By Todd Ceisner
The water’s high and cold, and it’s pretty dirty, too.
Short of all the water running out of Lake Okeechobee prior to Thursday morning, the conditions that anglers have encountered for this week’s FLW Tour season opener, frankly, couldn’t be any worse.
There are still fish to be caught around Florida’s largest lake, but much of their habitat was devastated last fall by Hurricane Irma and the lake is still in recovery mode, and some experts believe it will take years of careful management before the Okeechobee bass fishery can bounce back.
The sustained high water and depleted vegetation has left the water extremely dirty across much of the lake and has put a premium on finding locations with cleaner or clear water. In fact, there are rumblings among competitors that a viable pattern this week could be to focus efforts outside the main lake, in the canals where the water may be more stable.
While there had been reports of the fishing being really good around the holidays, a couple cold fronts in recent weeks have reached down into central Florida and put the chill on Okeechobee, where water temperatures are still in the upper 50s to low 60s. It’s been cold enough for long enough where non-native species like tilapia and cichlids are dying off.
Bass in the sub 1 1/2-pound range are reportedly plentiful and could be valuable limit fillers this week, but in typical Florida fashion, their bigger brethren have been harder to dial in. Anything resembling a 2 1/2- to 4-pound bass (or better) will be incredibly valuable.
Some competitors reported the bite did seem to improve as practice wore on, but a 180-degree shift in wind direction Tuesday night into Wednesday could put the brakes on any such uptick, especially since it’s blowing straight into what’s left of the best known fishing areas. All of this has many anglers thinking about what it will take to survive the opener with a respectable outcome without nuking their season.
Not only is the fishing at Okeechobee posing numerous challenges, there will be no escaping the haze of grief that will hang over this tournament in the wake of the death of Nicolas Kayler at Okeechobee two weeks ago.
Kayler, a resident of Apopka, Fla., was a co-angler in the FLW Series tournament at Okeechobee when he was reportedly ejected from the boat in which he was a passenger after it encountered rough water on the morning of Jan. 4, the first day of the tournament. Kayler’s body was recovered on Jan. 10 by a commercial fishing boat close to a water tower near Clewiston, where this week’s tournament is based out of.
The matter is still under investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. An FWC spokesperson told BassFan on Tuesday no new information was available about the investigation.
Prior to blast-off during this week’s tournament, Kayler’s family will be mentioned as part of the morning prayer and before the day-1 takeoff, the universal signal for man overboard – three long air horn blasts followed by a single vertical flare – will precede a moment of silence in Kayler’s memory.
Based on the forecast, winds will be a factor throughout the tournament with 15- to 25-mph winds out of the northeast or east over the first three days before a southeast breeze kicks in on Sunday.
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: Stable but on the cool side with consistent winds out of the east/southeast.
> Water temp: High 50s to mid 60s
> Water visibility/color: Filthy across much of the lake; limited areas with clean water
> Water level: It's been dropping since Irma went through last fall, but still high. Currently at 15.32 feet.
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Winter/pre-spawn/some spawn
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing, topwater, frogs, swimbaits, bladed jigs, rattlebaits, Senkos, flipping
> Winning weight: 64 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 30 after 2 days): 23 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Okeechobee
> Biggest factor: Crowding. With the lake in the condition it’s in, it’s going to fish incredibly small.
> Biggest decision: Stay in the lake or gamble in the canals.
Here's a look at how Okeechobee lays out, thanks to the Navionics WebApp:
Too Cold for Spawn?
Kyle Monti, a soon-to-be rookie on the Elite Series, has guided on Okeechobee for several years and said the dirty, high water is going to hold the fishing back not just this week, but until the water level comes down.
“It’s high, dirty and cold, which is the worst scenario in Florida,” Monti said. “You’re going to have tight packs of fisherman in small areas, more so than normal.”
He said it’s been too cold for his liking even though there was a time back in October when he wanted it to start cooling off.
“It’s a fine line between cool and cold here,” he said. “If the water gets below a certain water temperature, they won’t feed or even try to spawn.”
Scott Suggs has been to Okeechobee plenty of times, but he can't recall it being in as rough of shape as it is this week.
He said there hasn’t been a real solid spawning wave yet, so some competitors could run into some fish looking to pair up, but it likely won’t be a sustainable pattern through the tournament.
“That could make the tournament better, but the lake is not in really good shape,” he said. “Regardless of how good it is, we won’t see 20-pound bags down the line. There are not enough areas to go around.”
He was out fishing with clients last Friday and said it’s difficult to find areas with concentrations of fish.
