Opens anglers face a challenge from changing conditions

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Opens anglers face a challenge from changing conditions

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- This typically is the time of year when central Florida’s lakes are at their most impressive peak, when subtropical climes hel

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — This typically is the time of year when central Florida’s lakes are at their most impressive peak, when subtropical climes help seasoned anglers make catching bucket-mouth bass seem like child’s play.

But Mother Nature threw a curve ball to competitors preparing for this week’s St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. The coldest front in recent memory, one that plunged temperatures into the upper 20s last weekend, sent a shiver through the fish and the field, and the latter still is wondering aloud when the predictable big bass bite begins again.

The good news is that almost certainly will be soon. Temperatures were in the high 70s on Wednesday, the last of three practice days before the tournament begins Thursday. The water temperature was climbing too, which could be another good sign for the 225 anglers competing in the first Open event of the 2022 Bassmaster season.

The warming trend is expected to continue throughout the three-day event, which provided some much-needed optimism after mostly dismal practice rounds.

“It’s been unbelievably tough, the toughest I’ve ever seen it here,” said Elite Series pro Drew Cook, a Florida native competing in the Southern Open this week. “I think the person who wins this tournament has no idea they’re gonna’ win it.”

Fellow Floridian Garrett Rocamora agreed, saying lakes Kissimmee and Hatchineha (two of the four major lakes in the Kissimmee Chain) were particularly susceptible to the recent freeze. 

“They don’t have as much hydrilla that give the fish a place to push up to,” Rocamora said. “So the bite there really just shut down…I’m normally really confident going into this tournament, but this has been crazy.”

Still, Rocamora said anglers with enough patience to piece together decent bags on Thursday should be rewarded with heavier bass on Friday. And the Top 12 who advance to compete in Saturday’s final round could be in for ‘real deal’ Sunshine State-fishing.

“The water temperature was 60 degrees today,” he said. “I’m typically looking for mid-60s this time of year and I think we can get there by Friday. I think a lot of people will be surprised. It’s been bad the past few days, but if you survive tomorrow, there’s hope. It’ll be a learning curve for everyone.”

Tim Frederick, another local hammer who fishes the nearby Harris Chain, expects that scenario too.

“You don’t even see fish on your forward-facing sonar right now,” Frederick said. “But I feel like it gets better as the tournament progresses. I’m not so sure the females will make it (to shorelines) by the weekend, but I do think the bucks will pull up Friday and Saturday.”

If that’s the case, the anglers lucky enough to hook a lunker female almost certainly will be in the hunt on Day 3, Frederick said. 

“If you have a little limit and can throw in a big one, I think you’re there,” he said. “I feel very strongly that 15 pounds a day gets you a Top 10 this week.”

Blake Smith, who hails from nearby Lakeland, has a slightly different take.

“We had our first spawn in December,” he said. “Most people are expecting fish to be coming in with the warmer weather, when in actuality they may be going out…Whatever it is, we’ll be that many more days removed from the first legitimate really cold weather we’ve had in a long time here.

“I think someone is in for something really special on Saturday,” Smith continued. “You just have to make it there.”

The St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open at the Kissimmee Chain of Lake begins Thursday with daily takeoffs from Big Toho Marina (Lakeside Park) at 7 a.m. Eastern. Weigh-ins will be held at 3 p.m. Eastern. The field features anglers from 30 states, as well as Canada and Japan. The winner will earn a spot in the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, which B.A.S.S. announced Wednesday will be held next March 24-26 on the Tennessee River in Knoxville.

The Southern Open is being hosted by the Kissimmee Sports Commission.

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