Florida Roadtrip 1: TENvitational Practice

It was Sunday afternoon and after 19 hours of driving and one chilly night sleeping at a truck stop in my custom back seat bed, I arrived at the resort just outside of Orlando Florida. I hadn’t been to Florida in nearly 19 years, and I had never bass fished there! I remember as a kid watching the old BASS shows. Watching Rolland Martin or Hank Parker catch giant bass in Okeechobee and thinking that Florida just has 10-lb bass swimming all over. It was always a life goal to bass fish there. Needless to say, after a few years of traveling the country fishing in tournaments, finally coming to Florida was long overdue.

Kayak and Truck covered in road salt!

I unloaded some of my stuff into the suite, got settled in, and started to make a game plan on for how I would be attacking the Kissimmee Chain. It wasn’t Okeechobee that I used to dream of, but a lot has changed in 25 years and the Toho/ Kissimmee chain of lakes are world class when it comes to big bass. I was fishing in multiple tournaments over the weekend, and while winning and cashing a check are always the goal; now, more than that, I wanted to hook into a true giant! If I skunked all weekend except for one fish, but if that fish was an 8, 9, or even 10-lb bass I would be ok with that!

Monday morning came and my first goal was to knock the rust off. It was only five days ago that I knew what boat I would be using for my trip. I had a new kayak on order (more on that at a later date), but delays meant that at the last minute I had to grab the old boat to take with me. I had taken almost everything off that kayak, so when I pulled up to the boat ramp I had a pile of parts and accessories I needed to put back on. It took about 30 minutes of finagling, torqueing, adjusting, and a little cussing but the kayak was finally set up and I could head out on the water.

I chose to start my trip off on Lake Gentry. The idea was simple, stay off the big lakes. I preferred smaller lakes anyway, and felt they would be less pressured. Especially this first day when I just needed to get back into the swing of things. I launched and worked my way along the northern shore. I didn’t know what to expect so I just pedaled along casting a chatterbait to the kissimmee grass and looking on my electronics for any signs of hydrilla.

As I approached a section of lilypads I got my first bite, but something didn’t seem quite right. As the fish neared the boat I figured out why. It was a darn pickerel! I drove all the way to Florida just to be catching pickerel. I could be doing that through the ice back home. I shook the fish off at the gunwale, I didn’t even want to land it.

I came up to a section of docks and after I skipped an Exostick under there, I pulled out a jig and started flipping around the posts. Never even got a sniff of a bite. I turned my attention to the adjacent seawall and worked along that with the jig and when I cam to the where it met the grass and I started working my way back along the inside weed line. It was there I finally got my first Florida bass. I flipped to a pocket in the grass and felt the bite. I reared back and slammed a hookset. The little 12.5-inch thing didn’t know what hit him as he flew out of the water back toward the boat. I may have swung a little harder than I needed to. But regardless, I put a Florida bass in the boat! 

I moved on and decided to check out what the canals looked like. I worked my way back into the canal and again I couldn’t find the hydrilla that everyone said was key to finding these Florida bass. When I got up to the first bridge, I pulled out a package of speed worms and decided to give this technique a shot. I cast up under the bridge and reeled back along the pilings and a decent 14-inch bass hammered the worm. So I knew that at least that universal pattern would hold true. Bass live on bridge pilings!

I spent the rest of the day pedaling around the lake looking at the contours since this lake was unmapped. I scanned around and found some deeper water, some steep breaks, and areas of hard and soft bottom but there were no fish on them and I could not find any deeper grass. I managed another couple bites around the edge on the jig, including a decent bowfin, but I just didn’t find any areas that I really felt were right. By early afternoon my legs were already getting tired, having not pedaled my yak in months so I figured it would be good to just get off the water, rest, and ease into it. I didn’t want to burn out on the first day.

Practice Day 2 came and I made the drive down to Rosalie. It’s another of the smaller lakes and I figured maybe I could find some better stuff there. I worked my way along the outside grass lines in the fog throwing a squarebill hoping there would be bass out along the grass feeding. I found some schooling fish out away from the grass, but I couldn’t coax them to bite. I did manage a few missed bites in the area, but nothing solid to go on. I flipped a few docks and managed a small bass on a wacky rig. I was trying to keep moving fast. I knew I needed to cover water and just look for areas, look for grass, and find the right spot before picking anything apart.

