By Todd Ceisner
Three years ago, Lake Okeechobee produced some prodigious stringers during the FLW Tour Open that was won by Brandon McMillan. In that derby, a 22-pound average was needed to make the Top-20 cut.
In 2012, the big bag trend continued as Randall Tharp took his turn at the top by cracking the century mark in a blowout victory.
Last year was a different story, mostly because the Big O was a different lake in 2013. Higher water gave the fish much more real estate to work with and it made it challenging for anglers to zero in on where the giants were holed up.
During the 2011 and 2012 tournaments, a total of 10 bags exceeding 30 pounds were brought to the scales. Last year, there was just one, and only three bags topped out at 25 pounds or better.
This week, there are indications that Okeechobee may be rounding back into big-bag form, although few expect anything nearing 2011 proportions.
After a fairly brutal winter, a solid string of days with overnight lows in the mid to upper 60s and daytime highs in the 80s has some thinking sight-fishing will be a major player when the 2014 FLW Tour season gets going Thursday out of Clewiston, Fla. However, the lack of a full or new moon this week may temper any sort of massive wave of spawners moving into their typical spawning areas.
"The fish are biting," said three-time FLW Tour Angler of the Year David Dudley. "Any time you have water in the mid 70s in Florida, they're biting. It's just whether or not you're getting the big bites."
The field of 179 anglers – the largest FLW Tour field since 2008 at the Detroit River – can pretty much pick their poison in terms of what triggers bites. There's no shortage of 12- to 14-inchers anxious to chew on just about anything.
It's the brutes in the 7- and 8-pound class that have proven elusive so far. Several were caught during the practice round and as per usual at Okeechobee, whomever is fortunate to wrangle one or two of those per day during competition will be sitting pretty.
There are reports of some fish on beds, but not the volume required to make this a real shootout type of event. Water temps are in the 70s and fish are being caught any number of ways. The challenge, as it seems to be every year at the Big O, is colliding with a giant or two each day.
This marks the fourth straight year Okeechobee has played host to a late-winter FLW Tour event.
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 (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-plus pound bags), but can be stingy when conditions aren't quite right.
> Weather: Expected to be mild with some cloud cover Thursday and Friday before wet, frontal conditions come in for the weekend
> Water temp: Upper 60s to low 70s
> Water visibility/color: Mostly clear
> Water level: Stable
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing, topwater, swimbaits, rattlebaits, Senkos, flipping
> Winning weight: 90 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 32 pounds
> Check weight (90th): 21 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.
> Biggest decision: How much to run around. Some areas will be crowded and that's to be expected with 179 boats.
> Wildcard: A newly-accessible backwater flat that harbors some fresh spawners.
While his mind may be elsewhere, Randall Tharp is always a threat at Okeechobee.
A Perfect Storm?
Former tournament angler Tom Mann Jr., who now operates a flourishing guide service at Okeechobee, says under optimal conditions some Florida bass will spawn as early as November or December. This winter, that hasn't been the case due to the massive arctic cold fronts that swept across much of the eastern half of the country over the last several weeks, dipping down into the Sunshine State on several occasions.
"We've had a crappy winter up until this week," he said. "I'm looking at this week like a perfect storm situation. This year, we've had no spawn yet on the Big O. In past years, I've seen fish spawning in November, December and certainly by January 1. This year, I haven't seen anything yet."
Last week, Mann eyeballed countless clean beds and a number of males in their vicinity, but oddly, none of the nests had females locked down on them.
"Up until Sunday afternoon, I hadn't seen any females on beds," he said. "I started seeing them Sunday. There's no better scenario than right now. It could be fantastic. If the tournament had been last week, it probably wouldn't have been that good of an event, but with the water temperature shooting up, these fish are coming straight in.
"What always happens here is if we get some cold weather like we had the last 2 weeks and it drops the water temperatures 15 degrees, the fish don't spawn. Then we'll get a warmup and it's like somebody hitting the light switch. Things couldn't be setting up any better than it is right now."
Wind isn't supposed to be much of a factor this week and that will be good news for those on a looking pattern.
"If it stays this way and the wind stays down, it's going to be turn into a sight-fisherman's paradise," Mann added. "If we get a little wind and it gets hard to see the spawners … my big bait here is usually a soft-plastic jerkbait like the Yamamoto D-Shad. You can throw it out there and let is settle and pretty much dead-stick it."
Other big players this week could be frogs and ChatterBaits.
"Traditionally, when those females are locked on a nest and a frog comes along, they'll bust 'em," Mann said.
