The Bassmaster Classic pre-practice at Florida's West Lake Toho took place last week, but it might as well have been last month even last year. The lake's hyperactive right now and literally changes every 10 hours.
One week ago, the morning water temperature was 49 degrees, but earlier today the official Classic practice day the field recorded water temperatures at 70 degrees and higher. In the short time between last week and today, a wave of fish moved in and spawned, which dashed any sight-fisherman's dream of a record-breaking Classic.
Add to that the cold front that's supposed to move through on day 1 (Friday) and nobody's really sure if what they've got will hold.
In other words, the bass at Toho are a tough read right now. There's pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn fish. There's a solid plastics bite, a potential topwater bite and an infant spinnerbait bite still under development.
And there are bites on all four Kissimmee Chain lakes Toho, Kissimmee, Cypress and Hatchineha.
But through it all, the big fish are absent. Right now, a 3- to 4-pound average is looking darn good for the 3 days, and it might start looking even better if the expected cold front shows up. More on all that in a minute. First, here's a closer look at Lake Toho itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Tohopekaliga (Toho)
> Type of Water: Shallow Florida natural lake
> Surface Acres: 22,700 acres (but can connect through to Lakes Kissimmee, Hatchineha and Cypress)
> Primary structure/cover: Vegetation (many types)
> Average depth: 5 feet
> Species: Largemouths only
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: Record-setting fishery with legendary potential, but can be brutally tough and frustrating
> Weather: After a week of warm, stable weather, a cold front is expected for day 1 with potential high winds
> Water temp: high 60s in the morning to 70-plus degrees in the afternoon, and climbing
> Water visibility/color: Stained with 1 1/2 feet average visibility
> Water level: normal
> Fish in: 3 to 5 feet of water
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn/post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Flipping, worms, spinnerbaits, frogs, topwaters
> Winning weight: 55 to 60 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 25): 38 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Toho, but could change quickly
> Biggest factors: Weather, finding the right area
> Wildcard: Pre-spawn bite
Lake Toho (pictured) offers 22,000 acres of heavily vegetated water, but anglers can also lock through to surrounding lakes.
Area Vs. Pattern
Toho and its surrounding lakes lend themselves to both area- and pattern-fishing. They're filled with fish, so a lot of anglers do well in a single area managing their fish and working the spot hard.
But those same anglers often get burned when a front moves through. If an unfavorable wind arises, the spot can blow out in hours. The majority of the field today indicated they were focusing on one or two main areas, and used the official practice day to find one more area on an opposite bank in case the wind comes.
Another factor with area-fishing is movement. Florida fish like to travel, and when you're on them, you're never quite sure if they're coming or going. So to stick with an area, an angler usually has to adjust either move shallower or deeper and mix up his baits and retrieves.
There's a lot of that happening right now as spawning fish move up and spawned-out fish pull back. Some of the pros are banking on another shallow movement. Others are trying to follow their fish as they move toward the outside.
The other side of the picture is the pattern game. At least a few anglers plan to run-and-gun through 10 or more spots to pick off the active fish each day. They think they've figured something out, and with a savings account full of areas, they hope to overcome a potential front by spreading their bets.
At least one angler, Gerald Swindle, plans to junk-fish. It worked for him here last year at the Toho Bassmaster.
The Sight Factor
All the talk before today surrounded sight-fishing. Toho's famous for it, but the big girls seem to be already gone. So most of the field agreed that sight-fishing won't win the tournament. But it might help win. There's plenty of 3s and 4s up shallow, with a few 5s mixed in.
The sight-bite was better in the afternoon today, when the sun was higher. Look for more than a few anglers to work their stuff in the morning, then go fill their limit, and potentially cull, with sight-fish in the afternoon.
The sight-bite does make day 1 (Friday) very important. If the weather holds long enough to allow some sight-fishing on Friday, a good bed-fish bag could carry an angler well into day 3. But if the front comes, it'll bring winds and clouds - a disaster for sight-fishermen.
The Post-Spawn Factor
Bass fry were everywhere today. That means the big fish are probably still recuperating, but could go on the feed by Friday.
Zell Rowland caught a spawned-out 7-pounder today on a topwater, and a little wind and clouds could improve that bite dramatically. If the post-spawn females do get on the feed, it could all easily become a post-spawn deal.
Which Lake? When?
With four lakes to choose, a slight majority of the field indicated they'd fish Toho. Some plan to start on Kissimmee, and a few won't decide until the morning of day 1. That makes sense given current conditions. Kissimmee's regarded as the best sight-fishing lake, while Toho's better on the post-spawn.
