Van Soles of Haines City, Fla., started slowly in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmater Southern Open presented by Allstate, but in the frigid weather that marked the tournament on Lake Tohopekaliga, he was like a snowball. He gathered speed and eventually rolled over his competition.
For each of the final two days, Soles posted the heaviest catch in the field. After being mired in 30th place on the first day, he posted catches of 17 pounds, 4 ounces on Day 2 and 21-9 on Day 3. His three-day tally totaled 50-15, giving him the win in his first B.A.S.S. professional event.
“I fished the southwest side of Lake Kissimmee all three days, focusing on matted vegetation that had floated up against buggy whips, cattails and Kissimmee grass,” Soles said. “The bass were really lethargic, and the bite was slower on the last day than on Day 2.”
Soles pitched and punched the matted vegetation with a Gambler BB Cricket (emerald blue, black/blue flake and Bowen Silver Shadow) fished on a 3/0 Cobra Flippin’ Hook behind a 1 1/2-ounce Elite tungsten sinker pegged to the line by a Jethro Baits bobber stop. His line was 65-pound-test PowerPro braid spooled on a Lew’s Speed Spool casting reel (7.1:1) and mounted on a 7-foot, 11-inch Halo XXX flipping rod.
“On the last day, I caught all my fish before 10 a.m.,” Soles said. “I really had to slow down to catch them. I didn’t get a lot of bites and had to work the worm a lot — hopping it up and down 10 or 12 times in a spot before the fish would hit.”
True to expectations, Sunshine State anglers dominated this week on the Kissimmee Chain, but it wasn’t the Floridians that most would have guessed. Terry Scroggins was 17th; Cliff Prince was 114th; and Shaw Grigsby finished 132nd. Though Russ Lane of Alabama finished in the final, none of the famed Lakeland-area bass fishing family of Lanes, all pre-tournament favorites, made it to the last day. Chris Lane placed 42nd; Bobby Lane, 46th; and Arnie Lane, 63rd.
Even the top anglers from last year’s Opens tournament on the same fishery struggled. The 2013 winner Rich Howes battled vertigo for two days and ended up a disappointing 177th. Second-place finisher Danny Lanier was only a little better at 137th.
Russ Lane was also the only one of 24 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers in the tournament who made it to the finals, though several others came close. Lane finished in eighth place.
Both of the Top 2 anglers after the first day missed the cut to qualify for the finals. First-round leader Todd Auten caught 22-10 on Day 1, but he failed to boat a keeper on Day 2, slipping to 28th place. Elite pro Kotaro Kiriyama had 19-2 in the opener, but only 4-6 in the second round to finish 24th with 23-8.
In all, nine of the 12 finalists called Florida home, and it was Soles who ultimately took home the trophy, the big check and potentially a spot in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina. He’ll need to fish the other two Southern Opens on Alabama’s Smith Lake and North Carolina’s Lake Norman to wrap up the berth. Soles also won a Triton 19XS boat with a Mercury 200 Pro XS motor.
Among the co-anglers, Bryan Jones of Zephyrhills, Fla., had the best of it, leading his division from wire to wire. Jones posted a three-bass limit weighing 16-8 on Day 1 and never looked back. Though his catches diminished each day, he finished with a three-day total of 27-14. It was enough to win by more than a pound, and Jones takes home the prize of a Skeeter TZX 170 boat with a Yamaha F115LA motor. Mike Spears of Jasper, Ala., was second with 26-7.
Jones punched matted vegetation for the first two days to catch his limits, including a 9-pound, 3-ounce lunker on the first day that led all co-anglers for the entire event. On Day 3, he caught a small limit using a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper.
Making big catches from the back of the boat can be a challenge, but Jones had a plan. “I try to pay close attention to where my pro is fishing so I don’t cast to the same spots,” he said, “and I try to throw a different type of lure, but one I can fish at a similar pace to what the pro is doing.”
The Carhartt Big Bass award of $500 for the largest bass on the pro side went to Soles, who caught a 10-7 on Day 2 that propelled him into the finals. Soles also caught the biggest bass on Day 3 — an 8-14.
The Livingston Lures Leader award of $250 was presented to the pro angler in the lead on Day 2 — Jeff Cloud of Lubbock, Texas. The Day 2 leader on the co-angler side, Jones, received a Livingston Lures gift pack valued at $250.
The “Allstate Good Hands, Great Day” award goes to the angler who advances the most places up the leaderboard from Day 1 to Day 2. On the professional side, Michael Reid of Perry, Ga., earned $250 by jumping 123 places from 166th to 43rd. On the co-angler side, Mike Spears of Jasper, Ala., picked up $150 by going from 138th (tied for last) to seventh.
The Power-Pole Captains Cash award of $500 went to Soles as the highest-finishing angler with a Power-Pole approved product on his boat.
Toyota Bonus Bucks pays $1,500 to the highest placing eligible pro angler entrant and $1,000 to the second highest placing pro. On the co-angler side, the top eligible entrant receives $300, and the second highest placing eligible co-angler gets $150.
Image courtesy James Overstreet/Bassmaster