By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: Details of tournament winner Tim Frederick's pattern will be published Wednesday).
The weights at the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour season opener far exceeded anyone's expectations. Practice was, by and large, miserable, with big fish tough to pattern and pipsqueak bass all too willing to bite. But nature could only hold back for so long and that brightened the spirits of the field of 187 pros.
After a series of cold fronts in recent weeks, the weather around Okeechobee stabilized, allowing the water, still high and dirty as a result of Hurricane Irma last fall, to begin warming up. That was all it took to trigger a big movement of fish to move in toward staging areas prior to heading to their spawning grounds.
That put them in the crosshairs of the nearly 190 boats crammed into a few select prime areas due to the vast reduction of cover and vegetation in the lake. The result was a better than expected tournament with two competitors - winner Tim Frederick and runner-up Bryan Schmitt - cracking the 84-pound mark.
Stiff winds swung from north to south during the course of the week, forcing some competitors to adjust their game plans according to where the wind pushed the dirty water. Harney Pond and South Bay were the places to be during the tournament as they harbored the lushest vegetation and cleanest water - and the best big-bag potential.
The wind made it difficult to flip effectively or pitch a Senko around under a light worm weight. Instead, winding reaction baits (vibrating jigs, lipless crankbais, swim jigs) were among the top producers). Still, some came out of the tournament concerned about the immediate future of the fishery.
Brandon McMillan, who finished 5th, said the lake seems to be trending downward despite its solid showing last week.
"With the hurricane and high water and other factors, it's just not healthy," he said. "It looks beautiful on paper, but the weights are not any indication of what's really going on. It's far from what it could be. That's what hurts me the most. We've got 'em. It's just managed horribly."
Schmitt thinks the lake could crank out some mega-bags in the near future, but is concerned about what the long-term picture looks like.
"Anywhere I've ever been, when the vegetation shrinks and they're up and active, people think it's the greatest thing and it's on fire," he said. "What's going to happen when they get a week or two of nice weather? Those areas will have to hold so many big fish. There could be record bags everywhere, but a year or two down the road, the lake could be hurting. If they get good weather, it will be insane, then it'll take its toll."
What follows is a recap of how the 2nd- through 5th-place finishers went about their business at Okeechobee:
2nd: Bryan Schmitt
> Day 1: 5, 24-11
> Day 2: 5, 23-08
> Day 3: 5, 16-04
> Day 4: 5, 19-11
> Total = 20, 84-02
Schmitt didn't get clued in that the fishing might actually be better than what practice revealed until mid-morning Thursday.
"I had a big bite and caught a limit quickly for 14 pounds," he said. "In practice, I caught one 5-pounder, one 3-pounder and everything else was less than 2 pounds. And those weren't even caught where I caught my fish in the tournament. I had no expectations of anything of that sort. I think everybody was caught off guard by the weights."
Schmitt is always at ease when fishing around shallow grass and he opted for a moving-bait pattern rather than soaking baits because he found the flipping bite to be inconsistent in practice. He ultimately settled on a section of Harney Pond where he could throw a reaction style bait and be more productive.
"It had the most numbers and quickest bites and because of the style that I could do, it was more open and I felt like I could get more bites," he said.
After what he saw on day 1, he was convinced he'd made the right call.
"On Thursday, I was catching plenty of fish and I saw guys make passes around who were flipping and they weren't catching them, then I'd see they weighed in one or two little fish," he said. "I think if you take away what the McMillans and Chad (Morgenthaler) did, it was a horrible week for flipping."
Schmitt is convinced the fish he caught on days 1 and 2 that catapulted him into the lead both days were ones filtering into the area off the lake. The bite got tougher because of a combination of fishing pressure in the area and the fish began to station themselves on beds that were tough to see in the wind.
"There's also this Florida thing that Scott Martin told me about where too many males can get caught and it can almost stop a wave of females from coming in," he said. "He said he could remember a tournament years ago where he left a bunch of 2- to 2 ½-pound males with the hopes he could catch the females that were coming in. I think that hurt the spot, too.
"I tried to follow them and they never showed me any distinct change in where they were going. It was cool because you never knew when you'd get a bite. It's not like at the Potomac where you get accustomed to a small piece of the puzzle. It was any cast."
His main target was hydrilla that met either Kissimmee grass or reed heads.
"I would chuck and wind in the sparse stuff, but if I'd get close to a clump or something bigger, I'd attack it from every angle and scrape the edge of it," he said, adding that he'd let his bladed jig fall to the bottom before retrieving it.
> Vibrating jig gear: 6'9" medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Bryan Thrift Signature series ChatterBait rod, Ardent Apex Grand casting reel, 40-pound P-Line TCB-8 braided line, 3/8- and 1/2-oz. Riots Baits Recon bladed jig (blue steel), Riots Baits Little Fuzzy and Tantrum trailers (both blue steel)
> He said 17 of his weigh-in fish came on the vibrating jig. He downsized to the 3/8-oz. size on day 4 in an effort to get more bites.
