Florida Roadtrip 2: Kissimmee and the TENvitational

Tournament day was finally here! It had been months since I last competed but the 2021 season was finally starting and I couldn’t wait to put that first fish on the board. I pulled into the Cypress Lake boat ramp and there were a few other kayak anglers already unloading and getting set up. I tried not to pay attention too much to them. That was a major goal of mine this season, to not worry about the other anglers. I can only control how I fish so if there’s two or twenty anglers launching with me, I can’t let that affect me. But I did note, when you drive up to the ramp and some of the of the people there unloading are Cody Milton, Matt Ball, and Kristine Fisher; it’s usually a sign you’re in the pretty good area. It was also interesting to observe how some people were set up and ready to launch 30 minutes early, others were a little more chaotic forgetting things and taking up to that last minute to get their boats ready.

Luckily I had everything I needed rigged and ready so no last minute finagling for me. Launch time came and I took off towards my first waypoint. The cold front that moved through the previous day really did a number on the water temps. They were down another 3-4 degrees from the previous day, which were down 3-4 degrees from Thursday. I pulled up to my prime area, where I landed the 19.0 in practice. I knew there should be fish in the sparse hydrilla, i was just hoping they would play.

First cast came and it was on. I pulled out my FX Custom Rods 7’3” heavy flipping stick and went to work tossing the ribbon tailed worm around in the grass. I worked my way from the outside of the area in towards the waypoints where I got bites. I wasn’t getting bit, but I knew this would be a slow technique. Once I landed on them, I should be able to get a couple, but it would be all about finding that magic section of grass. I flipped and flipped and flipped. I pulled up and my kayak was directly on top of one of my waypoints. It was the darndest thing, the water there was 3 degrees colder than everywhere else I was drifting. There must have been a spring there. In the warmer weather, the spring was nice cool fresh water attracting fish. After the cold front, the spring was just too cold and the bass must have moved away.

I did all I could to relocate them. I spent nearly three hours flipping the entire area. I worked my way in a spiral moving outward from my starting area. Flip after flip, pitch after pitch, even a few longer casts on the outside edges. Nothing, not even a sniff. It was now late enough into the day that I knew I should abandon this and try to do something to salvage a limit. I had other areas I expected to find fish so it was on to Plan B. I sat down, pointed my kayak south, and peddaled clear to the other side of Lake Cypress.

I had marked some off shore grass and with the cold, I figured maybe some bass has pulled out from the shallower water and staged up offshore. I though my best bet would be the isolated stuff closest to where I had I caught fish in practice. I went right into an area not far from the submerged grass but where there were patches and swaths of some isolated hydrilla. I ran my chatterworm around these clumps, flipped deep into some of the thick stuff, even tried a crankbait but still wasn’t getting bit.

It was just after 11:00 and the day was officially half over. The weather forecast predicted the wind would be shifting from the east to the south around now, but at the moment it was dying down completely. In the flatter water, I could see some some surface activity. Not fast and furious, but there was definitely bait on the surface and the occasional bigger rise. I threw a topwater around a little, but didn’t have any action. I grabbed my neko rig and whipped that out there near one of the clumps of grass and some rises. One twitch and I felt the tick of a bite. I reeled into the fish and finally put my first fish of the 2021 season on the board. It was a measly 12.75-inch largemouth, but that was ok. No skunk and I finally found something.

First Scored Fish of the 2021 Season!

I whipped the neko rig around for another 40 minutes but I couldn’t coax another bite. There had been a bass boat hanging around my nearest waypoint when I had first gotten over to the area but it had since moved off. I figured it was as good a time as ever to swing in shallow to the submerged grass I located in practice. I pulled up to an area that had some underwater ridges. They were small lines in the bottom, almost like sand dunes from wave action. Some had grass on them but they were clear as day on the sonar.