“Areas that used to be able to handle 40 to 60 boats are 15 to 20 percent smaller and the water’s dirty,” he said. “I think we’ll see some type of spawning bite going on because of the stable weather and that’s what will save the event as far as weights go.”
Monti thinks the canals outside the main lake could produce a top-20 or top-30 finish, but if water warms up, the opportunities on the main lake would trump anything on the perimeter.
“If the water gets to 68 or 70 and you’re not in the lake, you might get your feelings hurt,” he said.
Lake in Flux
Paul Gray, the Okeechobee Science Coordinator for Audubon Florida, says the lake’s current condition is nothing new. Hurricanes have roared across the lake in the past, bringing the water level up, but he’s concerned that the prolonged high water will have a lasting negative impact on the fishery.
“The first problem is when lake gets above 16 feet,” he said. “Hydrilla, pepper grass and eelgrass, it gets too deep and dark and the sunlight can’t penetrate deep enough and they start peeling back. With this storm, we went above 17 feet, which is the worst-case scenario.”
When combined with sustained winds in excess of 100 mph, the lake’s soft, muddy bottom was stirred up and made the water intensely dirty, a symptom that still persists.
“If you go out and stick your hand in the water in some places, it disappears right away,” he said.
His central area of concern is the western portion of the lake, home to 70 square miles of submerged vegetation and many well-known bass fishing spots. It took a beating in the storm and is in danger of being entirely depleted, Gray said.
“Right now, we stand to lose virtually all of it,” he added. “We won’t know until May how much is left. Whatever is left is just hanging on.”
He said the late spring is considered the peak of the dry season around Okeechobee so he’s hoping the lake level can come down into the range of 12 to 13 feet before the summer rains begin to hit.
“If it only gets to 14, the plants won’t recover and the summer rains could push it back up to 16 or 17,” he said. “When those plants are growing, it keeps the water clean and clear. Back in 2016, we had toxic algae blooms out in open water, but in the submerged plant zone, they kept the water clean. At the exact same time of those algae blooms, you could go into the plant zones and see they were full of fish and life.
“Now we’ve lost that and it can’t grow back until the lake comes down and sunlight can penetrate down to the bottom.”
Michael Neal has three top-30 finishes, including two top-5s, at Okeechobee.
Gray is helping on projects right now that he hopes would create a water flow control system consisting of reservoirs north and south of the lake, which would help avoid such drastic swings in water levels. Those projects are in the design phase, he said, but will be crucial to the long-term health of the lake and the eco-tourism money that partly drives the local economy.
“The crappie fishery crashed back in 2004 and 2005 and it took 10 years to recover,” he said. “When the plants go, the fishery follows and we’ve lost one of the most important ecological zones of the lake, and by extension economic zones because of how popular this lake is with fishermen.”
Davis recalled the 100-pound four-day stringers caught at Okeechobee when Brandon McMillan and Randall Tharp won FLW Tour events in 2011 and 2012.
“It’s sad because that’s what this lake can be and should be,” he said. “No one likes this to happen, so we have to fix it.”
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“They’re displaced and don’t really know where to go. It’s fishing very small and the water is dirty everywhere you go. I probably had 20 bites Monday and would’ve maybe had 10 or 11 pounds. If the water wasn’t dirty, there would be still be places to fish, but it’s unbelievably dirty. It’s not even close to being borderline. I love dirty water as much as anybody and thought I could con some into biting, but it’s not going to happen.
“The Monkey Box and Moonshine (Bay) will be a zoo and it’s honestly going to take getting a 4-pounder a day. If you can catch five 2-pounders and one big one a day you will be a guy with a chance to win. If somebody blows it out, my hat’s off to him.
“I’ve caught fish in places this week where I can remember coming here a few years ago and couldn’t get a bite or you figured you’re too far in. It’s hard to tell what too far in is right now.”
“I’m no Okeechobee specialist and I don’t have a big network, but I fished extremely hard for three days and I caught one bass over 1 1/4 pounds. There are places to catch a lot of fish, but they are tiny.
“I don’t see any way they can have a good spawn this year. This is going to be a long-term thing and I know when I’m struggling this bad, I know I’m not the only one. I got around a group of fish Tuesday and normally I would’ve kept pushing, but I opted to pull off and try to salvage something. I’m going to try to go through numbers to finish inside the top 100 this week.
“The bite has gotten better as the week has gone on, but the wind shifted last night and I’m sure it’ll affect them and they won’t bite as good.”
“I spent a couple weeks down here before cut-off and it was decent then, but not now. Ninety percent of the lake is unfishable at this point. It’s high, cold and nasty.