> Worm gear: 7'3" medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Stunner Series casting rod, same reel, same line (50-pound), 1/4-oz. Riot Baits T3 tungsten worm weight, 5/0 Hayabusa flipping hook, Riots Baits Riot Stick (blue steel).
> Main factor in his success - "That I was part of that pattern. I drove home before when Brett Hite was throwing a ChatterBait in Harney Pond and been like, 'How did I miss that? I feel like I can do that.' I'm not saying I'm the best at it, but I feel like I'll take my chances with it."
> Performance edge - "It's been said a million times, but Power-Poles were key and my Garmin Panoptix helped me be able to see in front of the boat, where the isolated clumps of grass were. That was a big thing."
It took until Thursday for Mark Rose to realize the potential of the best area he'd found in practice.
3rd: Mark Rose
> Day 1: 5, 24-00
> Day 2: 5, 23-05
> Day 3: 5, 13-14
> Day 4: 5, 17-02
> Total = 20, 78-05
Like others, Mark Rose did not set a blistering pace in practice. He knew where he could catch a pile of sub-2-pounders, but the areas holding bigger fish were tougher to locate.
He did find one, in Harney Pond, and that's where he spent the duration of the tournament until the final day when he branched out in search of less-pressured fish.
"There were two or three areas in Moonshine (Bay) where I could get a lot of bites," Rose said. "It was easy to get caught up in those areas, but they weren't even 2-pounders. You had to catch 25 to get one over 2 pounds. When I found the area (in Harney Pond) my first bite was 2 1/2 and I shook a couple more off."
Initially, he felt like he could get bites consistently swimming a worm, like a Strike King Rage Cut-R Worm, but he ultimately did most of his damage with a vibrating jig along with a lipless crankbait.
He said the first indicator he got that he might've found a key area didn't come until day 1 of the tournament, when he landed a 6-pounder.
"I thought if I could catch one 5-pounder in two days, then I would be over the hump," he said. "I felt like I could catch some 2 1/2s and figured it would take 24 or 25 pounds (over two days) to have a decent tournament. When I caught that first 6, it was off to the races. I had a lot of confidence I'd catch more fish after that."
His primary focus was finding hydrilla, but he wasn't sure how much he'd find in areas where fish might be coming to based on the amount of vegetation the lake had lost in recent months.
"It seems to me if you're punching mats and the wind-blown stuff with canopies underneath, in the past hydrilla has been the key to big fish and doing well," he said. "Can I punch? Yes. Am I really good at it? I could be if I'm in the right area. It's not something I do all the time and it felt like there was a smaller percentage of areas with stuff to punch and I knew there were a lot of guys who are better at it than me would be focused on that.
"I looked for open water fish and fish on bait and staging fish in ambush places. That's what I enjoy and understand that's what I went to look for."
He guesses the fish were using the hydrilla, which was laid out in a 75-yard wide stretch, as a staging area outside of a spawning bay.
"If I drew a picture of it, it would look just like what I found," he added.
As the tournament progressed and the wind shifted more out of the east and southeast, the water clarity began to deteriorate on the outside of the hydrilla.
"It seemed like we were losing 5 to 10 yards every day of the width of the clean part," he said. "What was left was not where the biggest percentage of fish were staging. They were more on the outer section and we only had that for one day."
The combination of the grass and the wind forced his hand as far as baits go.
"When we fish pre-spawn or staging hydrilla, the keys are spinnberbaits, vibrating jigs and lipless cranks," he said. "It makes them snap. I had to resort to that after the wind blew. Plus, that first 7-pounder on a vibe jig makes you keep throwing it. It was the most productive bait in the area. I didn't run the whole gamut because the vibe jig was what my gut told me."
> Vibrating jig gear: 7' 3 1/2" medium-heavy prototype Lew's Mark Rose Ledge Series hair jig casting rod, Lew's Team Lew's HyperMag Speed Spool SLP Series casting reel, 20-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, 3/8- and 1/2-oz. unnamed vibrating jig, unnamed trailer (bluegill pattern or black/blue).
> When around thicker vegetation, he used the 3/8-oz. version. In wind-blown areas with sparse cover, he opted for the 1/2-oz. He changed colors based on water clarity and cloud cover.
> He also caught fish on a lipless crankbait and a swimming worm.
> Main factor in his success - "Finding that area. I had some other areas, but never caught a fish over 3 pounds out of any of them. It took me a lot of bites to catch one over 2 pounds in those areas. In practice, in the area I fished during the tournament, I got six bites and set the hook twice and both times I set the hook, the fish were close to 3 pounds. It was just a better average and I liked it. It was close to the main lake and had the potential for new fish coming in and the fish I did catch were light-bellied, meaning they were lake fish. Everything felt right about that area."
> Performance edge - "My Garmins and having the confidence to know how the grass laid out. I could tell so much about what kind of grass was out there. That gave me the confidence I needed."
Jared McMillan's primary goal was to make the top-30 cut. He did much better than that.
