By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

The 80-man Bass Pro Tour field got a little bit of everything in terms of conditions for the opening event of the new circuit. Everything except a warming trend that brought waves of fish in to spawn along the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. From pouring rain to windy, overcast skies to flat, calm and sunny post-front days, it was a grab bag of conditions and the bass reacted differently to each.

In turn, competitors had to adjust on the fly, not only in response to how the fish were behaving, but also to how their competitors were faring on the ScoreTracker live leaderboard, which proved to be the source of a good amount of drama as the event unfolded. Ultimately, hydrilla was a common denominator among the leaders’ patterns and reaction baits played a key role in how they attacked the prolific grass in Florida, but there were also times when flipping and open-water casting were productive enterprises.

Here’s a rundown of how the rest of the top 5 finishers navigated the first Bass Pro Tour event:

2nd: Edwin Evers

> Shotgun Round: 8, 11-00
> Elimination Round: 11, 24-11 (19, 35-11)
> Knockout Round: 20, 31-09
> Championship Round: 28, 44-03
> Total = 67, 111-07

Amidst the difficult conditions in practice, Edwin Evers located a couple areas in Lake Toho that had decent populations of fish. He’d also found some shallow fish prepping for the spawn down in Lake Kissimmee.

Evers, who won the first MLF Cup event in Florida back in 2013 at Lake Istokpoga, caught 11 pounds in the Shotgun Round, then moved to Kissimmee for the Elimination Round, when he more than doubled his day-1 weight with 24-11.

“I made a good decision to go to Kissimmee for Day 2 and ended up catching some fish down there swimming some baits,” he said. “You’re just doing all you can to keep fishing. I put my trolling motor down and went two or three miles without stopping.”

“I thought I would’ve needed more weight, but it got slick and calm and tough,” he said.

At Garcia in the final round, he employed the same game plan, but also mixed in a vibrating jig when the breeze picked up.

> Texas-rig gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum Signature Series casting rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum Signature Series casting reel (8.3:1 ratio), 50-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS braided line, 1/4- and 3/16-oz. Bass Pro Shops XPS tungsten worm weight, 3/0 Berkley Fusion 19 EWG worm hook, Berkley PowerBait Rocket Craw, Pit Boss, Chigger Bug (black blue fleck and watermelon red).

> He used the black/blue fleck in low-light conditions and watermelon red under high skies.

> Jerkbait gear: 6’6” medium-action Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum Signature Series casting rod, same reel, 10-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, unnamed jerkbait.

> Vibrating jig gear: 7’1” medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum Signature Series casting rod, same reel (6.8:1 ratio), 20-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Bass Pro Shops Enticer Shudderlicious swim jig (green-pumpkin purple), Berkley PowerBait Chigger Bug trailer (green-pumpkin).

> A fast retrieve was key to keeping the vibrating jig above the hydrilla.

> Main factor in his success – “Just never thinking I was out of it. In this format you can make up ground in a hurry if you find some fish. I had to keep a good attitude.”

Major League Fishing/Garrick Dixon
Photo: Major League Fishing/Garrick Dixon

Jared Lintner got the most bites around areas where lily pads met hydrilla.

3rd: Jared Lintner

> Shotgun Round: 8, 13-13
> Elimination Round: 15, 25-12 (23, 39-09)
> Knockout Round: 17, 31-00
> Championship Round: 19, 33-09
> Total = 59, 104-02

Jared Lintner got his first taste of the MLF format last week and came away tired, impressed and wanting more.

“When I first saw my Group A, I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” he said. “Then I looked at Group B and said, ‘Nope, I don’t want to be there either.’ It’s like, ‘Holy crap, you have to catch them.’ What’s so evident, though, is if I went 45 minutes without a bite and I’m getting kind of spun out, I’d ask for a ScoreTracker update and I found out other guys were catching them.”

Through most of the week, there were probably a few guys who felt the same way when they’d hear Lintner’s name ahead of theirs on the ScoreTracker.

The Californian relied on a lipless crankbait among clumps of hydrilla along a hard line of lily pads.