I got next to the first one and whipped the chatterworm out. Because of the submerged grass, I couldn’t let it sink all the way to the bottom. With the mood the fish were in I knew I needed to get a reaction strike so I worked the worm back like a summer time jerk bait. Small pauses just long enough to the let the bait stop and sink just a little before ripping it again. It was a good move to pull into this area because on that first cast I hooked another 12.75-inch bass. I was a little disappointed in the size. I was happy to have caught those two fish after five hours, but still someone could catch one fish the size of my two.

I swung around and made another cast in the same area and right away got bit again. This time it was even smaller, but I still managed to get it to the 12-inch line on the board so it was a scorable fish. I only needed two more for a limit and then I could begin to think about culling.

It was about 12:30 and the lake was nearly flat calm. As I was working my way along the submerged grass, up ahead I saw some more surface activity. This seemed much more aggressive than the open water stuff. I moved up 50 yards into the area that seemed to have the most activity, though frankly it was happening all around me. Throwing a topwater over submerged grass is one of my favorite things, so I grabbed my cranking rod, took off the squarebill, snapped on a frog colored Berkley J-Walker, and started firing it out there.

I was surrounded by bait and bass feeding. They were moving fast in the area so it was a challenge to stay on top of them and figure out where to cast. But I fired a cast out right after something busted the surface and sure enough, a fat 17.25-inch bass smoked it. She immediately dove into the grass so there was a moment of panic when the hooks were in both the grass and the fish. I just hoped the Fusion trebles would keep her pinned. They did, and I got her topside and on my board. Four down, one to go for my limit. It was 12:45.

The action wasn’t over yet. The wind was starting to pick up again, but the topwater bite was still firing. I whipped another cast out there. I twitched the bait twice and there was a boil on it. I thought I felt the bait go tight, but when I pulled back, the lure just came flying in. I was probably a little too excited. But I regained my composure quickly, and went right on sending cast after cast every time I saw something busting. I fired a long cast up closer to the reeds where the recent rises were. I worked the bait back and a boil swirled my bait under, but I was patient this time and could tell she missed it. I waited a half a second and then gave it a twitch. Sploosh That time she got it! I fought her back to the boat and it was my best of the day, a 17.50-inch fish.

Biggest of Day 1!

I did it. I had my limit. It was rather meagre, but that was ok. First tourney of the year, in a new place, and I got my limit in tough cold front conditions. It was still only just before 1:00 so I had plenty of time to cull. First up was the 12-inch. Shouldn’t be a hard one. Anything scorable would do the trick.

The wind was starting to pick up a little and the surface activity was slowing. I figured I should leave this area. I knew there were more good fish, but I also knew I would need some of those the next day so I would let it rest and try to get my upgrades a little further along in the grass.

I switched back to the chatterworm and worked my way along just north of my best stretch. I had got bit here in practice, but not quite as consistent as the other area. This was true now too. I landed a few shorts and some pickerel, but I still didn’t get the bites I needed. Then disaster came. On one of my twitches, the chatterworm became lodged in some grass. When I went to rip it free, it tore loose, flew through the air, and struck the tip of my rod perfectly snapping it in half. The only moderate action rod I had in my kayak was rigged with my topwater. I cut it off and tied the chatterworm on it. It would have to do. I wasn’t expecting to throw the J-walker and more that day anyway. 

Finally, after working my way northeast along the grass found what I was looking for. Another 17.50 hit the worm and I quickly wrestled her into the kayak. It was now just after 2:00 and I had a little under an hour left. I needed another big bite. I had three 17s, solid fish. But my other two were 12.75s, they were not so solid. I decided to just keep working the grass as I worked my way back toward the ramp but it didn’t pan out.

My final  score was 77.75 inches. It was good enough for 26th out of 145 in the Saturday Kissimmee Trail and had me sitting 23rd of 87 in the TENvitational. Not good enough for a check, and I was probably too far back in the TENvitational to have a chance of getting into the TEN house. But there was still the Kissimmee II event, and I could move up in the TENvitational to potentially make a check so Sunday was going to be important.

Morning came and it was clear what I would do. Head south to my prime area. From what I found in practice and Saturday, there was about a 300-yard stretch of grass holding fish, including some schooling bait on the surface. I would milk that for all it’s worth! We were down a few boats from the previous day, but it was no bother. I took off from the launch and shot straight down the lake to my area.

