By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

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 they’re buried farther under mats or back in the reeds or they’re 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 there’s a strong sentiment among veterans that the winner won’t need 100 pounds, or even close to it, to prevail. BassFans will recall the winners of last year’s 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 – 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 – or two. There aren’t many lakes where you can “get well” 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 What’s 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. It’s not certain whether the warmer temps forecast for the competition days will be enough to ignite any sort of slugfest.

B.A.S.S./Gary Tramontina
Photo: B.A.S.S./Gary Tramontina

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 won’t 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.

It’s 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. It’s 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.

Randy Blaukat
“It’s been a grind. It’s unbelievable. We’re coming off that cold front that was here last week and the fishing, from what I’ve seen and the guys I’ve talked to, is way off right now. I’ve noticed every day it’s gotten a little bit better. I’ve never seen a good bite so hard to get on this lake as it is right now.

“This 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, you’re 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.

“I’ve covered a lot of water with quite a few techniques and I’ve got one area that has quite a few fish in it, but there’s a lot of boats and a lot of small fish in there. That’s 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.”

Mark Rose
“Everything’s 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 you’re going to catch a lot of fish when you come down here.

“We’ve caught some fish, but out of 2 days, I’ve seen two fish that were 4 pounds or better so I definitely have to find some better quality. It’s really difficult to judge your areas right now because you could go through come Thursday and have it be the mother lode. We’re going to have a warming trend coming and the nights are going to be a lot warmer so that water temperature’s not going to spend the first part of the day in the low 60s. It’ll be get back up to a comfortable temperature for them when daylight gets around during the tournament whereas now it seems like it’s been tough until the sun comes out and warms things up a bit.

“I’m looking for everything to get a little better. There’s not a lot big fish on beds right now. I’ve 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.”

Chris Lane
“It hasn’t 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 that’s just not happening. It’s Okeechobee, though, and there are giants that live here. People will catch big fish, but I don’t think you’ll see the 100-pound mark.

“We 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 that’s yet to be seen. From what I’ve seen, I don’t see those giant sacks coming in like we’ve seen in the past. It’s fishing real small.

FLW/David Brown
Photo: FLW/David Brown

Chad Morgenthaler said it's hard to get a feel for which areas are going to be more productive during the tournament.

“I looked for a lot areas where the fish could be coming to on Monday and didn’t see any signs of fish coming. You don’t see the numbers of buck bass right now. Whether it’s the cold water or what have you, but I’m just not seeing the amount of fish. The water’s way up and it just allows those fish to go so many more places and places you can’t even get to.”

Kelley Jaye
“The 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.

“What I’ve noticed is the fish are real scattered. I’m 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.

“They’ve had a pretty moderate winter so I don’t think there are waves of them coming up. I think it’s a few here and a few there. The area I’m fishing, I’ve actually caught pre-spawn and post-spawn fish.”

Chad Morgenthaler
“It’s been hit and miss. I’ve only fished 2 1/2 days and I had two decent days, but (Tuesday) was a grind. I don’t really know quite what to expect. It’s definitely fishing different from when I was here before cut-off.

“The water’s still the same level. It’s just that different areas are getting muddied up and clearing and it’s changing on a day-to-day basis. It’s 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 it’s dirty. On Monday, it was crystal clear. It’s going to be an interesting tournament to say the least.

“I’ve gone about as far as you go back into the reeds and I’ve 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 don’t think the full moon followed by that cold front did them any favors.”

Brandon Medlock
“Practice went pretty good. I feel pretty confident. I don’t have a lot of areas like I have had in the past, but I’ve had to slow down in the areas I’ve found and grind it out. It’s a lot tougher this year than it has been. The water’s higher so there’s less fish. There’s not as many grouped up and there’s not as many spots where they’re grouped up.

“I think it’ll take somewhere between the low 80s and mid 90s to win. I don’t 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.”

Stetson Blaylock
“It’s the worst Okeechobee that I’ve been to. I came down last year and it wasn’t that great then, but it was easier to get a quality bite every now and then. It’s almost impossible now, it seems.

“I think the front is part of it, but I really think this high water has them scattered worse than the weather’s causing it. The weather was nice for the EverStart and they still didn’t catch them that great. It’s just off right now. We’ve gone 5 and 6 hours at a time without a bite. You can’t 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.

FLW/David Brown
Photo: FLW/David Brown

Mark Rose is hoping to uncover better quality fish once competition gets underway.

“Usually, you can catch 10 pounds when you’re going to 20 and you’re trying to get a couple big bites. This time, it’s like, ‘Can I catch 10 pounds?’ I don’t like being in that position. I’ve had one of the worst practices I’ve ever had. It’s just been a struggle to get a quality bite. Everybody that I’ve talked to has said the same thing.”

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 – As good a shallow-water flipper as there is on Tour, the Floridian will be right at home on Okeechobee, where he’d love to register a Top-10 Tour finish – he’s been close with two 11th-place efforts before.

2. Randall Tharp – Has a win (2012) and runner-up (2011) in his last two FLW Tour events at the Big “O”, on top of numerous local jackpot victories. He has few peers when it comes to flipping vegetation.

3. Brandon McMillan – He’s 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 – 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 – Won the Elite Series event at the Big O a year ago, just 6 weeks after finishing 25th there in the FLW Tour Open. He’d certainly love a confidence boost heading into the Classic in 2 weeks.

6. Bryan Thrift – The flippin’ magician is no stranger to success at Okeechobee (6th in ’12, won an EverStart there in ’06). 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 – He finished a spot behind father, Roland, in last year’s Open (8th) and wants to set the tone for a strong year with a good opener at home.

8. John Cox – Already has a berth clinched in the Forrest Wood Cup by virtue of his performance in last year’s Opens, so the pressure factor won’t 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 – An Okeechobee staple, you can’t 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 – He’s 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.

Launch/Weigh-In Info

> 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.).

Weather Forecast

> Thurs., Feb. 7 – Mostly Sunny - 82°/62°
- Wind: From the ESE at 5 to 9 mph

> Fri., Feb. 8 – Mostly Sunny - 83°/62°
- Wind: From the WSW at 2 to 4 mph

> Sat., Feb. 9 – Patchy Clouds - 81°/63°
- Wind: From the NE at 6 to 11 mph

> Sun., Feb. 10 – Partly Sunny - 79°/62°
- Wind: From the ESE at 9 to 14 mph

Notable

> 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.