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Rich Howes Wins Kissimmee Chain BASS Southern Open

Rich Howes planned an abbreviated tournament schedule for this year in order to accommodate a new family member - baby Norah, whom he and wife Nikki welcomed last September. Now he'll have to add a couple more Bassmaster Southern Opens to it. In just his third triple-A start, the 39-year-old Howes won the Open at Florida's Kissimmee Chain of Lakes last week. The insurance agent from nearby Oviedo, Fla. outlasted Daniel Lanier Jr. in a 5-hour fish-off on Sunday, and now needs only to compete in the events at Douglas in April and Logan Martin in May to secure a berth in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic. "I'll have to go up there and participate," he said, "but I probably won't be there for 2 straight weeks trying to win them." He boated four keepers for 9-10 in the fish-off to outduel Lanier, who weighed just a single bass in the extra session. The triumph was his most significant to date, easily topping the Xtreme Bass Series state championship he claimed in 2009 and the Bassmaster Weekend Series derby he won last year. Howes hadn't spent much time on the Kissimmee Chain - or any other body of water - since Norah's birth. He fished one 2-day event in November and another in December, and then just jumped in with the rest of the Open practice crowd on the Saturday prior to the event.

In addition to its namesake body, the chain also consists of lakes Toho, East Toho, Cypress, Hatchineha, Jackson and Marian. Toho, site of the 2006 Classic and home to the lauch/weigh-in facility for the Open, is the most famous, but it's not currently in peak condition. "Toho's an incredible fishery, but it's under the weather," he said. "The hydrilla had gotten totally out of control, and in November and December there were just so many chemicals dumped in there trying to fight that stuff back. The fishing has been incredibly hard." He visited both Cypress and Hatchineha on the first practice day, but found nothing of consequence. On Sunday he went to Kissimmee, which at nearly 35,000 acres is by far the biggest lake in the chain, and there he found what would eventually be the winning fish. "I went to a place on the north side where there's lots of flipping mats and hyacinth mats, and in about 2 hours I had a 30-pound stringer, so I knew I was onto something at that point. Everybody else smashed them that day, too, but the thing was, I had nobody near me. I never had anybody within a couple hundred yards of me all week." He stayed in Toho the next 2 days, catching a good stringer on one and failing to get a single bite on the other. He sat out the final practice day altogether as a cold front arrived, bringing a south wind that exceeded 25 mph. "I knew anything I found that day was going to be unfishable by the time the front passed through. I'm not a sight-fisherman and I wasn't going to go out and look for fish on beds. I stayed home (about a 45-minute drive from the launch) and got the boat prepared and spent time with my daughter."

Competition:

Howes' prospects for winning didn't look too bright on day 1, when he brought in a rather pedestrian bag that left him in 29th place - nearly 15 1/2 pounds behind Lanier, who'd sacked a whopping 27-11. H said the lockmaster told him that 173 boats (out of 198 in the field) locked through to Kissimmee that day. "The bite was slower, but it still wasn't too bad," he said. "I lost one that was about 8 pounds and I had an opportunity for an 18- to 19-pound stringer, but I just didn't capitalize." He had his entire 20-pound stringer by 11 o'clock on day 2, and it catapulted him to the lead as Lanier brought just two small fish to the scale. His sack included a 6-pounder and a 4. "I had 4 hours to get rid of the one little pipsqueak I had, and I was beginning to think about day 3. I went searching, but the bite was completely off everywhere."

The water temperature on day 3 was down to 62 degrees (from a high of 70 on day 1), and he knew that connecting with quality fish would be difficult. "I decided to go right to where I'd caught the 20-pound sack to see if I could get them to bite. I went through and picked that place apart - I mean Power-Poling down and fishing for 15 minutes, then moving 10 feet and doing it again. My poor co-angler was bored to death and I never had a bump. It was a complete ghost town." He relocated to the North Cove and lost a 2 1/2-pounder. At 12:30, he still didn't have a fish in the boat. "By that time it started getting into my head - I was going to Bass Pro Shops (for the weigh-in) and I'd look like an idiot in front of a bunch of people I knew because I didn't have any fish. I knew one spot where I could at least catch one 12-incher, so I ran over there and accomplished that in about 5 minutes." He returned to his key stretch with about an hour to fish and found that the water temperature had climbed to 65 degrees. That was a promising sign, and he quickly stuck a 4-pounder and a 3. He added a 2 from the mat where he'd lost the big one on day 1. He got through the lock efficiently and had about 10 minutes to spare as he approached the ramp. He'd found a patch of blown-in hydrilla during practice and on his final pitch of the day - with a bait that was so torn up that it would barely stay on the hook - he popped a 4-10. That fish allowed him to tie Lanier, who'd rebounded from his sad-sack day 2 with 16-12 on day 3.

For the fish-off, he opted to return to Kissimmee even though the run would shorten his fishing time to about 3 1/2 hours. "It's all about strategy in a 5-hour day and if you don't have a plan, you just end up bouncing around," he said. "I've made that kind of mistake in the past and I wanted to go to a place where I absolutely knew there were fish. Once I made that decision, a calm came over me." He went back to the North Cove and quickly boated a 2-pounder. Awhile later he began wondering whether he should return the area that had produced so well for him to that point, but chose not to dueto the water temp having dropped to 59 degrees. The water there was too shallow (1 1/2 to 3 feet) for that temperature, and he figured he was better off staying in the 4- to 5-foot depth range. He popped a small keeper and a 2 1/2 from a place just a couple miles north of his key stretch, and then missed a 7 - the loss of which culminated in a big ball in his braided line. Instead of grabbing another rod, he took the time to settle down and re-rig (and regroup mentally), and he then caught a 4 just a few feet from where he'd lost the bigger one. He didn't know whether that would be enough to win, but his hopes were buoyed when he learned that Lanier had chosen to spend his time in Toho. "I knew how tough the fishing was in there. I spent a lot of time in there (during practice), and for most of it I didn't even get the slightest tick."

Winning Gear:

Flipping gear: 7'10" heavy-action Fitzgerald rod, XPS Johnny Morris Signature Series casting reel, 65-pound PowerPro braided line, 1 1/2-ounce tungsten weight, 3/0 Strike King Hack Attack hook (with baitkeeper), Gambler BB Cricket or Jim Bitter's Bitter Bug (green-pumpkin/candy or junebug).

Main factor: "When you have a cold-front in Florida and it's not a sight-fishing deal, it's going to be a mat-flipping bite, and that eliminates about half the field because guys just won't commit to doing it for an entire day. I was actually fishing shallower than most people because the effects of the front hadn't hit those fish yet. Then I made the right call in the fish-off by not going back there and (instead) going out to deeper stuff."

Performance edge: "I'd have to go with the double Power-Poles. You need two when the wind gets up to a certain speed so you won't spin on the mat and you won't blow trolling-motor backwash underneath it. When you're punching a mat every 3 feet, you don't want to be worried about boat control."

By John Johnson BassFan Senior Editor

TW Staff