By Todd Ceisner
A combination of higher water and a recent string of nights that saw temperatures plunge into the upper 30s seems to have put a good number of Lake Okeechobee bass into a bit of a February funk.
Whether theyíre buried farther under mats or back in the reeds or theyíre just not visible in areas that are muddier than normal, the fish have been tougher than usual to find and catch as a field of 175 pros gets ready to kick off the FLW Tour season this week in south Florida.
For the second straight year, sight-fishing isn't expected to play much of a factor in the outcome and thereís a strong sentiment among veterans that the winner wonít need 100 pounds, or even close to it, to prevail. BassFans will recall the winners of last yearís FLW Tour Open (Randall Tharp) and Bassmaster Elite Series (Ish Monroe) each cracked the 100-pound mark, with Tharp winning in blowout fashion.
There are signs that a segment of fish may have already gone through the spawning process Ė it was, by some accounts, a fairly mild winter in southern Florida. However, temperatures are expected to rise later in the week and that may spark a late wave of females to get moving. Until that happens, though, it appears the Big O will be a sleeping giant of sorts. When it wakes up, look for it for live up to its big-fish reputation, with plenty of 4- to 7-pound fish caught.
Just about a month ago, it took just under a 20-pound daily average for Floridian Ben Todd to capture the Southeast EverStart Series there. A strong Florida contingent would appear to have the upper hand on their out-of-state competitors this week, especially with water up about 1 1/2 feet.
This marks the third straight year Okeechobee has played host to a late-winter FLW Tour event, but the stakes are a bit higher now with the elimination of the Open portion of the Tour schedule.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Okeechobee
> Type of Water: Shallow Florida natural lake
> Surface Acres: 448,000 acres (730 square miles)
> Primary structure/cover: Vegetation (many types)
> Average depth: 11 to 14 feet
> Species: Largemouths only
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: Prolific fishery with potential for explosive weights (30-pound-plus bags), but can be stingy when conditions aren't quite right.
> Weather: Expected to be clear and warm up into the 80s during the days with overnight lows in the 60s.
> Water temp: Mid-60s, warming into low 70s during day
> Water visibility/color: Mostly clear, except in areas ravaged by wind
> Water level: Up about 1 1/2 feet
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn/post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Flipping, spinnerbaits, topwater, rattlebaits, Senkos
> Winning weight: 86 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 31 pounds
> Check weight (60th): 24 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Okeechobee
> Biggest factors: A big bite Ė or two. There arenít many lakes where you can ďget wellĒ quicker than at Okeechobee. Those will be crucial this week after a slow practice.
> Biggest decision: Whether to wait out the fish in a single area or bounce from place to place
> Wildcard: Coming into an area that harbors some new spawners.
So Whatís The Deal?
A combination of higher-than-normal water and post-frontal conditions seem to have the fish in a goofy mood this week. Reports of big bites are virtually nil and scratching out 10 to 12 pounds in practice was a mighty task for some. Itís not certain whether the warmer temps forecast for the competition days will be enough to ignite any sort of slugfest.
Ish Monroe is in his comfort zone with a flipping rod in his hands.
If it does warm up significantly, concentrated fishing pressure in traditional areas may negate any positive effect it may have. The one thing warmer weather wonít be able to negate is the water being higher, which has brought untold hundreds of more acres into play and has left areas where key fish were caught in the past too dingy to be productive this week. When an additional foot and a half of water comes into a lake with an average depth of around 12 feet, it allows the fish ample space to spread out and bury themselves back farther into the reeds.
Itís no secret that one or two giant bites can go a long way at Okeechobee and if someone is able to uncover an area that consistently draws those bigger specimens in, that could prove to be a huge factor this week. Itís fully expected to be a flipping-dominated event with the biggest X-factor being the wind. If anglers are able are to get into a rhythm across a milk run of spots, they stand a better chance of colliding with a difference-making bite.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
ďItís been a grind. Itís unbelievable. Weíre coming off that cold front that was here last week and the fishing, from what Iíve seen and the guys Iíve talked to, is way off right now. Iíve noticed every day itís gotten a little bit better. Iíve never seen a good bite so hard to get on this lake as it is right now.
ďThis lake always boils down to two or three good areas and everybody gets wadded up in those areas, including the locals. I think there will be some isolated good stringers, but I think, overall, youíre going to see the weights quite a bit off this year. Whoever does well is basically going to grind it out with a lot of fishing pressure around them and have a confidence bait that nobody else is using and ride it out like that.
