A chance encounter on Day 1 directed Tennessee pro Buddy Gross to an unexpected finding that delivered four days of limit catches and propelled him to victory with a total weight of 77 pounds, 11 ounces at the SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at Harris Chain.
Gross, who also won the 2020 Elite event on Lake Eufaula, placed third on Day 1 with 22-12, then took over the Day 2 lead by adding 17-11. Semifinal Saturday tested Gross’ resolve, as he found only 14-14 and slipped to sixth, but a Championship Sunday limit of 22-6 pushed him across the finish line.
Edging Drew Benton of Blakely, Ga., by 2-10, Gross earned the $100,000 top prize.
“This snuck up on me; I had a terrible practice, but I stuck to my guns and stuck to my strengths,” Gross said.
Except for brief Day 2 visits to lakes Beauclair and Eustis, Gross spent the majority of his tournament on the east side of Lake Harris. He did most of his work in Banana Cove, but also fished a point across from the cove on Day 4.
“The first day of the tournament, I went over to this spot where I thought I could catch a couple of keepers just to get me going and then I’d go to the grass and weed through them,” Gross said. “When I stopped that morning, I caught 30 or 40 — I had some other anglers around me so I didn’t stop.”
Gross said that once he’d tallied 20 pounds on that initial spot, he started seeking similar scenarios. With opportunity blossoming, he realized he’d found a pattern with winning potential.
“As I was looking for new spots, I started catching more fish,” he said. “Some of those spots started turning into bigger fish and then they turned into bigger schools.
“Every day I’ve caught them in different places. I could never relocate a school. I just got blessed enough to find enough of them on different places. The fish just kept coming. If I busted them up, I could come back and catch them again.”
The key scenario was a shore break with deeper water close and vacant shellcracker beds. Watching the target zones on his Humminbird 360, Gross saw bass continuously traversing the area and feeding on baitfish.
“I could watch these fish and it was almost like they were running the break parallel, they would go down and a little while later, they’d come back,” he said. “I’m not saying it was the same fish, but the fish I saw were actively looking for bait and they were riding that ledge.
“It was just like being at home and it fished just like a Tennessee River (ledge). I got very blessed to catch what I caught.”
Gross caught his fish on a 5-inch Scottsboro Tackle swimbait on a 3/4-ounce swimbait head and a Zoom Z-Craw Worm. He fished the latter on a Carolina rig and a Texas rig. With each of those baits, Gross found a slow presentation most productive.
With Wednesday’s full moon coinciding with a warming trend, the stage seemed set for a full-on spawning event. Some of that did occur, but despite the big-bite potential, Gross said he formulated a different game plan.
“These (bed fishermen) catching these 9-, 10-, 11-pounders — man, that makes you want to go to the bank,” Gross said. “I went for a little while on Day 3 and didn’t have a great day. I thought I blew my chances, but the Lord blessed us today with a great limit and that gave me the confidence to stick with it.”
A slow Day 1 start found Benton with a 47th-place catch of 13-11, but he rebounded on Day 2 by catching 19-1 and rising to 23rd. Adding 21-5 on Semifinal Saturday earned him a final-round spot in eighth place. He rose six spots with a Championship Sunday limit of 21 pounds that lifted his final weight to 75-1.
“After Day 1, I didn’t know what to do, I had done everything I knew to do when you come to Florida and you have a full moon and a warming trend,” Benton said. “I didn’t see them coming and I just changed up areas of the lake and found a good batch of spawners to bump me up on Day 2.
“On Day 3, I was struggling again and with 30 minutes to go, I caught an 8-pounder and a 5 3/4 that got me into the final day. I caught everything that I thought I could catch.”
Day 3 leader Ray Hanselman Jr., of Del Rio, Texas, finished third with 71-8. After placing fourth on Day 1 with 22 pounds, he added 17-4 on Day 2 and climbed two spots. Hanselman moved into the top spot on Semifinal Saturday with a limit of 18-13 and concluded his run with 13-7.
Hanselman committed his week to the 3- to 7-foot grass flats of Banana Cove. Targeting pre- and postspawn bass, he caught most of his fish on a Strike King Hybrid Hunter, a rattling crankbait with a unique L-shaped bill that displaces grass.
“I just ran out of fish over there; it got pounded pretty hard this week,” Hanselman said. “Today’s (sunny skies) weren’t the ideal conditions for what I was doing, but I just ground it out. I was just two big fish away.”
Hanselman said his 8-foot Power Tackle moderate swimbait rod allowed him to launch his bait and set the hook at the end of long casts. Retrofitting his bait with oversized hooks helped him catch whatever bit.
John Cox of DeBary, Fla., won the $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass award for the 11-0 largemouth he landed on Day 3.
Micah Frazier of Newnan, Ga., won the $2,000 VMC Monster Bag award for the event’s heaviest limit with his Day 2 catch of 23-14.
Gross also took home an additional $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program, while Brandon Lester of Fayetteville, Tenn., also earned $2,000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Hanselman earned an additional $2,500 as the highest-placing entrant and Scott Martin of Clewiston, Fla., claimed an additional $1,500 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
Mark Menendez of Paducah, Ky., won the $1,000 BassTrakk Contingency award for the most accurate weight reporting.
David Mullins of Mt. Carmel, Tenn., leads the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 193 points. Cox is second with 191, followed by Frazier with 179, Stetson Blaylock of Benton, Ark., with 177 and Gross with 172.
Jay Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., leads the Falcon Rods Rookie of the Year standings with 155 points