The plan was simple, throw the chatterworm up and down that stretch of grass till my arms fell off. If they came up schooling, whip the J-Walker at em. It didn’t take long near as long this time to get on my fish. 7:45 and my first bite was a solid 18.5-inch bass. Better than anything the previous day so my confidence was pretty high. Not long after that a 13.5-incher took the bait. It was just after 8:00, only an hour in and I had two on the board. I was relaxed and firing on all cylinders. 

After that fish though, things slowed way down. I was still catching fish, but they were either shorts or pickerel. It was 2.5 hours later when I finally landed my third keeper. Which was a line burner at that. But I reminded myself, It was only 10:30 and I was still way ahead of the previous day. I just needed two more bites and maybe a kicker to really do some damage.

But after the 12-incher, I was back into the shorts and pickerel for a while, even a tank crappie. That’s when the doubt started to creep in. Did I already exhaust this area? I didn’t have a plan B that day. It was that stretch of grass or nothing so I kept at it. 

Not the target species, but a solid fish!

At 11:00 I got into a flurry of fish. I don’t know if it was just a certain spot in the grass or a feeding window opened, but in a 10-minute span I boated a 16.5-inch and 15.25-inch bass. I had my limit and I knew I needed to keep grinding. It didn’t take long and a 13.5-incher culled out my barely keeper.

It was noon with three hours of fishing time left. I had 77.25-inches. Just a little short of Day 1. Usually lengths go down the second day, but this was Florida and with the slightly higher temps and a little more stable weather there was a chance for them to go way up. At that point I got to  thinking maybe I needed to do something drastic. I was still catching fish in my grass patch, but they weren’t helping.

I made a bold decision to go exploring the shallows. I did this for two reasons. I clearly wasn’t on winning fish in my area, great for numbers but not much size; and secondly because my legs were burning! I hadn’t kayaked this hard in months and it showed. I needed a breather out of the wind. I decided to push up to the weeds and flip. I hoped with the wind, the bass wouldn’t be in the thickest of stuff. This would mean I could get in there with my worm and not have to use my punching rig which is not a strong suit of mine.

I left my area and started flipping. It didn’t take long at all and I got bit. But it didn’t come on a flip. I had flipped into an indent in the reed line and worked the bait a little and was reeling it back to the boat when a nice little 14-inch fish shot out and slammed it. I flipped it into the boat and the hook fell right out. It was a 0.5-inch cull. Not the cull I wanted, but I still had a second 13.5 to get rid of.

I flipped for the next hour but didn’t get a single strike. It was slow and frustrating, but I was happy to be out of the wind for a brief while. Around 1:30, with 1.5 hours remaining, I returned to my grass. I made one pass that lasted about 30 minutes only managing one pickerel. I figured maybe since my last keeper came when I was reeling the worm in along the reeds, I should just go ahead and do that for the last hour. I worked my way north along the reeds casting as parallel to them as I could. Every so often when the grass looked right, I would flip into some of the less dense reeds. I only managed one more bite in the last hour and it came flipping. But I swung and missed, and that was all she wrote.

The final score for Day 2, 77.75-inches. The exact same score as I got Day 1. I finished Day 2 in 29th place of 135 anglers and moved myself up to 18th of 87 in the TENvitational. All three finishes were very respectable, top 25% but none were quite good enough to come home with a check. A week of fishing Florida and I didn’t get into any giants either. But I caught good fish, finished well in the events, and had fun being back in my kayak for the 2021 season. It was also really great to finally see so many of my fishing friends again. 2020 was such a crazy year that most events were remote. I didn’t get to socialize like I was used to, so to see and chat, and get to shake hands with my fellow anglers again was the icing on the cake. This however was only the first half of my trip. The next day I was on to Lake Seminole to prepare for the first Hobie BOS event of the season. So stay tuned to see both my failure, and eventual redemption on Seminole.  

Final Weekend Scores

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