By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

While last week’s FLW Tour season opener wasn’t the classic Lake Okeechobee slugfest BassFans have come to expect there in February, it gave us a glimpse of how pros, from the unknowns to the household names, put things together when the expected patterns don't produce as anticipated.

Many fish seemed to be in their post-spawn transition while there was still some heading in to start their annual ritual. Finding an area that fish in both phases funneled through seemed to be a crucial element to those who finished in Top 5. Finding multiple areas was a bonus and almost a necessity as the ever-changing winds in central Florida blew out portions of the lake once the weekend rolled around.

With the changing conditions came the need to adjust bait presentations and the top finishers mixed a program of flipping jigs and plastics to various species of vegetation in addition to throwing moving baits to trigger reaction strikes.

Here’s how the anglers who trailed winner Drew Benton in the standings went about their business at the Big “O.”

2nd: Brent Ehrler

> Day 1: 5, 19-07
> Day 2: 5, 16-10
> Day 3: 5, 20-02
> Day 4: 5, 14-05
> Total = 20, 70-08

Typically at Lake Okeechobee, you won’t see many anglers flipping a 6-inch soft-plastic stickbait, but that’s exactly what Brent Ehrler did to record his best-ever finish in the state of Florida last week.

Alton Jones picked off bedding fish with a similar bait to win the St. Johns River Elite Series last March, but Ehrler wasn’t focused on sight-fishing. He did most of his damage along grass lines and subtle points.

“I really did not have a good practice,” he said. “I just started running stuff where I thought I could catch a few fish and then I ended up catching a couple of fish that I weighed and I lost that real big one on a spot where I’d found a little grass point out in the middle of nowhere.”

He covered water with a vibrating jig and a spinnerbait and then when it came to picking it apart, he’d flip a Senko to reed heads. Numbers were not a problem for him, especially in the mornings.

“You don’t usually fish a Senko that way,” he said.

He lost a fish in the 10-pound range or better on day 2 that could’ve swung the outcome in his favor, but still managed 16-10 and followed that with 20-02 on day 3 to get himself into contention.

“I thought I had one little hit on it and thought it was a good spot so I put a waypoint on it,” he said of his area on the west side. “I had a 3- and a 5-pounder and jumped off a real big one there. I had a couple things like that develop in the tournament that I wasn’t expecting. You never know how to predict that and I think in the past, I couldn’t make the right moves and I just did it this time. I didn’t do anything different this time. I was just fortunate to get in those right areas.”

> Flipping gear: 7’6” medium-heavy Lucky Craft casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 50-pound Sunline SX-1 braided line, 1/4- or 3/8-oz. Picasso tungsten flipping weight, 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook, 6” Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Senko (black/blue flake).

> Vibrating jig gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Performance Tackle casting rod, 20-pound Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, unnamed 3/8-oz. vibrating jig (black/blue), Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Flappin’ Hog trailer (black/blue).

> He also threw a white vibrating jig with a 3 1/2” Yamamoto Swimbait (cream white) as a trailer.

> Main factor in his success – “There wasn’t any one thing in particular that I could get into as to why I did well other than having an open mind and letting the day develop. Every time I’ve done well in tournaments, it’s when I’ve developed something as the tournament went on and that’s how it went (last) week again.”

> Performance edge – “My Humminbird mapping. Those first 3 days, it was so easy to fish the outside grass lines and grass points. It’s so much easier to get dialed into your waypoints and how far away from things you are. They have a thing called Casting Range on your waypoints so you know exactly how far away from your waypoint you are.”

FLW/Brett Carlson
Photo: FLW/Brett Carlson

Michael Neal camped in one spot in Eagle Bay all tournament.

3rd: Michael Neal

> Day 1: 5, 15-07
> Day 2: 5, 22-12
> Day 3: 5, 16-08
> Day 4: 5, 13-01
> Total = 20, 67-12

Michael Neal’s first taste of tournament fishing in Florida came in 2008 when he fished as a co-angler at the Lake Toho FLW Tour. He was paired on day 1 of that event with eventual winner Brett Hite and while he didn’t bring any fish to the scale that day, Neal, who was 16 at the time, learned quite a bit.

Back home in Tennessee, he’s mostly a run-and-gun type, but he knew that wouldn’t work at Okeechobee.

“You quickly learn that you can’t do that on places you don’t know,” he said.

