By BassFan Staff

It was hard for Drew Benton to hold back the grin. Sure, he’d just taken the lead on day 3 of his first FLW Tour event, but he was all smiles because he’s pretty confident the 15 pounds he weighed today will wind up being his smallest bag of the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour.

If that’s the case and he winds up coming close to or exceeding his weights from days 1 and 2 when he weighed 23-plus pounds, the only Floridian left in the field will have an excellent chance at hoisting the winner’s trophy.

He's trying to become the fourth angler to win his Tour debut at Okeechobee (J.T. Kenney in 2002, Ray Scheide in 2004 and Brandon McMillan in 2011 are the others).

While his 15-03 stringer today would be considered average at Okeechobee by some, it was a hardy effort in much tougher conditions. Still, it pushed his 3-day total to 62-03, giving him a slim 1-pound edge over day-2 leader Rick Cotten.

“I’m very excited,” Benton said. “I just really can’t put it into words. Never in a million years did I think I’d come down here and do this. I really feel like the Lord has blessed me this week. It’s been a great experience and a great ride and I’m going to enjoy it out there tomorrow.”

It was Cotton who’d shown everyone the lake’s potential through 2 days, but a massive letdown today cost him an opportunity to carry a sizeable advantage into the final day. He came in with just three fish for 7 pounds even, a drop off of 23 pounds from Friday, but he still has a day to bounce back and just a 1-pound deficit to overcome.

Brent Ehrler continued the best week in Florida of his career by catching the day’s big stringer, a 20-02 limit that was anchored by an 8-14 brute. That pushed him up seven slots into 3rd, where he sits with 56-03. Another solid day tomorrow and stumbles by the two front-runners could open the door for Ehrler to win his fifth Tour event.

Wade Hendricks and Michael Neal are currently tied for 4th with 54-11 after catching nearly identical bags today.

For seven of the 10 pros fishing tomorrow, it’ll mark their first Top-10 cut at the Tour level. Only Ehrler, Thrift and Grigsby, all of whom have wins to their credit, have fished on Sunday before in competition. Benton, Casey Martin and Philip Jarabeck all qualified for the finals in their first Tour event.

Here's a look at the Top 10 entering the final day of competition, with deficit margin from Benton indicated by red numbers in parentheses:

1. Drew Benton: 62-03
2. Rick Cotten: 61-03 (1-00)
3. Brent Ehrler: 56-03 (6-00)
4. Wade Hendricks: 54-11 (7-08)
5. Michael Neal: 54-11 (7-08)
6. Casey Martin: 53-09 (8-10)
7. Bryan Thrift: 51-06 (10-13)
8. Chad Grigsby: 49-00 (13-03)
9. Adrian Avena: 48-10 (13-09)
10. Philip Jarabeck: 45-13 (16-06)

There were no big movers from outside the Top 10 as the weights were down across the board, likely due to the North wind that churned up the lake, turning off several areas and muddying up others in the process.

The big bites, which were a rarity today, continue to come almost at random while catching numbers hasn’t seemed to be much of an issue. Tomorrow’s forecast is calling for some sun and a brisk east/southeast breeze in the 15- to 20-mph range.

The next stop on the Tour schedule will be March 7-11 at Lewis Smith Lake in Jasper, Ala.

Benton Had To Go To Plan B

> Day 3: 5, 15-03 (15, 62-03)

The north wind was Benton’s enemy today as it rendered the area down south that had produced more than 46 pounds through the first 2 days unfishable.

FLW/Kyle Wood
Photo: FLW/Kyle Wood

Benton loads up on a fish in grass.

“It was pretty rough,” he said. “I actually ran to the area I wanted to fish. It’s been my best place and I came out of Clewiston and saw how rough it was and I probably shouldn’t have made the run. I made a couple of casts and pulled the trolling motor up and needed to a make decision.”

He opted to fish some new water, an area where he’d seen some beds in practice. He went through about two-dozen keepers today, the biggest being a 5-pounder caught off a nest this morning.

“I was fishing, in my opinion, to survive today and make it to the final day,” he added.