Like many Southern grass lakes, Okeechobee looks different from year to year. Where there were matted hyacinth one year could now be open water and vice versa. Mann said this year is no different, especially after the prolonged period of high water.
"I'm sure some guys hardly recognized the lake when they got here," he said. "Last year, the water was up all summer and all fall. Now, it's down to 13.80 so we've gotten about 2 feet out of the lake. What that high water did was it killed a lot of grass and reeds and opened up a lot of backwater areas that were unfishable last year."
The shifts in vegetation have also given the fish pathways into habitat that wasn't accessible before.
"It'll give more access to anglers to fish and more access to those big fish to swim back in there," he said. "With those walls of reeds that were there last year, they couldn't get back in there. They'd just stop and spawn on the outside edges."
While there may be more areas to slide into, the expectation is the same classic gathering spots on Okeechobee – the Monkey Box, Harney Pond, the North Shore – should still attract the most attention even if the matted-out vegetation isn't as prevalent as previous years.
"The water is at the perfect level. It's high enough for guys to get back into the grass flats," he added. "Access will be easy and there's gin-clear water back on those grass flats, which will make sight-fishing much easier. Florida bass on nests are real easy to target. If you're able to find some in one area, there's a good chance you can catch them all. There's actually more open water to fish now than there has been in the last 3 (FLW Tour) tournaments here."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"It seems like it could bust wide open any day. I've seen a lot of the males are up right now, just not a lot of females. I only saw one great big one so far. I probably could've had 22 pounds Monday. I had one on a swimjig, one on a jig, one on a ChatterBait. It was a mix of everything.
"They're right there on the doorstep. I think if we were closer to the moon, it could be really good. There are so many males on beds right now, but it doesn’t seem like the females have moved in yet. I tried to intercept them on the outside, but I wasn't able to find a wave of them. I think I'll try to catch a limit right away then go back to some areas where they might come to me.
David Dudley believes the big fish at Okeechobee determine the outcome moreso than at any other venue.
"On Tuesday, I pretty much exclusively went looking and found zero females locked down on beds that I feel like I can catch tomorrow. Before the Tour last year, I had three good females to start on. It's just not like that this year."
"The water has warmed up fast, but we haven't had any moons, so I'm not really sure if the big ones have moved in yet. It could get really good. It's definitely a lot different from last year. A lot of areas guys have caught them in the past are muddied up. It looks like they sprayed the middle of the Monkey Box and Harney Pond. There are no mats there. It looks a lot different. Places that are usually clear are real muddy now and areas that were muddy are clear now.
"There's a chance it could be really good, but I'm not convinced. I've spent a lot of time down there. If the moon's not right, the big ones won't move in. If you get 2 days of warming and a moon, they'll come like mad. We've had 4 days of warm weather, but they're still moving up. The big ones just haven't come in yet."
"I've caught them a lot of ways, which is concerning to me because there's no real one way to catch them. There's nothing that seems that to coincide with size. I'll go along flipping and catch one 12 inches then another that's 4 pounds. I'm at a bit of a loss right now. I'd like to find something that will consistently catch the bigger fish."
"They're biting good like always. It's a broken record, though, because the big ones are hard to come by. Those big ones are like gold down here. They're biting on anything you want to do.
"I don't see a big wave of (spawners) coming in. I know they would on a new moon, but this late in the ball game, the moon will need to get full and we're not going to get that. The lake looks about the same, there's just a lot more water.
"I can never get confident here. It has the biggest luck factor of any lake we ever go to. It's so lopsided in favor of the fish. You'll be going along, catching 1 1/2-pounder after 1 1/2-pounder, then bam – 8-pounder. Then it'll be the same thing, then you'll catch a 5-pounder. I've always said big fish are luck in fishing and on this lake because the fish size is so lopsided, it creates a big luck factor. I'm not a big fan of that."
"The fishing's good for numbers, but I'm really struggling. I've had a couple good bites. It's fishing a lot different than the last 3 to 4 years. It looks different than last year and over the last 3 or 4 years, it's really changed the way it's fishing.
"(The spawn) could happen any day. I've witnessed it here on more than one occasion. There are a lot of fish up already and a lot of fish that have spawned already, but from what I know about this lake, it's still early in the process.
"I plan to mix it up more than I have in the past. It just doesn't seem like I'll be able to get my flipping stick out and go do that for 8 hours. I feel like I'll be sight-fishing, winding something and flipping.