And the decision might come down to wind. If a north or northeast wind blows through, it will run straight down Toho and spell trouble.
As always, which lake to fish is a crucial decision. There's a lot of water, and the rule of thumb with Florida fishing is to keep your bait wet. Plus, it takes a lock to get off Toho. No problems were reported with the locks today - average wait was 15 minutes and the lockmaster's working closely with BASS but a 1/2-hour run in this Classic is a big one.
There and back it becomes an hour, which is an hour more another angler has to work over his quality area.
Many anglers Larry Nixon and George Cochran are two examples rarely move outside their preferred way of fishing. And they don't sight-fish either. But nearly every member of the field said it'll take at least two techniques to win this Classic.
Some think it'll be a morning/afternoon adjustment in the same area, others said you need two techniques in two totally different areas, while others say it'll take a new technique in the same area each successive day.
However it plays out, this Classic may be won in a single area, but more than likely won't be won on a single bait.
The biggest factor in Florida tournament wins is almost always consistency. One angler may come out screaming with 25 pounds, but the angler who wins is usually the one who weighs 15 to 20 every single day.
That makes limits important, and they won't be a given here, especially if the front hits. So many competitors are looking for a 3-pound average to stay in the hunt until Sunday, rather than a super-sack on day 1.
That's a look at the tournament setup. Here's what some of the competitors had to say about their official practice day.
"I didn't see all that many fish up, but I think we're going to see a little flood this week. I have one little area, and one wildcard place where a big one showed its head today. I think that (wildcard) area has lots of potential.
"I'd consider 15 to 17 pounds to be a good day. I'd be all around that.
"I think day 1's important, but not as important as other places because you can catch 20 to 25 pounds at any time. But a good day 1 is very important."
"It looked real good to me today. It was a purposeful day, and I learned a lot. I fished for the future last week and I was pretty close with a lot of what I thought.
"I'm fishing an area and a pattern. I'm confident. I feel good."
> His guess for the winning weight: 55 pounds.
Aaron Martens says the spawn is done and local pressure's heavy, so the fish are skittish.
"I feel good. Larry Nixon and I only practiced for 3 days and we shared information. We both have enough weight to have a good tournament.
"It's a good setup for me. Today I caught about 15 fish and tried to shake off as many as I could. It seems like later in the day, the bigger fish bite.
"I'm real confident, but they predicted real high winds. I don't have a backup, but I feel good about it. If I had to bet on someone to win, I'd bet on Larry Nixon first, then myself."
> He's fishing Toho.
"I don't really have a feel for what's going on. Things have changed from a week ago and I don't know if they're in or out. I saw lots of 4-day-old fry today.
"It's going to be a tournament of adjustments. I'm ready to fish."
> He threw a few swimbaits today, but didn't get bit on them.
"It's definitely different than last week. There's lots of fish to be caught, and all the fish are done spawning. There's lots of small fish up, but no big females. There's still lots of questions.
"I have backup plans, but there's a lot of pressure on the lakes. I mostly fished Toho and some on Kissimmee. It's busy and the fish are really skittish.
"I think it'll take 50 pounds to win."
> He's fishing plastics and hasn't seen any topwater bite develop yet.
"My practice was fine. The weather's going to be the big deal here. The water temperature last week was 49 degrees, and right now it's 73. So it's up 24 degrees. There's so many fish in different stages.
"I covered a lot of water today and fished some new stuff. My biggest fish was a 5 1/2. I didn't see any 10s, but that's okay. I'm just worried about being around quality fish."
"I didn't really learn a whole lot more today. The fish are shallow, but will they stay there? We're supposed to have 30 mph winds on Friday, so it'll be a whole new tournament.
"I have some confidence. I just need to get the right bites to win. I'm fishing mostly plastics and some topwater. I caught a 7 today on a topwater that was already spawned out."
> His guess for the winning weight: 50 to 55 pounds.
> He's fishing both Toho and Kissimmee.
"Today I learned that the fish are either done spawning, or haven't pulled up yet. If we get the wind it'll probably eliminate a lot of the sight-fishing. I don't think it will be won sight-fishing.
"I fished Toho today and found something kind of intriguing."
Joel St. Germain (Federation)
"I poked my nose in and looked and my fish are still there in my areas. I got nine bites today and I feel pretty good because I've found fish in Florida again. Florida's been good to me."
"I went to Kissimmee all morning and found one area where I caught a 5-pounder. I was more or less looking for areas. Then I went to Toho and got four or five bites.
