LEESBURG, Fla. — Trusting in what they could not see and putting in the time to make it happen led Caden Branch and Connor Beach of Florida’s Liberty County High School to a winning five-bass limit of 24 pounds, 3 ounces at the Strike King Bassmaster High School Series at Harris Chain of Lakes presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors.
Branch and Beach finished with a 3/4-pound margin over Clay County (Fla.) High School’s Parker Stalvey and Jacob Deel. For their win, Branch and Beach each collected $1,015 and earned a berth in the 2023 Strike King Bassmaster High School National Championship presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors.
“We fished Lake Beauclair and Lake Apopka and targeted bed fish in 3 to 4 feet,” Branch said. “We mainly targeted harder-to-fish areas and bed fish that were harder to see. Those turned out to be the bigger fish we caught.”
As Branch explained, they worked the canal end closest to Lake Apopka and searched for beds hidden amid pads and tucked behind shady areas. Most of what they fished comprised smaller areas with easily overlooked beds.
“We just followed our knowledge of spawning,” Branch said. “We checked some (traditional) spawning flats, but only found small bucks (male bass).”
Beach said he and his partner caught all of their fish by flipping custom-made red/gold flake tubes Texas rigged on 4/0 hooks with 1/8- to 1/4-ounce weights.
“The angle was very important; you had to get it right in front of their faces and go slow,” Beach said. “It all depended on the fish. Some of the ones we caught today took an hour or so and then the other ones took 10 minutes.”
Persistence proved critical, as a limit eluded the winners until the last 10 minutes. Fortunately, one of their final bass was a 9-1 that earned the $100 Big Bass award.
“It feels pretty good to start off with a win,” Beach said. “That’s what we were hoping to do — qualify for the championship, so we didn’t have to work as hard all year.”
Stalvey and Deel, who won the 2021 Harris Chain event and went on to win the 2022 Bassmaster High School Classic on Lake Keowee, placed second with 23-7.
“We risked it this morning and went all the way to Lake Apopka, but we weren’t getting the vibe like we were in practice when we were getting a lot of bites,” Stalvey said. “Around 10 o’clock, we came all the way back to Lake Harris and just flipped matted hyacinth with Kissimmee grass mixed in.”
Stalvey and Deel flipped black and blue Gambler Burner Craws with 1 1/4-ounce weights.
“We got a little limit pretty quickly, but it was probably 11:50 before we put the first decent one in the boat,” Deel said. “It was just an all-day grind, so it took a lot to put it all together. It was an all-day thing.
“We would say, ‘Just one more cast,’ because any flip could be (a big fish).”
Their biggest bass weighed 8 pounds.
Bryce Balentine and Bryce Dimauro of the Seminole(Fla.) Junior Anglers placed third with 21-13.
2023 Bassmaster High School Series Title Sponsor: Strike King
2023 Bassmaster High School Series Presenting Sponsor: Academy Sports + Outdoors
2023 Bassmaster High School Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2023 Bassmaster High School Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha
2023 Bassmaster High School Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew’s, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC
2023 Bassmaster High School Series Youth Sponsors: 13 Fishing, Seaguar, Shimano