By BassFan Staff
The search for a Florida man is now in its third day at Lake Okeechobee as crews and local anglers canvass the massive lake for Nicolas Kayler, a co-angler who’s believed to have been ejected from the boat in which he was a passenger on Thursday morning, the opening day of the Southeastern FLW Series tournament at Okeechobee.
FLW officials said Kayler, along with boater Bill Kisiah, of Slidell, La., did not check in at the designated weigh-in site at C. Scott Driver Park in Okeechobee, Fla., on the north side of the lake Thursday afternoon. They were boat No. 183 in the 250-boat field and due to report back by 4:30 p.m.
After search crews began canvassing the lake Thursday evening, Kisiah and his swamped Ranger Z521 fiberglass boat were discovered near the Pahokee Marina and Campground, nearly 30 miles from the mouth of the Kissimmee River, where the field blasted off from. Kisiah was clinging to his boat and in need of medical attention, according to a witness account. He was transported to a hospital in Belle Glade, Fla., where he was in serious condition Friday, according to local media reports.
When reached by phone Friday afternoon, Kisiah told a BassFan reporter he had no comment and hung up.
FLW canceled the remainder of the tournament and Terry Tucker will be declared the winner based on the weights from Thursday.
At a news briefing late Friday afternoon broadcast on Facebook, a spokesperson for the FWC said the search crews were still in “active search and rescue mode,” and it will remain that way until “the agencies deem all other efforts have been exhausted.”
Late Friday night, a Facebook group called “Boaters looking for Nik Kayler” was created in an effort to coordinate unofficial search efforts on the lake. There were 677 members as of 10 a.m. Saturday.
The FWC spokesperson said at the briefing the agency received word of the incident around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, two hours after the duo was due to check in. She said the search effort is not confined to one part of the lake.
“I don’t think they are focusing on a specific location, we are searching the entire lake,” she said.
An FWC spokesperson did not respond to two messages left by BassFan on Friday. An FLW spokesperson did not know if the search efforts were going to continue through the night Friday.
Other tournament competitors said they received a text message from FLW around 8 p.m. Thursday asking if anyone had seen the two anglers during the course of the day.
On Friday, the Palm Beach Post reported that John Tavano, Kayler’s roommate, sent Kayler a text message at 4:45 p.m. Thursday to tell him dinner was ready at the house they were staying at. When Tavano didn’t receive a reply, he called Kayler and was redirected to Kayler’s voicemail.
“I started getting worried,” Tavano told the Post.
The Post reported that Tavano took his own boat out Friday to aid in the search and “at the south end of the lake, the waves were really rough,” he said.
Dating back to 2009, Kayler had competed in 60 FLW events as a co-angler before this week. His only victory came in a two-day BFL at Okeechobee in Sept. 2013. Kisiah is a veteran of the Southeastern FLW Series division, having competed as a pro/boater the last six years in addition to two years as a co-angler prior to that. He has competed in eight FLW-sanctioned tournaments as a pro at Okeechobee prior to this week.
Nicolas Kayler has been missing since Thursday morning at Lake Okeechobee.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is leading the search operation and has had assistance from the Clewiston Police Department, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard, which called off its portion of the search early Friday afternoon, according to a report from CBS-12.
Very few details about the actual incident have emerged, but it’s believed the duo was planning to head to the South Bay area of the lake. It’s not known if authorities have had a chance interview Kisiah. Based on a picture posted as part of FLW’s day-1 launch photo gallery showing Kisiah and Kayler prior to blast off, Kayler appeared to be wearing a life jacket over top of a blue coat. Air temperatures at takeoff Thursday were in the 30s and water temperatures had dropped into the mid-50s, according to other competitors.
Kayler, 38, is an an Army veteran who served as a crewman aboard Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq. There's hope his military background would help his ability to survive in the waters of Okeechobee.
Gabriel Arrington lives in Jupiter, Fla., and was browsing Facebook Thursday evening when he saw a post about the missing anglers. He quickly contacted the post’s author and coordinated with the author’s husband to meet at the Pahokee Marina and Campground. Arrington said he was stopped by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy for running a red light on his way to the marina, but after explaining why he was in a hurry, the officers followed him to the boat ramp.
Shortly thereafter, Arrington’s acquaintance, who has a friend in common with Kisiah, received a text message that that Kisiah was near shore and close by based on the GPS location from his cell phone.
Arrington said by the time he launched his boat and began heading in the direction of Kisiah’s location, Kisiah had already climbed ashore, leaving the waves to thrash his swamped boat to crash against the rocky shoreline. An ambulance arrived and transported Kisiah from the marina.
“There’s 36 miles of shoreline there and he was up against the rocks under the only light,” Arrington said.
Arrington said he felt obligated to help in the search based on his familiarity with the lake. His focus then shifted to finding Kayler.
“I was born and raised on this lake and know it better than anyone alive,” Arrington said. “If anyone needed to be out there it needed to be me.”
Shortly after Kisiah was taken to the hospital, Arrington said a Coast Guard aircraft went up to begin searching for Kayler. Arrington then called 911 and asked the dispatcher to contact the ambulance that was transporting Kisiah to the hospital in an effort to gain any insight into where they should focus their search efforts. Arrington said Kisiah relayed that the incident occurred at approximately 7:30 a.m. about 8 to 10 miles outside the mouth of the Kissimmee River.
Based on the wind direction and wave action, Arrington figured Kayler could be anywhere from the Henry Creek Lock on the northwest side of the lake to Slim’s Fish Camp down south.
The crew in the Coast Guard aircraft used thermal imaging, but Arrington said they told him if an individual has been deceased for more than three or four hours, it’s unlikely the thermal tool would capture the image. Arrington said the helicopter did one pass up and back along the shore and then flew off to the east and did not return. He also said the presence of a massive group of waterfowl in that part of the lake Thursday night may have complicated search efforts from the air.
Arrington had to abandon his search after hitting a large rock and damaging his boat. When he got back to the marina, he was disappointed that there was no coordinated search effort along the dike near Pahokee.
“The only reason I left was I had a hole in my boat,” he said. “I don’t know the guy from Adam, but there was, legitimately, nobody looking for him.”
Arrington posted this video of Kisiah’s boat (Ranger Z521 boat with a red Evinrude G2) still in the water Thursday night. Notice the rods on the passenger side still strapped down and the navigation light rod still intact. That would seem to contradict reports that the boat capsized.
On Friday, the boat was removed from the water. The below video shows extensive damage to the driver's side rear section.
Other competitors with plenty of experience at Okeechobee said the conditions Thursday morning caused them to use caution when running to their first spots.
Koby Kreiger, a veteran pro angler with decades of experience at Okeechobee, said the conditions Thursday morning were not conducive to running across the middle of the lake.
“It was obviously windy and rough,” he said. “If he made a decision to run across middle of the lake, it was a bad decision. It wasn’t crossable. You had to skirt edges or run the rim canal.”
JT Kenney also ran to the South Bay area and took a route along the west side of the lake to get there.
“It was blowing out of the northwest and I went 60 (miles per hour) the whole way,” he said. “There was no more than a ripple. I can guarantee you that I went 500 yards off the bank it would’ve been two-footers. Two miles off the bank, there’s no telling how big it was. It was howling.”
Glenn Browne, another Florida pro who competed Thursday said he ran south, but headed down the shore area toward Harney Pond.
“It was bumpy, but wasn’t unmanageable,” he said. “If they ran the middle of the lake, it would’ve been pretty bad. (The route I took), I could run 55 to 70 (miles per hour) the whole way. If you went out toward the middle, it probably wouldn’t have been good.”