"I have two main areas and one's protected from the wind. But if we get a north-northeast wind, it'll probably ruin it. Overall, I've not had a good practice."
"What did I learn today? I learned it was hot. I'm tired and hungry, but I'm relaxed. It's good to be back here (Toho). I enjoy this lake and it has great potential. But the fish, by far, are done spawning.
"I'm going to try to junk-fish an area just mill around and switch up baits. I want to fish reaction baits but it could all change.
"Today I fished for the future. I practiced for the wind in areas that should be protected. And I did a lot of looking."
Mike McClelland (Bassmaster Open Series)
"The fish have gotten more aggressive. It was a lot easier to get bites today. I didn't look at too many of them, but I saw some good ones.
"I played around a little today and looked at some areas I hadn't fished, and rechecked others. And I expanded one area a little bit."
"I learned quite a bit today. I learned you just have to fish the way you know how, and how you like to fish. You might not catch a giant stringer, but I've found a good enough plastics bite that I'm happy.
"A wind would hurt me and everybody, but I think I can survive it."
> He doesn't sight-fish.
Gerald Swindle finished 6th here last year on a junk pattern, and plans to junk-fish again.
Jeff Coble (Weekend Series)
"I mostly rechecked my areas today. I learned one thing I don't think sight-fishing will be a big deal.
"I'm fishing a pattern. It'll just depend on the wind."
Jimmy Johnson (Federation)
"Oh yeah, I learned something today. My confidence is pretty high. I can see 25 pounds a day winning it."
"I had an amazing practice day today. I fished new water and what I found today was way better than what I had. I have three areas with the same pattern where I can get a whole lot of bites. I feel real good about Friday.
"I think I'll be okay in the wind I'll just need to change baits. And I think one of my three areas will hold up in the wind. Plus, I have something else from last week as a backup.
"The major factor is going to be the ability to change. Too many guys work just one thing. You have to have more."
"I'm trying for pre-spawn fish. I'm out a little deeper and I'm going for five big bites a day. I've probably got 25 spots on my GPS. I'll hit a lot of different stuff."
"I found a pretty good stretch of bank today. And I checked one of my best stretches and there was a lot more in there. I feel very, very confident.
"I went to Kissimmee this morning and had 20 pounds by 9:00 a.m. Then I ran around in Toho and got another 25 bites. I'm fishing all three phases pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn. That's always the way I practice down here."
"I don't think I'm around what it'll take to win, but I never saw my fish, so I don't know. Friday's going to be like Christmas I'll be opening a lot of presents.
"These fish in Florida travel a lot, so come Friday and Saturday, you never know."
"I fished Kissimmee today, then came back through the lock and caught a few on Toho. I'm fishing both an area and a pattern. I didn't learn a lot today but I'm comfortable."
> He doesn't sight-fish.
"I ran some new stuff today in case of wind and then just looked around and didn't do much today. There will be sight-fishing the first day anyway.
"The fish are in all three stages and I think it'll take two different techniques to win because of the fronts. And a topwater bite could absolutely develop."
> If the winds are good he thinks it'll take 20 pounds a day to win. If the winds are bad, he thinks 15 will do it.
> He's a late draw (boat 50), which he noted is a big disadvantage for sight-fishing on day 1.
Anglers launch daily at 6:30 a.m. from the Big Toho Marina at Kissimmee Lakefront Park. The Classic weigh-in show begins at 2:30 all 3 days at the Orange County Convention Center North Hall B (Orlando, Fla.).
The Classic ESPN Outdoors Expo takes place at the Convention Center, but in North Hall A. The show opens Thursday night (6:309:00 p.m.). Friday and Saturday hours are 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and Sunday hours are 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Here's the Weather Channel's forecast for the tournament days. Note the cooler temperatures and winds due Friday. Although the forecasted winds appear moderate, a north-northeast wind at Toho can be disastrous.
> Fri., Feb. 24 Partly Cloudy 75°/60°
- Wind: From the N/NE at 12 mph
> Sat., Feb. 25 Few Showers 71°/57°
- Wind: From the N/NE at 12 mph
>Sun., Feb. 26 Mostly Cloudy 74°/52°
- Wind: From the N at 16 mph
> BassFan Big Stick Jay Yelas had a good practice. To read his report, click here to go On Tour With the BassFan Big Sticks.
> Maybe it's because veteran tour pros are better used to keeping secrets, but Federation qualifier Jimmy Johnson was definitely the most stoked about what he'd found. Jeff Kriet would be second on that list.
> BassFan News is brought to you by Rapala.