Day 4: Jared McMillan
> Day 1: 5, 18-15
> Day 2: 5, 14-09
> Day 3: 5, 18-06
> Day 4: 5, 21-15
> Total = 20, 73-13
Jared McMillan said the stable, warming weather was the tournament's saving grace and it blunted the effect of the cold front that arrived just before practice.
"The water stayed warm and continued to warm up," he said. "It got into the 70s on Sunday, which is where it needs to be. The fish will find those areas that are clean and spawn, regardless. It's going to happen. It wasn't crazy good or as good as it could've been. We were all pretty shocked."
The 21-year-old said he picked up "just enough hints" on the last day of practice to have an idea of where the best areas would be.
He spent days 1 and 2 of the tournament up north, on the left-hand side of Kings Bar, primarily as way to catch enough to stay in the top 30 after two days. He mainly flipped pennywort mats and wind-blown clumps of debris and cattails. All of the fish he was catching had white bellies, an indicator they had recently moved in from the main lake.
Typically, McMillan said he prefers to fish down south and that's where he ventured on day 3, joining older brother, Brandon. The water was starting to get cleaner in South Bay as the wind swung around. His weights were better over the final two days compared to the first half of the event even though he wasn't fishing the way he would've wanted to.
"I've always been a caster more than anything," he said. "I like to chuck and wind and cover water, but I couldn't make it work I did throw a spook on day 1 and caught a couple. I would've preferred to find a ChatterBait bite because it's more up my alley, but I couldn't figure it out."
> Flipping/punching gear: 7'11" medium-heavy G. Loomis GLX 954 casting rod, Shimano Curado 50 casting reel, 60-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 1 1/2- or 2-oz. Flat Out Tungsten worm weight, 4/0 Gamakatsu heavy-cover flipping hook, Bruiser Baits Crazy Craw (black/blue/silver).
> Main factor in his success - "Just keeping an open mind. I didn't stress myself out. If I was going to catch them it was because I was relaxed. Being at home, the pressure wasn't on. I knew I could get some bites. I just wanted to keep an open mind."
> Performance edge - "My Lowrance graphs. I just kept going through those maps and making those rotations. I could see where I was going and where I'd gotten multiple bites. People say you don't need maps there, but you can get to spinning around in that grass and go on to the next one and they all look the same. Those and my Power-Poles. Between my trolling motor and Power-Poles, I don't know which got worked harder. I had my trolling motor on 100 and poles up and down every 5 minutes. My AC Delco batteries got me through every day with no issue."
Brandon McMillan opted to flip and punch rather than wind a moving bait at his home lake.
5th: Brandon McMillan
> Day 1: 5, 18-07
> Day 2: 5, 18-06
> Day 3: 5, 15-14
> Day 4: 5, 17-01
> Total = 20, 69-12
Brandon McMillan has dominated at Okeechobee before, but the lake has taken on a new form in the wake of last year's storms that ravaged the vegetation around the lake. The fishable water was reduced considerably, but he was still able to find a productive pattern that resulted in his best Tour finish since 2012.
He and Jared split the lake up during practice, allowing them to concentrate more on specific areas rather than run around and sample many areas.
"With this being the first year Jared's fished, it was really good from that aspect that I didn't have to run the entire lake on Tuesday," he said. "If he'd not been here, I'd have to have done that to hit the five areas it would've been won in. We both struggled so bad in practice. No joke, our five best fish over the three days wouldn't have weighed 20 pounds, but it shaped up after that."
While Jared uncovered the fish he targeted on days 1 and 2 of the tournament on Tuesday afternoon, Brandon opted to stay in South Bay and dial in a flipping and punching pattern around matted vegetation. The final day of practice offered the best chance to get clued in.
"Tuesday was going to be the day you tried to find as much as you could," he said. "If not, it had to be Thursday. Luckily, they showed up."
He said there's nothing he'd do differently in hindsight.
"Naturally, I'd have liked to have been in Harney Pond at about 3 p.m. Tuesday, but the way they caught 'em over there is how I wanted to fish this tournament," he said. "I was in the only place to do what I wanted to do."
The afternoons proved to be much more productive compared to the mornings during the tournament.
"From 11 a.m. to check in, I'd get about 50 bites," he said. "On Saturday and Sunday, it slacked off. It definitely fished small. We just don't have a lot of fishable water for this time of year. The fish want to spawn and be up there on the hard bottom."
> Flipping/punching gear: 7'9" extra-heavy MHX flipping rod, Shimano Metanium casting reel (8.5:1 ratio), 60-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 1 1/2-oz. Flat Out Tungsten worm weight, 4/0 Mustad 3X flipping hook, Bruiser Baits Crazy Craw (black/blue/silver).
> Main factor in his success - "Just staying with flipping. That was my main deal. I didn't have a limit until 11 each of the first three days. I didn't catch any good ones then either. After 11 is when they started biting."
> Performance edge - "Power Poles were 100 percent the top deal. I couldn't fish without them."
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.