Based on his practice, he thought he was on course to catch 12 pounds a day and maybe get a check. He scoured Eagle Bay and knocked around the Monkey Box up north, but he wasn’t keen on fishing in the massive crowd, and settled on Eagle Bay.

“After that cold front (in practice), I thought they pulled back out and it was the only place I could find with deep water real close to shallow water,” he said. “On day 1, I caught them kind of on the side of it and it seemed like they started moving back up once it started warming up some more.

“The deep water was the whole key for me. I could throw out of one side of the boat and be in 2 feet or throw out of the other side and be in 8. There aren’t too many places on Okeechobee where you can do that.”

Another key to his program was moving baits. He couldn’t generate any bites on soft plastics as just about every fish he caught came on a fast-moving reaction bait.

“I think the fish I was catching weren’t in a spawning mentality,” he said. “There were no mats to flip or anything. The only thing there was were some reeds and gator grass. I’d much rather throw a reaction bait anyway and cover 10 times as much water compared to flipping it all.

“You had to bump something or pop your rod when you got next to a little clump of grass. You had to do something to trigger a bite – either bounce it off something of do something funny with your rod.”

> Swimbait gear: 7’6” medium-heavy Nuclear Rods casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 80-pound PowerPro Super 8 Slick braided line, 1/8-oz. unnamed tungsten weight, 7/0 Owner hook, Gambler Big EZ (copperfield).

> “Everybody made fun of me for using such big line, but it worked,” he said of using 80-pound braid on all of his setups.

> Flipping gear: 7’6” heavy-action Nuclear Rods casting rod, same reel, same line, 1-oz. Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover swimjig (black/blue), Zoom Fat Albert Grub trailer (black/blue).

> Vibrating jig gear: Same rod as flipping, same reel, same line, 1/2-oz. unnamed vibrating jig (golden shiner), Gary Yamamoto Swimming Senko trailer.

> Main factor in his success – “Staying in one area in practice and grinding it out and figuring out exactly what the fish were doing. If I had hopped around to different parts of the lake, especially on something this big, I would’ve never figured anything out.”

> Performance edge – “I wish I could say Power-Poles, but I don’t have any. I think I’m the only person in the Top 20 that didn’t have any. My Ranger Z521 and Yamaha 250 SHO gave me really good gas mileage and a smooth ride.”

FLW/Rob Newell
Photo: FLW/Rob Newell

A scouting trip in January helped Wade Hendricks uncover a prime big-fish area.

4th: Wade Hendricks

> Day 1: 5, 13-14
> Day 2: 5, 24-06
> Day 3: 5, 16-07
> Day 4: 5, 12-02
> Total = 20, 66-13

Wade Hendricks hadn’t seen Lake Okeechobee before he paid it a visit prior to the off-limits period. He’s glad he did because he was able to uncover an area that eventually produced a number of quality fish over the course of the tournament.

“I was looking forward to this tournament,” he said. "I’d never been to Okeechobee. I grew up fishing guerrilla style and going in and yanking them out of thick cover and I was really looking forward to coming down here and matching up with this lake.”

The spot he found during pre-practice was “an area where I knew the fish were coming in to spawn during the first spawn. I knew it was a transitional area and I ended up using it in the tournament.”

He rode a topwater bite through the first 2 days even though his best area in practice let him down on day 1 when he weighed 13-14. The frog was again key on day 2 as he clobbered 24-06 to move into the Top 5.

“When the fish revealed to me what was there with the 10- and 9-pounder I caught and the quality my co-anglers were catching, when I knew what was there and the depth of the spot, I just committed to it for the rest of the tournament,” he said. “It looked like a hayfield and it was mixed in with pepper grass. There were no specific pitch spots or targets. It was more of a zone and I don’t know if it was just a migration location where the fish were moving through or if it was just part of the lake where the fish happened to come to for the spawn.”

When the winds kicked up on the weekend, he had to adjust presentations and caught the majority of his fish flipping a 1-ounce jig or throwing a swimbait in the grass.

“It was all about the conditions,” he said. “It changed every day. If I could’ve caught them on a frog all 4 days, I would’ve loved to. The conditions really dictated, hour to hour, what I was going to throw.”

> Frog gear: 7’5” medium-heavy G. Loomis GLX casting rod, Shimano Curado G casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 50-pound unnamed braided line, Spro Bronzeye frog (albino).