ďIíve covered a lot of water with quite a few techniques and Iíve got one area that has quite a few fish in it, but thereís a lot of boats and a lot of small fish in there. Thatís the way it is on this place. The good ones move in and out and you never know. You could catch 8 pounds one day and go back the next day and catch 25 out of the same water.Ē
ďEverythingís about what I expected. I saw the extended forecast when we got here and knew it was going to be cold, but Okeechobee just has a vast number of fish so you know youíre going to catch a lot of fish when you come down here.
ďWeíve caught some fish, but out of 2 days, Iíve seen two fish that were 4 pounds or better so I definitely have to find some better quality. Itís really difficult to judge your areas right now because you could go through come Thursday and have it be the mother lode. Weíre going to have a warming trend coming and the nights are going to be a lot warmer so that water temperatureís not going to spend the first part of the day in the low 60s. Itíll be get back up to a comfortable temperature for them when daylight gets around during the tournament whereas now it seems like itís been tough until the sun comes out and warms things up a bit.
ďIím looking for everything to get a little better. Thereís not a lot big fish on beds right now. Iíve seen a lot of beds and just a few bucks here and there, but I think there may be a wave of spawners to come throughout our tournament. Overall, I think things are going to get a lot better.Ē
ďIt hasnít stacked up to what I was expecting. I thought you could go into an area and just throw a frog around and get quite a few bites, but thatís just not happening. Itís Okeechobee, though, and there are giants that live here. People will catch big fish, but I donít think youíll see the 100-pound mark.
ďWe have a warming trend coming, but a lot of beds are empty and dirty so maybe a lot of them have already done their deal. I think thatís yet to be seen. From what Iíve seen, I donít see those giant sacks coming in like weíve seen in the past. Itís fishing real small.
Chad Morgenthaler said it's hard to get a feel for which areas are going to be more productive during the tournament.
ďI looked for a lot areas where the fish could be coming to on Monday and didnít see any signs of fish coming. You donít see the numbers of buck bass right now. Whether itís the cold water or what have you, but Iím just not seeing the amount of fish. The waterís way up and it just allows those fish to go so many more places and places you canít even get to.Ē
ďThe first day, it was fairly tough getting a big bite. I caught a pretty good bit of fish. I swapped baits and caught a 5- and 3-pounder (Monday). On Tuesday, I threw it all day and had about 20 pounds. I feel pretty good about it right now. I have a pretty good run to make so hopefully the weather will stay pretty good.
ďWhat Iíve noticed is the fish are real scattered. Iím just covering a lot of water and hoping I come by one. They are definitely certain areas that are better than others, but the fish are definitely scattered.
ďTheyíve had a pretty moderate winter so I donít think there are waves of them coming up. I think itís a few here and a few there. The area Iím fishing, Iíve actually caught pre-spawn and post-spawn fish.Ē
ďItís been hit and miss. Iíve only fished 2 1/2 days and I had two decent days, but (Tuesday) was a grind. I donít really know quite what to expect. Itís definitely fishing different from when I was here before cut-off.
ďThe waterís still the same level. Itís just that different areas are getting muddied up and clearing and itís changing on a day-to-day basis. Itís causing the fish to not want to stay consistent. I found an area (Monday) that I had a whole bunch of bites in and I ran through it (Tuesday afternoon) and had two little bites in it and itís dirty. On Monday, it was crystal clear. Itís going to be an interesting tournament to say the least.
ďIíve gone about as far as you go back into the reeds and Iíve caught fish both out on the main lake and up in nothing. These fish are in so many different stages right now. There are some on beds and some pre-spawners and a lot of post-spawn fish. It just depends on the area of the lake. I donít think the full moon followed by that cold front did them any favors.Ē
ďPractice went pretty good. I feel pretty confident. I donít have a lot of areas like I have had in the past, but Iíve had to slow down in the areas Iíve found and grind it out. Itís a lot tougher this year than it has been. The waterís higher so thereís less fish. Thereís not as many grouped up and thereís not as many spots where theyíre grouped up.
