“If I only have to catch five, I want a bigger bait, Jack!” – Ott DeFoe.
The 2023 season marks a significant shift in the scoring rules for Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour as the more-traditional “biggest five” scoring system replaces the circuit’s first four years of “every fish counts.” The fish are still weighed and immediately released by MLF boat officials, but instead of tallying 10, 20, or even 40 scorable bass in a day, Rapala pros Ott DeFoe and Jacob Wheeler are back to looking for the five biggest bass they can catch each day.
For DeFoe, Stage One was the first professional tournament he had fished in the traditional five-fish format since his epic victory at the 2019 Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Rapala teammate Jacob Wheeler finished second.)
The change in format bears significantly on tournament strategy, but DeFoe and Wheeler showed that the cream rises to the top no matter the scoring system. Wheeler finished the event in 11th after being knocked out of the Championship Round by just two ounces.
Ott made it through the first two qualifying rounds with a sound strategy developed from years of tournament experience chasing Florida-strain largemouth.
“There was a little cold spell that hit during practice, which makes Florida bass harder to catch, so I thought the canal would be the best place to start and catch a limit. There was also some current still running in the canal from earlier rains, and that turned out to be a good decision.”
Ott employed a Shadow Rap® Shad Deep Jerkbait in the Bud color for three fish in his creel.
A DT6 landed a fourth, and his final fish, a 5-7, was caught out in Lake Kissimmee on a Texas-rigged stickbait with a 4/0 VMC® Redline hybrid worm hook and a 3/16 VMC tungsten weight. Ott loves the new Redline hooks.
“The key to the Redline hook is the steel used; Vandium Steel is a much harder grade than traditional hooks. It’s 25% stronger than traditional hooks and that is a big deal. On top of that they are as sticky sharp as a hook can get and they stay sharp.”
A second Bass Pro Tour scoring change in 2023 eliminated the automatic bid to the Championship Round for the two Qualifying Round winners. Thus, DeFoe needed only to finish in the top 20 of his 40-angler group. His goal on Day Two was to catch a decent limit and then explore Lake Kissimmee in preparation for the Knockout Round.
When his starting spot in the canal didn’t fire, he went out into Lake Kissimmee and caught a limit that included a 4-2 on the stickbait. He then switched to a ½ oz. Terminator swim jig and caught two 1-15’s and then a 5-9, which allowed him to start scouting for the Knockout Round. He later culled up with a spinnerbait, which would come back into play later in the event.
The big spinnerbait fish helped Ott end the round in 8th place, which was important because it allowed him to be the final angler to enter the first lock out of Lake Toho into Lake Kissimmee. Notably, 32 of 40 anglers locked through to Kissimmee in the KO Round, and all ten on the final day locked through.
“Being in the first lock saved me a good 15 to 20 minutes. When I got to my starting spot in the Knockout Round, I caught a 6-1 and a 2-10 before the second group of anglers arrived down there.”
Starting where he caught the 5-9 on Day Two, Ott reeled his Terminator® HD swim jig just under the surface, watched a giant fish wake towards his bait, and then suck it in.
“It looked just like a mudfish bite, which I had caught several of, and since it happened so fast and close to the boat, I just boat swung it in.”
It ended up being a 6-1 largemouth.
He then saw another fish feeding and, on the next cast, caught the 2-10. He later caught keepers three and four on the swim jig. In the same area, he caught another six-pounder.
“I didn’t boat swing that one, but I bet I could have!”
A third Bass Pro Tour format change was the carrying-over of the Knockout Round weight into Championship Day. Culling up as much as possible with swim jig fish after another, DeFoe qualified for the Championship Day in second place, with five bass for 24-10. He caught 24 bass that day, all 24 coming on the swim jig in shallow pad fields.
“The hook is my favorite part about that jig; it’s an absolute gaff. I use 50-pound braid, and when they eat it, the hook is back in the roof of their mouth, and you’ve just got ‘em. That jig holds up to the heavy line so well. The weed guard feels extremely soft, but if you fan it a little, it comes through the cover and makes the bait extremely weedless. The shape of the head is perfect for fishing vegetation, too. It’s a good-sized jig, which I like. If I only have to catch five, I want a big bait, Jack!”
One tip I would give is always to thread whatever soft plastic trailer you’re using on there. The bait keeper on that jig is the best of any jig out there. There’s simply no better keeper made. Hands down, it’s the best – period.
Conditions changed for the final round as a north wind kicked up during the night. That wind muddied the west side of Lake Kissimmee, which meant Ott must seek out new water. He fished the east side of the lake and picked shallow stretches of pad fields like he had fished the previous two days.
“That morning, I learned the fish were not in the mood to chase a moving bait when I fished the swim jig by a patch of arrowheads and had a fish nip at the bait but not get it. I dropped the bait into a hole in the vegetation and jigged it until, finally, the fish ate. When that happens, you know it’s a day for a slower presentation.
Late in the day, a 6-03 on the spinnerbait allowed him to cull up to 21-03 to finish the event in third place with a two-day total of 45-13.
The spinnerbait was a ½ oz Terminator Pro series double willow in the Retro Gill color.
“It’s a Florida special in my mind. Gold blades, green pumpkin, purple, and some orange; looks just like a bluegill.”
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