"I spent 2 days here before the cutoff and just ran around so it's hard to say what's going to happen. Honestly, my mind's on the Bassmaster Classic right now. It's hard to shift gears because I'm doing everything I need to do to prepare for the Classic. This event hasn't been my priority this winter."
Scott Martin has fared well on his home water in the past.
"I don't really know what to expect right now. I just hope I get lucky and catch a big one or two. I can't really make heads or tails of it at all. You're liable to catch a big one throwing something out in the middle or flipping a reed line or bed fishing. It can be a crankbait, jig or topwater. It doesn't seem to matter.
"There will be some big stringers caught, but I wouldn't look for multiple 100-pound totals. It's going to be good, just not a spectacular Okeechobee slugfest. It'll be a slugfest of some kind, but probably in the 18- to 22-pound neighborhood.
"It's the same old song and dance for me. Those fish don't read résumés. I have a little different attitude this week having already made the (Cup). I hate to say it, but I guess I've been swinging for the fence up until the last 3 hours of (Tuesday) when I had to figure out how to catch something."
"It's been tough, but I thought it was tough last year and made the cut. I don't think it's fishing that good, but there are big fish being caught. I caught an 8 (on Tuesday). One big bite like that will make a big difference. I think we'll see a lot of small limits. I've not found an area with a lot of fish moving in.
"I'm not catching a lot of quality fish at all and I think for me to do well, it'll be because I get a big bite or two. Most of the time, you know what kind of quality you're on. Here it seems like you'll catch 12- and 14-inchers then catch an 8-pounder.
Right now, flipping hasn't gotten going strong for me. There's not much hyrdrilla and hyacinth in areas I like to fish. The Monkey Box is pretty much ragged out – there's not much hydrilla in there. Same with the North Shore and Harney Pond. It's going to be more open-water fishing over there."
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. Bryan Thrift – Has posted Top-10s at Okeechobee in each of the past 2 years. Coming off a 2013 season that saw him claim two runner-up finishes and a 3rd at the Forrest Wood Cup.
2. Randall Tharp – Always a threat at Okeechobee, where he has a win and a runner-up finish in the last 3 years. Granted, he's pre-occupied with Classic prep, but the reigning Cup champ has a special bond with the Big O.
3. Jay Yelas – As good as there is at flipping targets in shallow water, Yelas is still seeking his first FLW Tour win. He's posted seven Top-10s in the last 3 seasons.
4. Scott Martin – Right at home (literally) at the Big O, where he has six Top-10s to his credit, including an FLW Series win from 2010. Last year was the first season since 2008 that didn't produce a victory and he'd love to start a new streak in his backyard.
5. Ish Monroe – A previous winner at Okeechobee (2012 Elite Series), Monroe will be after big fish, whether it's froggin' or flippin'.
6. Koby Kreiger – If it's a sight-fishing derby, Kreiger will be tough to beat. If not, he knows enough about the lake to get into areas that will be productive.
7. Casey Martin – He devoted a good deal of time last winter to learning the lake and it paid off. He was the day-1 leader at Okeechobee last year and hung on for a 6th-place finish in his first pro event on Tour.
*8. Brandon McMillan – The 2011 Tour winner at Okeechobee, his reputation almost demands inclusion here. Entering his sophomore season on Tour, he posted a 6th-place finish at last month's Rayovac Series at Okeechobee under tough conditions.
9. Chad Grigsby – Has a pile of Top-10s at Okeechobee on his résumé, including a 6th last year. He's at his best with a flipping stick in his hand.
10. Steve Kennedy – His Okeechobee scorecard is a mixed bag of triple-digit finishes and Top-10s. He had a miserable FLW Tour season last year and would love to get off on the right foot heading into the Classic.
* FLW announced McMillan had been disqualified shortly after BassFan published this report.
> 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.).
> Thurs., Feb. 6 – Chance of Thunderstorms - 78°/64°
- Wind: From the NE at 5 to 10 mph
> Fri., Feb. 7 – Partly Cloudy - 82°/65°
- Wind: From the NE at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., Feb. 8 – Chance of Thunderstorms - 84°/66°
- Wind: From the SSW at 10 to 15 mph
> Sun., Feb. 9 – Partly Cloudy - 78°/59°
- Wind: From the NNW at 10 to 15 mph
> John Cox has been added to the 2014 Tour roster. He was the first alternate and was elevated to active status when Frank Clark, who was disqualified for the Okeechobee event, opted not to fish the remainder of the season.
> Jay Yelas and Luke Clausen have checked in with their final thoughts from practice. Click here to read BassFan's ProView Reports.