> The key to getting topwater bites was to almost dead-stick the frog. “When we had optimum conditions for topwater, the big fish bites were coming from really pausing the bait,” he said. “Your instinct is you want to move it to draw a strike, but those giants were coming on it just sitting dead still.”

> He was impressed with the new Loomis rod’s ability to handle the topwater assault. “It’s not designed for a frog, but in this territory it was really the backbone to my success,” he said. “Getting that big sack (on day 2), it really did the job. I was really pleased with its performance.”

> Flipping gear: 7’1" heavy-action G. Loomis GLX casting rod, same reed, same line, 1-oz. unnamed punching jig (black/blue), NetBait Paca Chunk trailer (black and blue).

> Main factor in his success – “The fact I committed to that area in the sense that the big fish were there and I wasn’t going to leave it. Mother Nature wasn’t going to blow me out of there. I was going to battle her just to be able to keep my baits in that water column.”

> Performance edge – “My Power-Poles were the key element. They were a big part of being able to manage the weather.”

FLW/Rob Newell
Photo: FLW/Rob Newell

After a red-hot start, Rick Cotten held on for his first career Top-10 finish.

5th: Rick Cotten

> Day 1: 5, 24-00
> Day 2: 5, 30-03
> Day 3: 3, 7-00
> Day 4: 3, 5-08
> Total = 16, 66-11

Last year, Rick Cotten missed making his first Tour-level Top-10 by 1 minute at the Kentucky Lake FLW Tour Major as a late penalty on day 3 cost him a pound and left him in 12th place, just 5 ounces shy of the Top 10.

He more than made up for that last week despite letting the lead slip away on the weekend when brisk winds muddied up his key areas. Like others who fished the Tour event, he also fished the Okeechobee Southeast EverStart in January, if for nothing else than to get a read on the lake and certain areas that may produce once the calendar turned to February.

“I wound up trying to fish so much all over the place and tried to learn the south and middle of the lake that I really didn’t get on a good stringer for the EverStart,” he said.

During the EverStart, he befriended Floridian Keith Fels, who finished 10th in the event. When Fels had some mechanical issues on the final day, he called Cotten, who was out fun fishing, for help.

“I saw what he was doing,” Cotten said. “It was really eye-opening to sit there and watch what he was doing and that helped me out tremendously.”

What Fels was doing, and what Cotton ultimately did for the vast majority of the Tour event, was pitching a heavy jig to tiny areas around stationary targets, mainly clumps of pencil reeds in the mid-lake area, 25 to 30 feet away. The key was a silent entry and not hitting the target.

“You absolutely had to be silent with the jig when it comes into the water and you have to get as close to your target as possible and not hit it,” he said. “If you hit it, you might as well reel back in because you’re not going to get a bite.”

Finding a transition area where fish were coming in and out of was crucial. His big bag on day 1 was all pre-spawn fish while his giant stringer on day 2 were all post-spawners. When the winds picked up on the weekend, it muddied up the water and made bait presentation extremely challenging, and in turn, he struggled mightily.

“You do that for 5 or 6 days in a row between practice and the tournament, that gets tough on your wrist because you have to sidearm it,” he said. “It’s tough to consistently sit there and do that from that far away. It sounds easy, but it’s not.

“That many days, it takes a toll on your body, especially when the wind picked up on day 3 and 4. It gets pretty tough to sit there and do that.”

> Pitching gear: 7’6” heavy-action Phenix casting rod, Lew's Speed Spool casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 80-pound PowerPro braided line, 1-oz. unnamed double weedguard jig (junebug and black/blue), Zoom Super Chunk trailer (black/blue).

> He’s been very impressed with the performance of his Lew's reels. “I’ve fished with other reels, but when you get in a driving rain or if they get wet, you had to put the brakes on them. With the Lew’s, you can sit there and dunk them in the water and cast after cast, you don’t have to adjust the brakes on them. I’d recommend Lew's to anyone.”

> Main factor in his success – “Picking the right bait and finding the right area. The mid-lake area is just on fire right now. Earlier in practice, I didn’t catch them that good. Even the slightest little cold front or the slightest little temperature drop affects the fish drastically down here – moreso than any other place I've ever seen in my life. I think the biggest key was the warm up.”

> Performance edge – I would recommend Phenix Rods to anyone and I love my Lew's reels. Other than that, my Mercury and my Champion bass boat got me to and from my spots every day.”

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