In practice, he spent one day in Lake Toho and had some bites, but didn’t get a winning vibe from the area. He spent the next day in Lake Kissimmee, but was limited in where he could fish by the wind.

“There’s a big bay on the south end that was full of pads and the water looked cleaner,” he said. “I fished around and it looked good. I started with a spinnerbait, but kept pulling up hydrilla clumps.”

He picked up a Jackall TN 70 lipless crankbait and fired that in front of some pads. After tracking it through some hydrilla, he caught a 2-pounder.

“I immediately cut off my hooks because a 2-pounder in this format could be a big deal,” he added.

He coaxed another dozen bites in the next 90 minutes doing the same thing. Once competition started, he relied heavily on the lipless to draw bites from pre-spawners. A noted flipper and puncher, Lintner said he only caught two fish all week out of mats.

“There were a lot of locals in there pitching and flipping and spinnterbaiting and throwing topwater and on Saturday, Alton Jr. and (Michael) Neal were also in there throwing 'Traps, but I was inside of them in the pads,” he said.

In the finals at Garcia, he got off to a strong start and held the lead after the first and second periods.

“In the morning, I threw a frog and a Whopper Plopper early and then I went for the big stick to punch mats, but then I slid around his berm and I saw a few big, orange spots,” he said. “I rigged up a stickbait and started throwing ahead of the boat at the light spots. I caught a couple little ones doing that, but the whole time I wanted to punch.”

He eventually caught a few punching, but the bigger fish never showed up for him and he slid to 3rd.

“I’m really glad Edwin and Jordan didn’t catch them on a big stick because I’d probably have driven my truck off a bridge,” he joked. “I got just enough bites to keep doing it. I’d go back with a stickbait, then I’d see a good-looking mat and flip it. I‘ll bet you during that cold front the mat-flipping there was epic.

“In Florida, if you get in the right groove, it only takes a little piece of the puzzle to realize what’s going on. I’ve lost those pieces before, but when you dial into a little something – a key depth or key type of grass or mix of grass – that’s all you need.”

> Lipless crankbait gear: 7’5” medium-heavy prototype Ritual Angling signature series casting rod, Shimano Metanium HG casting reel, 16-pound Sunline Crank FC fluorocarbon line, Jackall TN 70 (spawn tiger, HL gold).

> Lintner traded the stock treble hooks on the TN 70 for No. 4 Laser TroKar 2X EWG hooks.

> Main factor in his success – “Besides Sunday, covering as much water efficiently as I possibly could.”

> Performance edge – “Without my Power-Poles those first two days, I’d have blown over the top of so many fish.”

Major League Fishing/Garrick Dixon
Photo: Major League Fishing/Garrick Dixon

Anthony Gagliardi went with high-percentage techniques to claim a top-5 finish.

4th: Anthony Gagliardi

> Shotgun Round: 20, 41-14
> Elimination Round: 20, 29-10 (40, 71-08)
> Knockout Round: 18, 32-01
> Championship Round: 15, 23-00
> Total = 73, 126-09

For his first MLF-style tournament, Anthony Gagliardi wanted to employ techniques that not only was he comfortable with, but ones he knew would trigger a fair number of bites in the pre-spawn conditions. He keyed on schooling fish on Lake Toho to start the tournament. He had two areas and exploited both of them with a jerkbait during the Group B Shotgun Round. With the windy conditions and the bait staying down, it was the perfect scenario for a reaction bait.

“It was a nothing bottom out there – as flat as could be,” he said. “They were just chasing bait. Here on (Lake) Murray, they’ll do it in relation to some type of structure, but there it was as flat as could be. It was more like fishing up north for smallmouth where you drive for some time and decide to try here. There was no contour to relate to, so it had to be purely about the bait. It was only 8 feet deep.”

In the Elimination Round, the field was dealt calmer conditions and the schooling fish were easier to pick apart, only this time the jerkbait proved ineffective.

“I was able to see them better because it was so calm,” he said. “They wouldn’t bite the jerkbait, though. Everybody around me started with one, too, but after 10 casts without a bite, I went to a swimbait on a quarter-ounce head and cracked them on that.”

