Whitson and King surpass their expectations to take lead at Bassmaster Team Championship
LEESBURG, Fla. — Chris Whitson and Kevin King said they’d have been happy to weigh 12 pounds on Wednesday to start the 2023 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Team Championship.

Instead, they more than doubled that and jumped to an early lead here on the Harris Chain of Lakes in central Florida.

Whitson and King, Tennessee residents who fish on the Morristown Marine Team Trail, weighed a five-bass limit totaling 24 pounds, 11 ounces on Day 1 of the two-day derby. That was enough to give them the lead in the final tournament of the 2023 Bassmaster season, which boasts 248 competing teams representing 77 different trails from 30 states and three foreign countries.

Whitson and King were tight-lipped about specifics of Wednesday’s haul, though they said they were surprised to see heavy bass in the area they fished.

“We caught a couple there in practice, but not nearly that size,” Whitson said. “We only had about three spots we planned to fish today, but we hit the right one. We’re not sure why they are where they are. There’s no bait keying us in on anything.”

“We really did kind of stumble on it,” King added.

What a fortunate find it was.

“We caught one within 15 minutes or so on the first spot and then we got three in a row real quick,” Whitson said. “The other two came a couple hours later, in the middle of the day. We left there about 1 o’clock and we’ll head back there tomorrow ... I don’t know if they’ll repeat themselves, but I figure we’ll beat around there and catch a few more.”

Blain Bartley and RJ Graham, of Pennsylvania’s Keystone Bass Buddy Circuit, are in second place with 21-3. They had to rally after a shaky start.

“We were spun out, big-time,” Graham said. “The first thing we tried didn’t work at all. We didn’t catch a fish until 11 o’clock. We were fishing shallow and they just weren’t biting at all. So, we moved to some grass offshore. We got a couple quick bites, so we just hunkered down and picked away at ’em.”

Bartley said Wednesday’s wind, blowing consistently at 12 mph and gusting higher, made for a bumpy day. But with the shallow bite a no-go, they had no choice but to try their luck in open water.

“We weren’t sure if it was going to muddy things up for us,” he said. “But we found some clean water and got a few of the right bites.”

Wednesday’s temperatures climbed into the mid-60s, but windy conditions made it feel colder. Thursday’s forecast calls for slightly colder temperatures, though the wind is expected to settle. Most anglers said they weren’t exactly sure what, if any, impact that would have on the Florida bass bite.

“It’ll be a coin toss what we do tomorrow,” Bartley said. “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.”

Graham agreed.

“It’s unsure, for sure,” he said.

Teams are competing Wednesday and Thursday for part of a $125,000 cash purse. The winning duo will split $25,000 and each of the Top 50 teams will earn cash, as will the boat that produces the heaviest bass over the two-day tournament. Frank Bradfield and Tyler Morgan caught an 8-11 largemouth on Wednesday to take the early lead for the $500 Big Bass Award. The catch helped the Alabama Bass Trail duo into third place with 20-7.

Rodney and Aaron Yavorsky, of the Florida BASS Nation Team Trail, are in fourth place with 20-3. Indiana duo Bud Smart and Dave Coffing, of the US Anglers Choice/AC Tournament Trail, are fifth with 20-2.

After the team champion is crowned Thursday, the Top 3 teams (six anglers) will have their weights zeroed and compete individually in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Team Championship Classic Fish-Off on Friday and Saturday. The winner of that event will earn the final berth in the Bassmaster Classic which will be held March 22-24 in Tulsa, Okla., on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.

Day 2 of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Team Championship will start Thursday at 7 a.m. ET at Venetian Gardens. Weigh-in is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. Follow the weigh-in online at Bassmaster.com.

The Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Team Championship is being hosted by Visit Lake, the City of Leesburg and the Greater Orlando Sports Commission.