It was here in January of 2001 that the 22,750-acre lake provided two of the most remarkable days in competitive fishing history and rewrote the BASS record book.
It began when Dean Rojas opened with a five-bass record catch of 45 pounds, 2 ounces and followed with a 34-9 stringer on Day Two. The second day, Arkansas’ Mark Davis brought in 41-10. The previous five-bass record of 34-7 was broken five times over those two magical days. In addition to the two 40-pound-plus stringers, eight limits of more than 30 pounds were posted. Another 29 limits of 20 pounds or more were caught, and an estimated 21 bass weighing more than 10 pounds were brought to the scales.
Rojas also set the four-day tournament record with 108 pounds, 12 ounces of largemouth bass.
Still fresh in the pros’ mind, the once-in-a-lifetime big-bass festival that exploded on Toho was the result of impeccable timing. The tournament was held at the end of an eight-day warming trend in the heart of spawning season. Although it surprised many of the pros, those big, egg-laden female bass moved onto their shallow beds in a giant wave on the last afternoon of the official practice day.
An unseasonably warm Florida winter is the backdrop this year as the much-anticipated $618,000 CITGO Bassmaster Tour kicks off the 2005 season on Toho, Jan. 27-30, and the pros could not be more excited.
“It looks like we’ve got some cold weather on the way, so it should back the fish off a little bit,” said Charlie Youngers, a Tour pro from Oviedo. “I’m guessing that they’ve tried to move up [to spawn]. When I was down there before the cutoff [the Kissimmee Chain is off-limits for 30 days], they acted like they wanted to move up a little bit, and they were full of roe.
“If we get a serious cold front right before the tournament it might change things, but if we get a moderate front we could be looking at one heck of a tournament. It’s going to be a slugfest. It’s going to be one of those deals where you come in with a 20-pound bag, and it won’t even get any attention.”
Who wouldn’t be delighted about returning to Kissimmee, site of that famous January big-bass extravaganza where the record book was assaulted? At stake is the $110,000 first-place prize and valuable points toward the prestigious 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh.
The northernmost body of water on the Kissimmee Chain, Lake Toho is one of Florida’s largest natural lakes. The Osceola County lake is 13 miles long and has a maximum width of better than four miles.
The pros and their co-angler partners will enjoy the early benefits of a massive effort bigger than anything ever attempted in Florida — a year-long, $9 million restoration project that improved much of the lake’s nursery and spawning areas. It began with a drawdown that drained the lake of about half its water for much of 2004. During that time, bulldozers and dump trucks removed muck in shallow areas and exposed a hard sand bottom.
Many miles of shoreline were restored by removing 1 1/2 feet of muck and planting desirable vegetation.
“It’s going to look a whole lot different than it did the last time the guys were here,” Youngers said. “All of the mats, the flat reeds, the tussocks and stuff that we were flipping the last time are all gone. All of that is now clean sand bottom with sporadic Kissimmee grass that’s starting to grow back. It’s gorgeous.”
Although some anglers will run to the other lakes, Toho will probably get most of the attention.
“With the warm weather we’ve had, I’m sure the fish have moved up on Toho,” Youngers said. “They’re probably about like they were when Rojas caught all of those fish.
“Absolutely, I think it will be a spawn tournament. The fish may shut down somewhat, but once they commit to the beds they’re either going to be heading towards them or coming off of them. They’re going to be up somewhere shallow.”
Eight-time BASS winner and Florida pro Shaw Grigsby, who has won a past tournament on Toho, isn’t so sure.
“If it stays this way, it should be a spawning deal,” he said. “What I expect is that we’re going to have pretty nice weather until a day or two before practice starts, and then we’re going to get iced over – typical tournament weather.
“It’s been the most marvelous weather since right after Christmas. I guarantee you the fish have been going nuts just about everywhere in the state”
Grigsby pointed out that the mild winter weather is different from the scenario that led to the 2001 onslaught.
“Back then we had extreme cold all the way up to the warming trend that occurred right before the tournament,” he explained. “This winter we haven’t had that kind of cold. What made that tournament so special is that we had one of the coldest winters on record, and then – all of a sudden – we got a warm spell that lasted until about the third day of the tournament.
“The water warmed up and the bass all moved in and spawned at one time. Now the fish are coming in while nobody’s fishing and some are spawning. The cold weather is going to move in, and the fishing will be spotty at best.
“If it stays warm, you might have some spawning going on during the tournament as well as some post-spawn activity. If that happens, it’ll be really good, fun fishing, but it won’t be what Rojas had with all of the fish coming in to spawn at one time. That was a very, very special time to have a tournament, and we hit it perfectly.”
Daily weigh-ins will take place at Kissimmee Lakefront Park on Thursday and Friday at 3:25 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 4:00 p.m. The angler launch begins at 7:00 a.m. on Thursday and Friday and at 7:15 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Tour include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Toyota, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops and BankOne.
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.