After notching 41-plus pounds in the Shotgun Round, he didn’t need to stack up much weight in order to cement in his position in the Knockout Round.

“I set a weight of 10 pounds and once I caught that, I got comfortable and that calmed me down,” he added.

From there, he started exploring some shallow grass and was able to pick up a few bites. In the third period, he revisited the schooling fish, only he moved a few hundred yards away when another group came up to the surface.

“It was insane how many fish were there. I could’ve caught 100 if I wanted to,” he said. “It would’ve been fun had it been the Knockout Round so I could just wear them out.”

In the Knockout Round, the slick and warmer conditions didn’t trigger much in the way of schooling activity, When they did break the surface, he caught a few on the single swimbait.

“I started getting worried because it was obvious it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Then one would break and it’d make me think it was going to start, then it wouldn’t work.”

As a way to mix things up, he began casting a double-fluke rig and on his third cast he caught one – “purely random,” he said – but it got his attention. It’s something he fishes frequently at home in South Carolina, but he’d never fished it in open water in Florida before.

He caught several more that way, including a couple while employing two lines at once, which is allowed once per period, according to Bass Pro Tour rules.

For the finals, he knew the schooling fish weren’t going to be much of an option at Lake Garcia. With a foggy start to the morning, he remained in the canal that led back to the launch ramp and followed it to another canal, which led to a spillway. Despite there not being any current flow, he fished around and lost one on a jerkbait and caught one flipping a mat.

He returned to the main lake at the end of the first period and started the second period tossing a weightless Berkley PowerBait Jerk Shad around.

“Then I saw a light spot and I got distracted,” he said, referencing the beds that were visible. “I rigged up a wacky-style Bottom Hopper and every light spot I threw at, I caught one. That’s the only thing that brought me back in it.”

After being near the bottom of the leaderboard, he worked his way to 3rd, but he wasn’t catching the size he needed to surpass Evers, Lintner and Lee.

“Enough time had passed that I knew I couldn’t keep up with them, but I was still in contention for some serious money and a high finish, so I stuck with it,” he said.

> Jerkbait gear: 7’ medium-action Level Fishing casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo MGXtreme casting reel, 14-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, Berkley Skinny Cutter 110+ (ayu).

> Swimbait gear: 7’4” medium-light Level Fishing spinning rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier spinning reel, 8-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 10-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/4-oz. Buckeye Lures G-Man Finesse Swimbait jighead, 3.8” Berkley PowerBait Power Swimmer (bluegill flash).

> Double Fluke rig: 7’10” medium-heavy Level Fishing casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel, 16-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 4/0 Berkley Fusion 19 weighted swimbait hooks (1/8 oz.), Berkley PowerBait Power Jerk Shad (green flash, baby bass).

> He uses the weighted hooks to give the rig some castability they help keep the baits down as he tends to work the rig fairly quickly.

> Neko rig: Same rod as swimbait, same reel, same line, 2/0 weedless wacky hook, 4.75” Berkley PowerBait Bottom Hopper (green-pumpkin), Bass Pro Shops 3/64-oz. nail weight.

> The tournament was Gagliardi’s first event using Berkley soft plastics after being added to the company's pro staff last month. “It was the first time I’ve thrown that worm and I was thoroughly impressed,” he said. “There was just something about the PowerBait that was different.”

> Main factor in his success – “Looking for something that would play to my strengths. I can catch them flipping sometimes, but that’s not my strong suit. To go there, especially in a tournament where you have to catch a lot, I intentionally practiced techniques and lures that I’ve caught a lot on in the past. Fishing a jerkbait in open water hunting for schools is what I like to do, so I played to my strengths instead of force-feeding myself with something that was not my strong suit.”

> Performance edge – “The Garmin LiveScope allowed me to see the that the schoolers were keying on. I’d be out in open water and pan around and if I saw bait, I’d get on point because if saw bait, I would then get bites. I was paying close attention to that LiveScope.”

