GO Bassmaster Southern Tour, International Colors and The Big ‘O’ No More

The debut of the CITGO Bassmaster Southern Tour is less than two weeks away, and excitement is mounting for the brand new venue for professional anglers.

The five-event Southern Tour kicks off Jan.26-28 on Florida’s famed Lake Okeechobee, where some of the sport’s top anglers will be in action at the first of five events on the new Tour.

Anglers say competition on the Southern Tour and its companion tour, the five-event CITGO Bassmaster Northern Tour, will be fierce.

“I don’t see the competition being any less than what it will be on the Elite Series,” said Maryland pro Frank Ippoliti.

Maybe that’s because several anglers from the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series also will contend for more than $3 million in cash and merchandise on the Southern and Northern Tours.

Japanese pro Takahiro Omori, the 2004 Bassmaster Classic champion, has signed up to fish the Southern Tour debut on Lake Okeechobee, as well as Florida pro Terry Scroggins, who made a strong run at the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year title last season.

For many Elite Series anglers, the new Southern and Northern Tours offer yet another opportunity for them to ply their trade and take home big bucks.

“Last year, for example, I fished three [Bassmaster] Open events and won almost $100,000,” Scroggins said. “It’s a great chance for me to make some more money, and I think I can make a few dollars over there.

“And I really like some of the lakes where the Southern Tour is going.”

In addition to Okeechobee, the Southern Tour will visit Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas on March 2-4, Santee Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina on April 6-8, Lake Eufaula in Alabama on May 11-13 and Lake Lanier in Georgia on Sept. 7-9.

The Northern Tour, which starts June 22 on Kentucky Lake, will visit the Mississippi River in Iowa on July 20-22, Lake Champlain in New York on Aug. 17-19, Lake Erie/Sandusky Bay in Ohio on Oct. 5-7 and Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia on Oct. 26-28.

And while several Elite Series anglers will compete on the new Tours, the new venue also offers opportunities for other anglers.

Ippoliti, a veteran of the CITGO Bassmaster tournament trail, said the new Tours are a “perfect fit” for him.

“I really wanted to be on the Elite Series, but the timing just wasn’t right for me,” Ippoliti explained. “But this is tailor-made for what I need to do.”

Ippoliti said he’s about eight months into a new venture, a car dealership, and that the Southern and Northern Tours’ schedule will allow him to make frequent trips back home to take care of his business. He also said he plans to use the Tours as a launching pad into the 2007 Elite Series.

“I’m just trying to get all my ducks in a row,” Ippoliti said.

Registration for the Northern and Southern tours remains open. More information is available at www.bassmaster.com.

International flavor This week’s Bassmaster Federation Championship got off to an interesting start on Wednesday, with international anglers making a splash on the tournament’s opening day.

Fishing the Harris Chain of Lakes in Leesburg, Fla., international anglers took the lead Wednesday in three of the Federation’s six divisions. South African Anré De Villiers caught the heaviest stringer of the day - 14 pounds, 15 ounces - to take the overall lead and the top spot in the Southern Division. Canadian Garrett Green had 11-5 to lead the Eastern Division (fifth overall), and Italian Alessandro Debbi had 11-0 to take the lead in the Northern Division (sixth overall).

“I like to power fish back home,” De Villiers said. “But here I had to really slow down. The water is cool and the conditions are tough.”

The top finisher in each of the Federation’s six divisions will earn a berth in next month’s Bassmaster Classic on Lake Toho, just down the road in Kissimmee, Fla.

“It’s my dream to fish the Bassmaster Classic,” Debbi said. “I’ve been dreaming of this for 20 years. If I achieve this, I will be really excited.”

The little O Fishermen call Florida’s Lake Okeechobee the “Big O” because it’s the second-largest freshwater lake located entirely within the boundaries of the United States.

But when the CITGO Bassmaster Southern Tour visits the lake later this month, it’s likely to fish more like the “Little O.”

Hurricanes over the past two seasons have seriously rearranged the lake’s vegetation and have muddied the waters, leaving anglers with fewer productive spots to seek the normally abundant largemouth bass.

“It’s going to fish really small,” said Florida pro Terry Scroggins, who fished the lake just before it went off limits to Southern Tour anglers. “The hurricanes devastated the lake.”

Consider also that a pair of 200-boat tournaments will have just visited the lake when the Southern Tour event kicks off, Scroggins said, and tour anglers likely will find a lot of wary bass.

Scroggins predicted that one of Okeechobee’s most popular techniques, flipping and pitching in matted vegetation, won’t play as big a role during the Southern Tour event there.

“There will be some, but I don’t think it will be as strong as usual,” he said. “A lot of the good mats are in dirty water right now, so I think you’ll see a lot more casting, which is completely backwards from what usually happens down there.”

In fact, when reached by telephone earlier this week, Scroggins, a strong advocate of pitching and flipping, said he had just returned from the tackle shop with a load of lures he plans to cast to targets at Okeechobee.

“I love to flip and pitch as much as anyone,” Scroggins joked, “so when you hear me talking about casting at Okeechobee, you know I’m serious.”

BASS is the worldwide authority on bass fishing, sanctioning more than 20,000 events through the BASS Federation annually. Guided by its mission to serve all fishing fans, BASS sets the standard for credibility, professionalism, sportsmanship and conservation, as it has for nearly 40 years.

BASS stages bass fishing tournaments for every skill level and culminates with the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. Through its clubs, youth programs, aquatic resource advocacy, magazine publishing and multimedia platforms, BASS offers the industry's widest array of services and support to its nearly 550,000 members. The organization is headquartered in Celebration, Fla.

For more information, contact BASS Communications at (407) 566-2208. To join BASS, call 1-800-BASS-USA or visit www.bassmaster.com.