“There are a few areas that have some fish, but just small areas. You have to get lucky to catch a 4-pounder. You can easily catch five to weigh 7 pounds, but it’s tough after that. On Sunday, I had a 4-pounder and a 3 and Monday I didn’t catch anything over 2 pounds, but I was in a different part of the lake.
“I’m probably going to hit two or three spots each day. It’s going to be hard to move around in the wind. You’re going to have to lock down. You can get bit several ways, but it’s just hard to find quality fish. Even a 2 1/2-pounder is hard to come by. There’s a ton of 13-inchers.”
“I’ve never been here and not caught a good one in practice. You’ll just random up on a good one here or there. It just happens, but I haven’t caught one yet this week. It’s not hard to get a bite, but you have to figure out an area and a way to get bit. You’ll get bites, but it’s so hard to get a big one.
“All of the fish aren’t in the clear water that there is because there’s so little of it. It doesn’t seem as though it has to be as clear as it’s been in the past, but it’s hard to get anything going. You could make a good decision on a couple stops tomorrow and catch a couple big ones and look like a hero, then go back out the next day and catch six pounds. You just have to get lucky.”
“I don’t think it’ll ever fish as small as it did back when we had 200 boats even though we’re pretty close this year. I remember one year we were all in the Monkey Box and one year we were in Moonshine. It’s a very different lake from what I remember.
“There’s a lack of hydrilla and cover and the reeds are mostly gone – just a lack of cover overall. The outside hard walls of reeds are gone or thinned out and there’s nothing filtering the water from there on back. There were times I can remember where you could never take off from the lake and run right to the rim ditch. Now, you can see it and run to it from just about anywhere.
“I’ve been down here a bunch and I feel the worst now than I ever had. It’s really bad. There are basically four clear-water areas. There will be some people catch four that will weigh from 5 to 7 pounds and catch a 7- or 8-pounder and be golden, but it’s so far between a lot of the clean water and the way the wind will blow and routes you’ll need to take to get there, people will stay in what direction they choose and make their day 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. John Cox – Kicking off the season in his home state, Cox has excelled at Okeechobee in the past and knows enough to be able to grind out five to seven bites per day.
2. JT Kenney – Another Florida resident who's bagged a couple January wins at the Big O in his career and he’s coming off a year in which he qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup.
3. Bryan Thrift – This might be a junk-fisherman’s dream scenario this week and that fits right in Thrift’s wheelhouse. The conditions may not allow him to run around as freely as he usually does, but the reigning Angler of the Year always seems to make something of out nothing.
4. Scott Martin – One of his eight Tour wins came at Okeechobee in late January 2010 and he’s seen the lake in similar condition to now, so don’t expect it to throw him too much.
5. Brandon McMillan – Soon-to-be father and former winner at Okeechobee wouldn’t mind kicking off the year with another victory as he looks to make a third straight Cup.
6. Clark Wendlandt – His January track record at Okeechobee is good (three top-10s) and he’s gotten off to strong starts each of the past two seasons, so there’s no reason to think the longtime Texas pro will slip up this week.
7. Koby Kreiger – Making his return to the FLW Tour after two seasons on the Elite Series, Kreiger will look to capitalize on his long history at Okeechobee, which includes four top-10 finishes in FLW competition.
8. Michael Neal – Okeechobee’s been good to him in the past, but he’s still searching for his first win. He was 4th two years ago and is coming off another stellar season. Might this be his time?
9. Greg Bohannan – The Arkansas angler seems to have figured out Florida in recent years and he’s fishing with a lot of confidence in the wake of two straight Cup appearances.
10. Taylor Ashley – Someone always surprises in Tour events at Okeechobee and while Ashley wouldn’t be a stunner (he won an FLW Series there in 2017), Tour competition is a different animal. Even so, don’t be surprised to see the rookie do well in his first Tour event.
> Anglers will launch at 7:30 a.m. ET all four days from Roland & Mary Ann Martins Marina & Resort (920 East Del Monte Ave., Clewiston, Fla. 33440). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will begin at 3 p.m. EST and weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will begin at 4 p.m. EST (same address).
> Thurs., Jan. 25 – Partly Cloudy - 71°/59°
- Wind: From the NNE at 15 to 25 mph
> Fri., Jan. 26 – Mostly Cloudy - 71°/62°
- Wind: From the ENE at 15 to 25 mph
> Sat., Jan. 27 – Overcast - 74°/64°
- Wind: From the E at 10 to 20 mph
> Sun., Jan. 28 – Chance of Rain - 80°/63°
- Wind: From the SE at 10 to 20 mph