Major League Fishing/Garrick Dixon
Photo: Major League Fishing/Garrick Dixon

Alton Jones Jr. had no problems adapting to his first MLF-style tournament.

5th: Alton Jones Jr.

> Shotgun Round: 8, 13-13
> Elimination Round: 15, 25-12 (23, 39-09)
> Knockout Round: 17, 31-00
> Championship Round: 19, 33-09
> Total = 59, 104-02

It didn’t take long for Alton Jones Jr. to develop an affinity for the every-fish-counts format utilized in Bass Pro Tour events.

“I’m in love with this format,” he said.

And rightly so. The youngest angler in the field made it through to the final round by following a popular recipe that’s been successful in other MLF events – get around groups of fish and be ready to make decisions on the fly. Jones did both and scored a top-5 finish because of it.

“I thought practice was really valuable even with the bad weather because having the rain and wind allowed me to practice fast,” he said. “That meant lipless cranks, crankbaits and bladed jigs. That’s a big asset in Florida with just two days. I just searched for areas that had fish and I was able to find three areas that I thought had fish. I knew, coming in, one of those three areas, or two, would really play.”

Undecided where to start, he leaned toward the area that wound up being his least favorite of the three. He caught a single 3-pounder in the first period of Group B’s Shotgun Round. From there, he moved into a canal at the south end of Lake Kissimmee and figured the fish there would be more resilient against the cold front.

“Even if it gets cold, those are resident fish,” he reasoned. “They can move up and down, but they never really vacate the area. I had them penned in. The downside was they didn’t really replenish, and I learned by the end of day 2 they’d been pretty well picked over.”

Still, there were enough fish in there around shoreline bushes to give him 24-10 after day 1. He flipped a YUM Dinger to catch the fish in the canal, probing viney, overgrown bushes.

“They were overgrown along the edges and the fish were along the ends and bases,” he said. “I think a few were spawning at the bases while the other bites were suspended under the thick stuff.”

After catching a total of 44-12 across the Shotgun and Elimination Rounds, Jones moved to new water in Kissimmee for the Knockout Round. That’s when he transitioned to an old-school lipless crankbait reeled over the top of hydrilla that topped out about a foot under the surface.

“I’d caught a few there in practice on a Cotton Cordell Hotspot,” he said. “It’s really light and that allowed me to fish it slower. Compared to other guys in the area, I’d say I had quite a few more bites in the morning than them. I could fish it over top of that grass.”

Once the sun got up later in the morning, he moved back into the canal and caught six for 12-05 in the third period to clinch a spot in the finals. While he fell in trying to land one fish that had gotten wrapped up in a branch, Jones said the 3-11 he caught on the last cast was one he won’t soon forget.

“That gave me the separation I needed and moved me from 9th to 5th,” he said. “That last hour was one of the most high-stress situations I’ve ever fished in. It was one of the most fun, but most stressful hours ever.”

> Flipping gear: 7’ heavy-action Kistler Z-Bone casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 50-pound unnamed braided line, 25-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/2-oz. unnamed worm weight, 5/0 unnamed flipping hook, 5” YUM Dinger (green-pumpkin purple flake).

> He favored the shorter rod for flipping in the canal because it allowed him to be more precise around the bushes.

> Lipless crankbait gear: 7’3” heavy-action Kistler KLX casting rod, same reel (6.6:1 ratio), 15-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, vintage Cotton Cordell Hot Spot (gold).

> The particular KLX rod he was using has a fiberglass tip, which he said makes it very effective when throwing a reaction bait like a lipless crankbait.

> Main factor in his success – “My decisions. In this format, every fish counts and I tried to put myself in position to catch the most weight possible. I got fortunate with some of my calls. It started off cold and warmed up and my biggest call was leaving those lipless crankbait fish and going into that canal that had been beat up. I was hoping the warmer weather changed the attitude of those fish and I turned out to be right.”

> Performance edge – “I was running to the south end of Kissimmee, which was about an hour boat ride. This is my first year in a Skeeter FX21. Especially through practice, it was a Cadillac in that big water. It made moving around easy in that rough water. I was super pleased with how that performed.”

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