I decided a change was needed so I turned back into a canal with houses and docks lining the sides and slowly made my way all the way to the back flipping and casting the speed worm all around. The water was darker and warmer in the canal, but I didn’t get a single bite in there. I was flabbergasted so I left and cut straight across the lake scanning the bottom looking for changes in composition or grass or something that maybe the fish would be out on in the open water. I marked a few random fish, but no structure.

When I got to the other side, I noticed the water was a little dingier so I took the speed worm off and pulled out a chatterbait that the skirt had fallen off of. I threaded on a big worm and decided to give this a shot. I started casting around the outside grass and I got a few short strikes ripping the tail off the worm. Something down there wanted this bait, but obviously wasn’t quite getting it so I changed my retrieve and started yoyoing the bait. Since it was only 4-ft deep and a hard sand bottom I could rip the bait up, then let it fall back to bottom. It was only a few casts in when I felt the hard thump of something big. My heart raced but as I saw it swirl under the surface I could tell this wasn’t a bass. It was my southern curse popping back up again. I can’t travel without getting into the catfish and this trip was going to be no different. I hauled a nice 8 lb cat into the kayak sliming everything along the way. It wasn’t the giant bass I was after, but it was a fun fight and it at least told me I was doing something that would get me bit.

Of course I’m just catching catfish

The rest of my day on Rosalie was more of the same. Yoyoikng the chatterworm, along the weed edge and catching catfish all the way back to the ramp. I got back to the truck thinking I really should have kept a couple of those for the fryer that night. I was tired and a catfish dinner sounded really good. But the more pressing question was where to go next. Neither Gentry or Rosalie seemed to be setting up how I like and I wasn’t on anything good enough to have confidence for the tourney. It was going to be a long night of trying to figure out where I would go next. 

Wednesday morning came and I made the snap decision to attempt Cypress. It wasn’t too far of a drive and being located on the main chain there was a greater likelihood of finding some hydrilla. I pushed off from the main ramp there and made a sharp left turn. It was clear from the aerial imagery that there was offshore grass in this lake so I started cruising along looking for it. It didn’t take long. Cypress was grassed in all over with areas ranging from thick topped out mats, to submerged flats, to isolated clumps. I found some offshore stuff but still wasn’t getting bit not matter what I tossed out there. I moved along to a shallower flat with thick hydrilla all submerged 2-ft or so under the surface. With a little wind, this was a perfect area to be throwing that chatterworm and within two casts of getting there I landed a nice 16-inch fish. I marked the area and moved along fishing along the flat. I landed a few more smaller fish and some pickerel as I went along but then it all sort of stopped. I had marked each catch and could tell there was obvious sections of activity, and areas that weren’t holding fish for whatever reason.

With the wind picking up, I ducked into a canal to see what they were like in this section. I fished my way along without a single bite until I reached the bridge. Again like clockwork I pulled two decent fish off the bridge on the chatterworm and even got one flipping a clump a grass right next to the bridge. With that fish, I called it a day. The wind was picking up and I was already confident in the kind of fishing I could do around there. I could work with what I was finding.

Thursday came and the wind was howling. I figured it was best to just take a day to rest, rig some tackle, and get some work done for the office. But friday I was right back on the water. I wanted to explore a little more of Cypress and find some more areas and options for the tourney. This time I launched, turned right, and headed north. I didn’t want to fish too hard since I was afraid of sticking fish I might need the next day in the tourney. I cruised along mostly scanning and whipping around a squarebill in the deeper scattered outside grass.

I got back into the northern most corner and there was a lot of matted up hydrilla. It was thick in spots, but the outside was all scattered clumps with paths in between, it was beautiful. I fish this exact kind of grass in NY so I felt right at home. I pulled out my favorite bait to attack this, a big ribbon tailed worm on a texas rig. I started making short pitches around the thicker stuff when suddenly she thumped it. A big 19-inch Florida 4.5-lber. It was the biggest bass I had hooked into yet on the trip and I was pretty happy. I thought I was on to something. I pitched the worm around a little more and while I got a few more bites, I didn’t set the hook and just shook those fish off. I was just getting confirmation they were there. I marked my areas, and let the wind start drifting me back toward the boat ramp. As the wind blew I whipped around the squarebill just for the heck of it catching a nice 18-inch bass along the way.

Finally found me a big girl!

I got back to the ramp, loaded up the truck, and decided to have myself a little brunch at the Wafflehouse. I had made my decisions on what I was doing in the morning. I had my waypoints, I had my patterns, I was ready to get this thing started. I knew good fish were in my area and I knew I would be able to put fish in the boat. It was all going to come down to if I landed that kicker or two during the event. 2021 was about to take off and I finally felt like I was ready!

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