Now that he’s made it, he’s anxious to get back to the area that he believes still has fish funneling in and out of.

“The area I couldn’t fish today, if I can fish it and fish it right, I feel like they’re still coming in there,” he said. “There’s a good chance I’ll catch 20 pounds there, no doubt. The area I fished today probably won’t work out again because I worked it over pretty good.”

He’s had the most success so far throwing a Bass Assassin Vapor Shad and Die Dapper swimbait.

The 24-year-old longshoreman from Panama City, Fla., is going to try to not to let his spot in the standings affect how he fishes tomorrow.

“I’m the type of guy who likes to have everything in front of me,” he said. “I like to be the shark and not necessarily be the one with the target on his back. I still want to go out there and catch them so I’m not feeling any more pressure than I would if I were in 10th.”

3rd: Ehrler Stuck A Giant

> Day 3: 5, 20-02 (15, 56-03)

Ehrler lost a battle with a big fish yesterday, but bounced back in fine fashion today with the only 20-pound stringer on day 3. Anchoring his bag was an 8-14 that was heavier than six other anglers’ total catches today.

“When I hooked it, I thought it was a 6, but once I got it in the boat, I knew it was much bigger,” he said. “When it was out there jumping, though, it felt like a 6.

FLW/Brett Carlson
Photo: FLW/Brett Carlson

This giant helped Brent Ehrler move into 3rd today.

“I caught a fairly easy limit with a couple 2-pounders and that helped me to relax a bit. It felt good to get the ball rolling. So I hopped around and happened into that big one.”

Now that he’s within 6 pounds of the lead, he senses he could be able to overtake Cotten and Benton if things go his way.

“I think there’s definitely a possibility,” he said. “I gained a lot of ground today, but the way it’s going, it’s been so random where I get the big bites. I made a change today and it paid off.

“I’ve seen enough to know I could go out and catch 7 pounds tomorrow. I haven’t had a problem catching fish, but the big bites are so few and far between.”

His area up north was pretty ravaged after 2 days of heavy pressure from the full field. He tried to get an offshore bite going today, but couldn’t do it and the weather tomorrow likely won’t help matters.

“They like it when it’s calm and the weather just won’t be right for it,” he said.

4th: Hendricks Hanging In There

> Day 3: 5, 16-07 (15, 54-11)

Hendricks isn’t counting himself out by any means. He knows he’s around a lot of big fish and his bag today was anchored by one of them – an 8-pounder that helped keep him in the hunt for this first Tour win.

“It’s not too often you get in this position to have a shot at winning an event like this and after seeing what happened to the leader today, it’s anyone’s game tomorrow,” he said. “These are the types of events I like where you have opportunities at big, game-changing bites.”

His big bite today came on a jig after he’d gone through a slew of presentations.

“It was a bit of a struggle today,” he said. “The weather changed and the wind picked up out of the wrong direction for me. I could get the fish to come up, but couldn’t get them to the boat. They were hitting the baits short and I had some funny strikes. I’m hoping they’ll be a bit more aggressive tomorrow.”

5th: Neal Sticking With Ditch

> Day 3: 5, 16-08 (15, 54-11)

Neal isn’t counting himself out of having a chance to win tomorrow. He’s seen enough quality fish this week to know better.

“It’s Okeechobee. You can have 35 pounds in 10 minutes,” he said. “I know I’m around the right fish to do. I just have to get the right bites. If I can get a couple of those bites and a get a couple 4-pounders to go with them, I’ll be right in the thick of it. It’s anybody’s ball game.”

He has no plans to desert the ditch that’s produced an average of more than 18 pounds per day for him.

FLW/Brett Carlson
Photo: FLW/Brett Carlson

Michael Neal is content fishing the same stretch that's produced all week for him.

“I’m going to dance with who brought me,” he quipped. “I’m going to stay in that stretch and move as slow as I can and work it over all day.”

He eyeballed several 4-pounders today and every fish he caught came on the trailer hook.

7th: Thrift Focused On Looking

> Day 3: 5, 14-03 (15, 51-06)

Despite his place in the standings and being more than 10 pounds behind Benton, Thrift knows the fish are in the lake to erase that deficit in a hurry.

