one bust on the surface behind me. I thought I could see a boil, but I couldn’t tell for sure because waves were rolling into the wall. Since I had just made two casts through that spot with the plug, I picked up my worm rod and pitched the Missile Quiver 6.5 (Junebug) to the boil. It never hit bottom.
When I lifted up, a fish was swimming off with the Quiver. I set the hook, and a massive head came up and jumped right next to the boat. My stomach was in my throat as she surged under the kayak and jumped again on the other side! Fortunately, she stayed pegged. I went nuts as soon as she was safely in the net. She was my biggest of the day, 22.25 inches. The residents sunning at their waterside community pool flocked to the fence to see my fish. They were cheering and taking pictures! It was pretty cool.
After uploading that fish, I checked the leaderboard and saw that I was near the top. I knew I needed to cull the 12-incher to be competitive, and I was able to do that about 15 minutes later. Still working the sea wall with the plug, I triggered a 15-incher that bumped my total to 90.75 inches and put me in first.
My mom likes following my tournaments, and she has seen plenty of days where I didn’t do very well. I was happy to give her something to cheer about, but I was far from comfortable. There were a bunch of great anglers in the field, and I assumed several hadn’t uploaded their fish. Also, anyone could catch a giant on any cast, especially in Florida, so there was still work to be done.
I ventured past the seawall and spent some time pitching the Quiver in the pocket with reeds and pads. That produced a small fish, but it didn’t help the cause. Still anxious and searching for another quality bite, I ventured back into the canals. There were two pontoon boats tied off in one canal, and one was creating a nice shade pocket against the wall. I pitched the worm to the shade and dead-sticked it for about 15 seconds. When I felt one pick up the worm, I hammered it. The fish was a good one, and it managed to get my Vicious line caught on the pontoon. It was thrashing on the surface, still connected to the boat. I quickly got my Hobie reversed, eased along the pontoon, and somehow freed the line and netted the fish. At 17.75 inches, it added 3 inches to my total. It was roughly 1:30, and I fished hard for the next hour and forty-five minutes. I managed a few more small keepers on the Quiver, but nothing that improved my total.
Given my limited expectations for the day, I was thrilled with the finish. I knew that I had earned good points. I also felt good about my chances of cashing a check. It wasn’t until I arrived at the award ceremony that I started to think I had a chance of winning. The top finishers were announced in reverse order, and I still hadn’t been called when Jon reached the top 5. Then he announced that there had been a 3-way tie – broken by largest fish – for 2nd, 3rd and 4th. When he announced the total of 88.75, I realized that I’d won but couldn’t believe it. It felt like a dream, even after I was holding the coveted Bassmaster trophy. I will never forget those moments.
My takeaways from this tournament fall on the mental side of fishing. There was nothing special I was doing with my worm, or with the plug. Dead-sticking a worm in Florida isn’t anything new. Neither is ticking grass with a crankbait.
The difference in this tournament was mental, starting with the decision to abandon my primary area. Not only had the bed fish disappeared, I’d lost all confidence in the area. Accepting that Plan A was no longer a viable option and moving to the backup plan was critical.
A second key adjustment was making a color change on the crankbait. Sometimes giving the fish a different look can make a big difference. Changing to a more subtle color resulted in three additional keepers from the area, including my second largest of the day.
My last takeaway involves attitude. You’re probably familiar with KVD’s slogan, “It’s all about attitude.” Ike’s “never give up” from the 2003 Classic became his catchphrase. Gerald Swindle has his Positive Mental Attitude bracelets. Those are some of the greatest anglers on the planet. If they’re preaching it, I’m listening. It’s not easy to stay positive when things seem to be unraveling around you, but a good attitude was the biggest factor for me in this tournament. I could’ve been bitter and mailed it in after Friday’s disappointment. Believe me, I’ve done it before. But at Harris, I did a little better. I refused to quit mentally, stayed positive, and worked hard all day. I was blessed with a couple of big bites, and they steered me to my first win!
Thanks for reading. I hope this helps you on the water.