10 fish, 23-10
Lake Okeechobee was the site of one of my tour-level tournaments when I decided to come east almost exactly a decade ago. It’s an overwhelming place to launch your pro career because there’s so much water and every reed and blade of grass looks like it should hold a fish. The lake has a lot of fish in it, but not nearly enough to cover that much water, so it requires a very focused practice effort. Okeechobee has changed, too. It used to be that 12 to 14 pounds a day was solid, but now you need well over 20 pounds to consider it a good day.
I finished 63rd there back in 2003, and ever since then it’s been a mixed bag. I’d earned some good finishes there, but the last several years it’s been my nemesis. In both 2011 and 2012 I finished 70th on the Big O. This year I moved up three spots, which certainly wasn’t what I wanted. It snuck me into the check line but it’ll be tough to make up ground in the Angler of the Year race.
As most of you probably know, Florida strain bass are exceptionally finicky when cold weather passes through. Like clockwork, we had a cold snap in the days leading up to this tournament – it was in the high 30s to low 40s at night and never got above the 60s during practice. I wanted to cover as much water as possible, but I also tried to be mindful that in Florida it’s possible to fish right over or through the winning fish and completely miss them if you fish too fast. Therefore, when I got in what appeared to be the best mats, I stopped and flipped methodically and over time located a few stretches where I could have had 13 to 15 pounds a day.
I’d located one area that didn’t seem to have any true giants, but had a decent number of 2 ½ to 3 pounders, so I figured I’d start there on Day One. I’d seen some fish schooling there during practice, so I felt that if I could get five of those fish in the livewell early it was take a lot of pressure off of me. Unfortunately, the schooling fish didn’t show up in the same place, but when I turned around I saw birds diving on bait and those fish provided me with an early limit that weighed 9 or 10 pounds. I figured that if I flipped the rest of the day I might be able to cull out some or all of those cookie-cutters, but the size went in the wrong direction. I caught fish after fish after fish but most were in the 13- to 14-inch range. I thought that my game plan was solid – I tried to account for the fact that the wind had shifted to come from the south, thereby pulling in clean water at the lower end of the lake – but when I got to the scales I had less than 11 pounds.
On Day Two, I started back in the same area and had a quick limit once again. In fact, by 9am I’d probably caught 50 or 60 fish, most of them on the Megabass Vibration-X in a Sexy Shad pattern. I’m not sure what it is about the sound of that bait, but I’ve used it since high school and among all the lipless crankbaits I’ve tried it seems to out produce the others on a regular basis. I threw it on the new Orochi XX Fast-Moving Special from Megabass, a glass rod that really excels with moving baits.
I did manage a 4-pounder on the Vibration-X, and combined with a quartet of fish in the 2-pound range I ended with up with 13 pounds even. If I could have eked out another pound either day I would have moved up 11 spaces and if I’d found a way to add two pounds to my total it would have been worth an additional $6,000.
I don’t really regret my game day strategy, but if I had the opportunity to do the whole week over, I probably would have spent some practice time in the Monkey Box. I knew it was going to be ultra-crowded, so I avoided it as much as possible, but that was the area where the big fish moved up best during the tournament itself. They say you have to fish around people to do well in Florida, and no matter how many times I learn that lesson it’s still hard for me to do.
In addition to the Vibration-X, I caught quite a few fish on a Z-Man Palmetto Bug, with both 3/8 ounce and 2 ounce weights, as well as a spinnerbait. I threw the spinnerbait on the Spinnerbait Special, a 6’10” rod that has exactly the right action for that presentation. When I flipped, I used two different Megabass flipping sticks. The Aaron Martens signature series Flipping Special is absolutely the best rod I’ve ever used for handling the big weights and it’s feather-light. Without it, I probably would have been worn out after a couple of days, because that 2 ounce tungsten bomb is brutal on your arms.
It’s a bit discouraging to know that this finish makes the Angler of the Year race a very steep uphill climb for me. With only five tournaments left, I’d probably have to make every top ten the rest of the season to even have a shot. Nevertheless, if I can work my butt off and assure myself that this is my worst finish of the year, I’ll get an opportunity to fish my eighth straight Forrest Wood Cup, and I’ve been fortunate to shine in Championship events in the past. In the meantime, I’ll continue to take each tournament one at a time. Smith Lake in Alabama is next, and to be quite honest, I like everything else on the schedule better than I like Okeechobee. It will be good to fish something with a bank to throw at once again.