By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Crowding is often an issue in high-level tournaments at Florida's Lake Okeechobee, as the Big O's massive largemouths are frequently ganged up in specific places. That problem should be minimized at this week's Bassmaster Wild Card.

To start with, there are only 49 anglers in the derby. On top of that, the bruisers are distributed throughout the massive body of water and can be found from one end to the other.

Whoever wins the event and claims the final berth for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic will average at least 20 pounds over 3 days – and possibly a lot more than that.

"The Okeechobee engine is about to get started up pretty good," said FLW Tour stalwart and Clewiston, Fla. resident Scott Martin. "We had higher water early in the year and that spread the fish out, and now the level's coming back toward normal and the big fish are starting to move in. We've seen several big waves (of spawners) come in with the last couple of moons.

"Some (Floridians) like Sandy Melvin, Arnie Lane, Terry Segraves or my dad (Roland) might have an advantage in knowing where to find them, but then again, this thing is so wide open. It could be won anywhere from the Kissimmee River down to Pelican Bay."

Remote Areas in Play

Bassmaster Elite Series and Opens anglers who are infrequent visitors to Okeechobee found an even more expansive lake than most are accustomed to when they arrived for practice.

"All that high water killed a lot of grass and opened up a lot of backwater that was unfishable before," said longtime tour pro Tom Mann Jr., now a full-time guide out of Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina. "Guys who get into the right backwater where the females have moved in will do real good.

"The lake's in the best shape I've seen it – the fish are scattered out and there's plenty of water go to go around. The weather looks stable and, even going out of the north end, guys will be able to run anywhere they want. It ought to be a great tournament."

Martin and Mann agree that flipping and swimbaits will be the predominant patterns. Because there are no Angler of the Year points at stake and the payoff for finishing in any position other than 1st is paltry, there's little reason to pursue run-of-the-mill keepers.

"If it was me, I probably wouldn't mess with anything except a flipping stick or a big swimbait," Martin said. "I don’t think it can be won on a Senko or a Spook or anything like that. Those are good a lot of times for Top 10s and (money) finishes in multiple-day events here, but they're not going to help much in a tournament like this."

90 is Possible

Martin and Mann both said there's a high likelihood that fish weighing more than 10 pounds will come to the scale this week.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all," Mann said. "In almost every local tournament there's been a 10 or one in the high 9s. With that caliber of fishermen (in the Wild Card field), it's a strong possibility."

FLW/Brett Carlson
Photo: FLW/Brett Carlson

Longtime tour pro Tom Mann Jr., now a full-time guide at Okeechobee, said it won't be a surprise to see a 10-pounder or two cross the stage this week.

Mann predicted that the winning total will be at least 60 pounds, and admitted that estimate leans toward the conservative side. Martin was willing to go much farther out on that limb.

"I think there's a legitimate shot at getting close to 90 pounds," he said. "That's at the upper end of the spectrum, but it could easily happen. Three days of 30 pounds a day is not undoable at this time of year.

"This is always the time when some of the biggest fish of the year are caught – it's a great time of year. December is one of my favorite months to be on the water."


> Martin said there are some schooling fish that can be caught, but pursuing them could be costly to an angler's chances. "You can get hung up out there thinking you're going to catch a big bag, and you just won't," he said. "I can count on one hand the times I've caught a 20-pound bag on schooling fish – most of the time it's a 12- to 15-pound bag. Then again, some guys might be more comfortable if they can catch a quick limit and then spend the rest of the day trying to cull three or four of them out."

> The tournament gets under way today and runs through Saturday. For the full list of competitors, click here.