By Todd Ceisner
The Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour season opener clearly didn’t live up to the previous standards set the last 2 years, when 100 or more pounds seemed to be the magic (winning) number.
This year, the key was reading the conditions and reacting accordingly. With the water about a foot higher than normal and coming off a cold front that hampered practice for many, the lake was just off in some regards. A fairly moderate winter allowed many fish to spawn prior to the event so a full-fledged bed-fishing derby never materialized even though several egg-laden females were caught.
Punching mats, another Okeechobee staple technique, barely played a role in the top finishers’ arensals. For winner Drew Benton, it was a mix of sight-fishing while picking off keepers with reaction baits that did the trick.
As usual, there was some severe day-to-day fluctuation in the weights, but the Panama City, Fla., native stayed relatively consistent throughout. He got off to a great start with 47 pounds through 2 days before taking the lead on day 3 with a 15-03 stringer and held off runner-up Brent Ehrler on day 4 with a 13-04 bag to close with 75-07.
“My history there is not all that good on paper,” he said. “This time of year, I’ve had great practices, but for whatever reason it didn’t work out in the tournament. “
Clearly, the winning formula this week was to stink it up in practice and put the puzzle together during competition. Here’s how he did it.
Benton fished the Southeast EverStart at Okeechobee in mid-January and based on his practice before that event, he figured 20 pounds a day was within reach. He busted 19-11 on day 1, but a north wind shut his area down on day 2 and he managed just 6-15.
“The fish were there. It was the weather just messed me up in that one,” he said.
Consider the lesson learned because during practice for the Tour event, he made sure to have areas that could withstand winds from virtually every direction so he wouldn’t be left high and dry again.
“I practiced for just about every wind,” he said. “I spent some time from J&S to King’s Bar and in Harney Pond all the way down the (Observation) Shoal and spent the third day on the south end.
“The thing that really helped me was looking at so many areas and trying to figure out where I thought they were going to bed and where I thought they were going to move in. There were areas where I saw some beds and some males cruising around, but there wasn’t anything happening during practice. During the tournament, I was able to go in there and catch them.”
> Day 1: 5, 23-07
> Day 2: 5, 23-09
> Day 3: 5, 15-03
> Day 4: 5, 13-04
> Total = 20, 75-07
Benton spent the first couple days of the event camped in South Bay as pre-spawn fish that he easily identified by their white bellies, were migrating into his area from the main lake. While he had areas up north along the Observation Shoal, the transition area was his best big-fish spot.
On day 1, he plucked one 5-pounder off a bed and had two other similar fish to go with a pair of 4s as his 23-07 total helped him to open the event in 3rd place.
As he push-poled around in search of new spawners, he would burn a swimbait over lily pads or cast a vibrating jig to trigger reaction strikes or catch cruisers.
“Running the whole length of the shoal, I had like five or six sweet spots where I could stop and throw those baits and get bites,” he said. “They might not be very big, but there were fish moving in there and fish on beds. It’s like they were bedding in little groups. You’d go forever and not see any beds and then you’d get into them and there’d be four, five or six beds real close together with males on them. Every now and then you’d find one with a female.”
Sight-fishing helped him put 17 pounds in the boat on the morning of day 2, but he quickly culled three times and was done fishing around noon. His 23-09 total pushed him to 2nd, but he was still 7 pounds back of Rick Cotten, who blasted 30-02 on Friday.
The north wind on day 3 ravaged his South Bay hole, but his Plan B areas kicked out 15 pounds to push him ahead of Cotten, who came in with just three fish on Saturday.
The Lew's Speed Spool was Benton's reel of choice to take on the bass at Okeechobee.
With an east wind Sunday, he was hopeful his South Bay spot would be fishable, but he couldn’t generate the same quality bites he got on days 1 and 2.
“I was disappointed. I thought I would really catch them,” he said. “I don’t know why they didn’t bite in there. The water wasn’t dirty. It was just right in my opinion. The north wind was gone. You could’ve thrown a spinnerbait or a bladed swimjig, but they just wouldn’t bite. I knew they were there. I even slowed down and tried a Texas rig, I tried to flip and I tried to go inside and see if they pulled up on beds.
“They were still out there. I think when that hard wind comes in there and beats up on them, they might go back out or adjust and it might take them a couple days to get settled back down.”
As a result, he bounced back and forth between his shoal spots up north before finishing his day down south where a 6-pounder devoured a spinnerbait that he hadn’t thrown much all week.
“I had a bad practice and didn’t really feel confident in what I was doing,” he said. “I thought I could go out there and catch fish and maybe get a check, but I didn’t I’d catch anything like this.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Vibrating jig gear: 7’2” heavy-action Phenix M1 casting rod, Lew's Speed Spool casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 1/2-ounce PGM vibrating jig (custom sexy shad), 3 1/2” Bass Assassin Die Dapper trailer (snow storm).
> Sight-fishing gear: 7’6” heavy-action Phenix flipping rod, same reel, 60-pound Sunline FX2 braided line, Elite Tungsten flipping weight, 4/0 Gamakatsu Heavy Cover flipping hook, 4” Bass Assassin Pure Craw (green-pumpkin/green glitter).
> He also flipped with 22-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon, but went with the braid when they were bedded in the real thick stuff.
> He didn’t think color mattered much with flipping to bedding fish. “I think you could throw anything in there,” he said.
> While scoping out beds, he picked up several keepers throwing a Bass Assassin Vapor Shad (Houdini) or a 5” Die Dapper, also in Houdini.
> His kicker on day 4 fell for a 3/8-ounce Hildebrandt Okeechobee Special spinnerbait (white/gold blade).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Trying to cover as much as water in practice and trying to find as many areas as I thought I could catch them on if they did move up.”
> Performance edge – “I really enjoy fishing out of that Phoenix boat. I was able to get back and forth to those areas pretty fast across all of that rough water. That Mercury, I’m telling you, you can run that thing through anything. Put it this way, I ran that Mercury and tried to make my own trail through the reeds and the reeds stopped the boat so I backed up and gunned it again and it kept on going. It hasn’t run hot yet. That’s a big deal to me and anybody who fishes grass lakes. My Power-Poles also played a big role in my sight-fishing.”
> Benton said he’ll likely try to get into the B.A.S.S. Northern Opens now that he can breathe a little easier on the financial side. He said he would’ve been next on the Elite Series invite list from the Southern Opens last year had Kelley Jaye declined. “That’s probably going to be my career goal – to make it to the Elites,” he said. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
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