Hometown Hero Bitter Holds Onto Bassmaster Lead

LEESBURG, Fla. — In the grips of a passing cold front, the Harris Chain of Lakes on Friday proved more challenging during the second round of the $618,000 CITGO Bassmaster Tour, setting the stage for a group of old-school anglers to take control of the leader board.

With one exception, the top five spots belong to grizzled veterans of the BASS wars.

Hometown favorite Jim Bitter, 62, held onto his lead with a 13-pound, 9-ounce catch that boosted his two-day total to 40-5. Behind him in second place is 54-year-old George Cochran of Arkansas, whose 20-6 limit on Friday pushed his total to 36-13.

Interrupting the grip of the old-timers is Texan Todd Faircloth, 29, who is in third with 36-7, after an 18-5 catch on Friday.

Sixty-five-year-old North Carolina pro Guy Eaker is fourth with 33-4 following his second-round catch of 17-14. He’s trailed by Arkansas' Larry Nixon, a 54-year-old two-time BASS winner on the Harris Chain, who has 33 pounds in two days.

Nixon, one of the sport's most decorated participants, thinks he understands why the older anglers have risen to the top in this tournament.

“With these cold front conditions, you have to fish slowly to get a bite,” he said. “That just suits the style of us old guys.”

The tournament field was reduced to 12 for Saturday's semifinal round. Also making the cut were Florida's Peter Thliveros (32-9), Skeet Reese of California (31 pounds), 64-year-old Texan Tommy Martin (30-12), Tour rookie Andre Moore of Arizona (30-1), California's Aaron Martens (28-7), Mark Rogers of Florida (27-15) and Virginia's John Crews (27-14.).

Bitter, a five-time BASS winner from Fruitland Park, Fla., was happy about contending for his first tournament title in several years, as well as the fact that he will not have nearly as much company when he returns to his hot spot in a canal off Lake Harris on Saturday. Bitter, Cochran and Eaker are all sharing the large residential canal.

“There was too much pressure in there today,” Bitter said. “There were a lot of boats in there today that weren't in there yesterday. That's not supposed to happen to the leader,

“It was really frustrating. I couldn't get to my best spots today because I was afraid to move and lose my spot. There was a boat in front of me and a boat in back of me. I was stuck fishing one small spot. The good thing about making the top-12 cut is that there won't be nearly as many boats in there tomorrow.”

Bitter's success has come flipping and pitching a variety of soft-plastic baits in shallow grass for pre-spawn bass.

Cochran has been working the same canal using a tube bait to catch pre-spawners.

“The old guys just fish slow,” the two-time Classic champion said, “and when the weather gets bad, you have to slow down. It just fits my style.”

Faircloth, a four-time Classic qualifier and one of the sport's rising young stars, switched tactics entirely to climb into a position to win his first BASS tournament, “Yesterday, I caught a couple sight-fishing,” he said. “I just went out fishing today. My places had gotten beaten up, and I knew couldn't last two days, so I went after staging fish.”

Friday's round did not produce as many big bass as the first round, but the two largest bass of the week were brought to the scales. Not one, but two 11-pounders were weighed in by Michigan's Art Ferguson (11-1) and Crews (11 pounds).

Ferguson's beauty, winner of Friday's Purolator Big Bass Award, came at about 8:30 a.m. His lunker bit a Carolina-rigged Senko dragged through shallow Kissimmee grass in about 7 feet of water on Lake Harris.

“I had an awesome day,” Ferguson said. “The Lord blessed me to get a bag like that.”

Arkansas’s Scott Rook had the Busch Heavyweight catch of the day with a limit weighing 22 pounds, eight ounces. If Rook’s catch is one of the ten best top weights of the year on the Tour, he’ll qualify for the $200,000 Busch Shootout this fall.

In the non-boaters’ race for the Triton/Mercury package top prize valued at $37,000, New York's Timothy Dennis holds the lead with a shared weight total of 50-13, followed by Texan Scott Bunday (44-12) and Richard Ohlson of North Carolina (39-9).

The non-boater champion will be crowned Saturday, when the pro field will be reduced to six for Sunday's final round. The winner on the pro side will pocket $100,000.

BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail, which includes the Bassmaster Elite 50 series, 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., Toyota, Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops and Cialis (tadalafil).

Local Sponsors include Leesburg Chamber of Commerce.

For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.