LEESBURG, Fla. — Overcoming a modest start, Keith Tuma of Brainerd, Minn., caught the week’s biggest bag of 26 pounds, 2 ounces Saturday and won the Basspro.com Bassmaster Southern Open at the Harris Chain of Lakes with a three-day total of 58-13.
One of only two anglers to break 20 pounds twice (also second-place Alex Wetherell), Tuma caught 12-6 on Day 1 and placed 58th. Friday saw him rebound with a limit of 20-5, which moved him into 10th.
Knowing he couldn’t finish any lower, Tuma said he entered Saturday’s final round with a relaxed attitude that helped him focus on improving.
“Yesterday, I never thought I’d have a shot at the Top 10, so today, I went out there super calm,” he said. “My family and friends back home told me, ‘Just go fishing. You can’t do any worse than 10.’ It just started coming together. It was ridiculous.”
Tuma earned $52,300, which included the $500 Garmin Tournament Rewards prize, and a berth in the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk.
Previous experience benefited Tuma, who, along with Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation partner Andy Walls, placed second at the 2020 Bassmaster Team Championship at the Harris Chain. Relying on his knowledge of this stellar Florida fishery, Tuma located a key stretch of offshore grass in about 8 feet of water.
“The key for me was staying in the one spot I had found in practice until I had the limit I needed to have the confidence to check out other spots,” Tuma said. “The wind was a little harder on my main spot, but I did get an 8-pounder there and then I ran to my other area and caught one in the 6-pound range.”
Tuma’s secondary spot was a flat in 5 to 6 feet of water with low-growing hydrilla on the bottom. In both areas, he used a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce white Z-Man JackHammer ChatterBait with a Castaic Jerky J trailer.
“Everybody else who was in the area was throwing ChatterBaits with paddletail trailers, but I think that the little subtle difference in my trailer made the fish want to eat,” he said. “I was getting bit when other guys weren’t.”
Both of Tuma’s areas were within approximately half a mile of Venetian Gardens (site of the daily takeoffs and Day 1 and 2 weigh-ins). Proximity to the tournament site meant fishing near a steady travel lane — and Tuma realized that boat traffic actually benefited his game each tournament day.
“Every time a boat went by, they started biting because it pushed the bait around,” he said. “So that taught me that boat traffic didn’t bother them.”
Hailing from Middletown, Conn., Wetherell finished second with 56-13. After leading the field into Day 3, he struggled to maintain the momentum that delivered bags of 20-11 and 24-14 the first two rounds. On Saturday, he managed a limit of just 11-4.
Returning to the offshore grass he’d fished since Day 1, Wetherell looked for the healthiest vegetation he could find. He caught his bass on a 3/4-ounce white Z-Man JackHammer ChatterBait with a 4-inch Lunker City Swimming Ribster swimbait and a Carolina-rigged 7-inch green pumpkin Senko.
“I’d fish fast with the ChatterBait and then slow down with the Senko to pick apart the better areas,” Wetherell said. “Keith (Tuma) and I were fishing the same area yesterday and he was a real class act and stayed off the section I was fishing.
“Yesterday was just an incredible day and I got the bites again today; they just wouldn’t commit to it.”
Day 1 leader Patrick Walters of Summerville, S.C., finished in third place with 55-14. After leading Day 1 with 24 pounds, he caught 13-5 on Day 2 and slipped to third. He finished strong with a limit of 18-9 Saturday.
Relying on forward-facing sonar to monitor bait and fish movement, Walters started on the shallow grass he’d fished the first two days. A slow morning prompted him to shift gears and punch matted cover.
“This morning I got kinda bored with that spot, so I made a long run to Lake Apopka because I just wanted to have fun and go fishing,” Walters said. “At 12 o’clock, I had a small limit, with two of the fish I weighed in and I said, ‘Let’s turn that Garmin back on and go do some fishing.’
“I stopped in the canal (exiting Lake Apopka) and caught one really quick and ran back to Little Lake Harris at 12:45. I went back to a spot where I’d caught them the first day and, on my third cast, I caught my biggest fish of the day. So, I probably made a mistake and didn’t stay.”
Walters caught his punching fish on a Zoom Z-Craw Jr. (black/blue and green pumpkin) Texas-rigged with a 1- and a 1 1/2-ounce weight. The shallow grass fish bit a Zoom Fluke Stick and a Zoom Zlinky — both Texas- and Wacky-rigged.
Charles Proctor of Conway, S.C., won the $750 Phoenix Boats Big Bass award for a 9-0 largemouth.
This year’s Opens circuit includes three divisions — Southern, Central and Northern — with three events in each. All nine tournament winners will earn an automatic berth to the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk if they fish all events in their division. Additionally, the Top 3 finishers from each division’s points standings will receive an invitation to fish the 2022 Bassmaster Elite Series, as will the Top 3 from the overall standings accumulated in all three divisions.
With this week’s victory, Tuma took the early lead in the Falcon Rods Bassmaster Opens Angler of the Year race. The winner of that award, which is based on points accumulated in all three divisions, will earn a $10,000 prize. The winner in the co-angler division will earn paid entry fees into the Opens division of his or her choice — a value of approximately $5,400.
Lake County and the City of Leesburg hosted the tournament.