“If I can get in there tomorrow and find a bed with two big’uns, I’d be all caught up,” he said.

He said he quit casting around 10 a.m. today and went looking for some fresh bedding fish. He uncovered one and used a 4-inch Damiki Air Craw to trigger a bite. He wasn’t affected much by the north wind as he’s been fishing a well-protected area and the breeze actually pushed some dirty water out.

“They just didn’t bite as good today,” he said. “I wasn’t getting as many big bites.”

He had been sharing water with Dion Hibdon, who finished 17th, so he should have it to himself tomorrow.

Notable

> Day 3 stats – 20 anglers, 18 limits, 2 threes.

Weather Forecast

> Sun., Feb. 10 – Partly Sunny - 79°/62°
- Wind: From the ESE at 15 to 20 mph

Day 3 Standings

1. Drew Benton -- Panama City, Fl -- 23-07 (5) -- 23-09 (5) -- 15-03 (5) -- 62-03 (15)

2. Rick Cotten -- Guntersville, Al -- 24-00 (5) -- 30-03 (5) -- 7-00 (3) -- 61-03 (13)

3. Brent Ehrler -- Redlands, Ca -- 19-07 (5) -- 16-10 (5) -- 20-02 (5) -- 56-03 (15)

4. Wade Hendricks -- Thompsons Station, Tn -- 13-14 (5) -- 24-06 (5) -- 16-07 (5) -- 54-11 (15)

5. Michael Neal -- Dayton, Tn -- 15-07 (5) -- 22-12 (5) -- 16-08 (5) -- 54-11 (15)

6. Casey Martin -- New Market, Al -- 26-12 (5) -- 18-09 (5) -- 8-04 (5) -- 53-09 (15)

7. Bryan Thrift -- Shelby, NC -- 17-05 (5) -- 19-14 (5) -- 14-03 (5) -- 51-06 (15)

8. Chad Grigsby -- Maple Grove, Mn -- 12-10 (4) -- 25-11 (5) -- 10-11 (5) -- 49-00 (15)

9. Adrian Avena -- Vineland, NJ -- 21-02 (5) -- 16-09 (5) -- 10-15 (5) -- 48-10 (15)

10. Philip Jarabeck -- Lynchburg, Va -- 17-08 (5) -- 19-01 (5) -- 9-04 (5) -- 45-13 (15)

The following anglers did not make the cut and will not fish on day 4.

11. Chris Baumgardner -- Gastonia, Nc -- 16-05 (5) -- 16-01 (5) -- 12-02 (5) -- 44-08 (15) -- $12,500

12. John Cox -- Debary, Fl -- 18-00 (5) -- 15-11 (5) -- 10-06 (5) -- 44-01 (15) -- $12,500

13. Shad Schenck -- Waynetown, In -- 18-08 (5) -- 15-01 (5) -- 8-15 (5) -- 42-08 (15) -- $12,500

14. Andy Morgan -- Dayton, Tn -- 12-05 (5) -- 19-09 (5) -- 10-05 (5) -- 42-03 (15) -- $12,500

15. Randall Tharp -- Gardendale, Al -- 10-07 (5) -- 23-09 (5) -- 8-02 (5) -- 42-02 (15) -- $12,500

16. Brandon Coulter -- Knoxville, Tn -- 14-11 (5) -- 20-13 (5) -- 6-04 (5) -- 41-12 (15) -- $12,000

17. Dion Hibdon -- Sunrise Beach, Mo -- 20-02 (5) -- 14-11 (5) -- 6-14 (5) -- 41-11 (15) -- $12,000

18. Tom Monsoor -- La Crosse, Wi -- 17-15 (5) -- 13-13 (5) -- 9-07 (5) -- 41-03 (15) -- $12,000

19. Scott Canterbury -- Springville, Al -- 9-11 (5) -- 21-05 (5) -- 9-02 (5) -- 40-02 (15) -- $12,000

20. Rich Dalbey -- Greenville, Tx -- 21-14 (5) -- 9-05 (5) -- 4-03 (3) -- 35-06 (13) -- $12,000