Low, muddy, cold water plague FLW Tour anglers during practice round at Okeechobee - Major League Fishing

Low, muddy, cold water plague FLW Tour anglers during practice round at Okeechobee

January 22, 2001 • Rob Newell • Archives

CLEWISTON, Fla. – Lake Okeechobee might be very stingy with her quarry this week as 175 professional anglers and 175 co-anglers ply her frigid, receded waters for largemouth bass in the 2001 Wal-Mart FLW Tour season opener in Clewiston, Fla.

The big story is low water levels – ultra low water levels. Lake Okeechobee is currently 4 to 5 feet below its normal elevation. Steve Gornack, a Fisheries Biologist with the Florida Fish and Game Commission, says the level is currently 10.9 feet, merely 1.2 feet away from being the lowest level in recorded history. Gornack also notes that the lake has not been this low since 1989.

Throughout the past week, Okeechobee’s abnormally low water levels have given FLW Tour anglers fits during the practice round. The biggest problem has been basic boat navigation. Many of the lake’s expansive shallow flats are covered with just inches of water. Beached bass boats on skinny water flats have been a common sight this week.

Modern bass boats can run across most shallow flats on plane. But once the boat comes off plane, the angler must find deeper water to get back up on plane again. This means limited access to many fishing areas.

Two-time FLW Tour winner Gary Klein says the water has hindered his practice efficiency. “You cannot just run onto a massive flat, fish a few minutes, and leave,” claims Klein. “When you want to move, you have to idle around 15 or 20 minutes just to find water deep enough to get back up on plane. Instead of taking five minutes to check a spot, it takes 20.”

2000 FLW Tour Angler of the Year Clark Wendlandt says that the low water nemesis will be a critical strategic factor for those who choose to fish the lake during the tournament. “You better make sure you know where you are going and exactly where you want to shut down to fish,” says Wendlandt. “If you set down in the wrong spot, it could be a 30-minute mistake. If you completely miss your approach onto a flat, it could be a five-hour mistake (to remove a beached boat from a flat).”

Another problem with such skinny water is that a steady wind can actually change the lake level on Okeechobee as much as eight inches by blowing water from one end of the lake to the other. A strong “wind tide” can turn a comfortable two feet of water into a scant 16 inches in a matter of hours.

As if difficult navigation was not bad enough, the low water plagues anglers in other ways as well. Most of Okeechobee’s infamous lush aquatic vegetation, which provides predictable weedy haunts for the bass, is high and dry now. As a result, the Big O’s vegetative filtering system is temporarily out of commission. The water, which is usually clear, is turbid.

A small amount of wind can easily stir up the shallow water and muddy it quickly. This means today’s clear water can turn into tomorrow’s turbid water. Virginia pro Curt Lytle says an area of clear water he found one morning had turned to a muddy brown color by afternoon, thanks to the wind.

“Okeechobee bass like vegetation and clear water, especially when they are looking to spawn,” remarked Lytle who finished second in the 1999 FLW Okeechobee event. “Right now there is very little vegetation and very little clear water.”

A severe frontal system, which passed through South Florida Saturday, caused main lake water temperatures to plummet from the high sixties to the mid fifties and has left a persistent 10-15 mph northwest wind blowing across the Big O.

Low, muddy, cold water in the main lake has sent many FLW pros into the rim canal seeking catchable fish. Okeechobee’s rim canal system is a series of canals that encircles most of the lake. The man made canal is 15 to 20 feet deep and allows boaters to run around the lake in rough weather. Due to low waters levels, only about 30 miles of the canal is accessible to anglers. But the rim canal offers cleaner, warmer water.

Missouri pro Randy Blaukat predicts that many of the competitors will fish in the rim canal or its connecting canals and rivers. “Currently, the rim canal offers the stablest water,” says Blaukat. “The canal water is not as susceptible to sudden changes in wind or temperature. If an angler figures something out in the rim canal it is likely to hold together for a few days.”

As competition begins on Wednesday, two basic fishing strategies will emerge. Some anglers will bank on the consistent water in the rim canal. The canal, which features rock piles and rip rap banks, will be prime territory for a medium- to deep-diving crankbait.

Other anglers will gamble on the ever-changing main lake, which is at the mercy of the wind. On the lake anglers will probe shallow flats with rattling lipless crankbaits and jerkbaits.

In the end, the weather will play a big role in this event. Wendlandt predicts it will take a two-day total of 20 to 24 pounds to make the top-10 cut. “But if we get a couple of days of calm, stable weather and the lakes settles out a little bit, those big fish are going to move onto those main lake flats somewhere. It could be pretty awesome,” he says.

The weather forecast calls for strong 15- to 20-mph north winds today. Wednesday and Thursday, the first two days of competition, will bring diminishing winds but nighttime lows will dip into the 40-degree range keeping water temperatures cold.