ďI think itíll take somewhere between the low 80s and mid 90s to win. I donít see it taking 100 pounds by any means. I see big bags coming from some guys and then not much after that and I see some guys who catch enough to make the cut that could be dangerous those 2 days because I feel like the fish are on the move.Ē
ďItís the worst Okeechobee that Iíve been to. I came down last year and it wasnít that great then, but it was easier to get a quality bite every now and then. Itís almost impossible now, it seems.
ďI think the front is part of it, but I really think this high water has them scattered worse than the weatherís causing it. The weather was nice for the EverStart and they still didnít catch them that great. Itís just off right now. Weíve gone 5 and 6 hours at a time without a bite. You canít just pull into places and catch little ones like you usually can. I think most of the bigger fish are hard to get to or impossible to get to.
Mark Rose is hoping to uncover better quality fish once competition gets underway.
ďUsually, you can catch 10 pounds when youíre going to 20 and youíre trying to get a couple big bites. This time, itís like, ĎCan I catch 10 pounds?í I donít like being in that position. Iíve had one of the worst practices Iíve ever had. Itís just been a struggle to get a quality bite. Everybody that Iíve talked to has said the same thing.Ē
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Glenn Browne Ė As good a shallow-water flipper as there is on Tour, the Floridian will be right at home on Okeechobee, where heíd love to register a Top-10 Tour finish Ė heís been close with two 11th-place efforts before.
2. Randall Tharp Ė Has a win (2012) and runner-up (2011) in his last two FLW Tour events at the Big ďOĒ, on top of numerous local jackpot victories. He has few peers when it comes to flipping vegetation.
3. Brandon McMillan Ė Heís arguably already an Okeechobee legend at age 29. He gets to open his FLW Tour rookie campaign at home, which could spell trouble for the rest of the field. He cracked the century mark there in his Open win in 2011, was 5th last year and took 3rd in the recent Southeast EverStart.
4. Brandon Medlock Ė Spends a lot of time over the winter fishing Okeechobee and his tournament track record bears that out. He has two EverStart wins (2011 and 2012) and finished 8th in last month's derby there on top of numerous BFL Top-10s. He's confident he can get on something consistent.
5. Ish Monroe Ė Won the Elite Series event at the Big O a year ago, just 6 weeks after finishing 25th there in the FLW Tour Open. Heíd certainly love a confidence boost heading into the Classic in 2 weeks.
6. Bryan Thrift Ė The flippiní magician is no stranger to success at Okeechobee (6th in í12, won an EverStart there in í06). He has 11 Top-10s on Tour since the start of 2010 and coming off a win at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic last fall, he seems poised to keep up that wicked pace.
7. Scott Martin Ė He finished a spot behind father, Roland, in last yearís Open (8th) and wants to set the tone for a strong year with a good opener at home.
8. John Cox Ė Already has a berth clinched in the Forrest Wood Cup by virtue of his performance in last yearís Opens, so the pressure factor wonít be an issue. He was 2nd to Tharp last year and has had three other Top-5s in BFL and FLW Series events at the lake.
9. Koby Kreiger Ė An Okeechobee staple, you canít count him out of any event at this venue. Had a strong year in 2012, capped off by a win at the EverStart Series Championship.
10. J.T. Kenney Ė Heís coming off a dynamite 2012 season and has numerous Top-5s, including a Tour win in 2002, at Okeechobee. A threat any time a flipping bite is on.
> On days 1 and 2, anglers will launch at 7:30 a.m. from Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina and Resort (920 E. Del Monte Ave., Clewiston, Fla). Weigh-ins will commence at 3 p.m. at the same location.
> On days 3 and 4, competitors will take off at 7:30 a.m. from the Clewiston Boat Basin. Weigh-ins are scheduled for 4 p.m. at the Clewiston Walmart store (1005 West Sugarland Hwy.).
> Thurs., Feb. 7 Ė Mostly Sunny - 82į/62į
- Wind: From the ESE at 5 to 9 mph
> Fri., Feb. 8 Ė Mostly Sunny - 83į/62į
- Wind: From the WSW at 2 to 4 mph
> Sat., Feb. 9 Ė Patchy Clouds - 81į/63į
- Wind: From the NE at 6 to 11 mph
> Sun., Feb. 10 Ė Partly Sunny - 79į/62į
- Wind: From the ESE at 9 to 14 mph
> BassFan Big Sticks Jay Yelas and Luke Clausen have checked in with their final thoughts from practice. Click here to see how they're feeling heading into day 1.