FLW Outdoors writers pick their pros for the Lake Okeechobee Conseco Fishing Challenge and tell you why
The Conseco Fishing Challenge on FLWOutdoors.com has added a new wrinkle to fan involvement during the 2002 Wal-Mart FLW Tour. The concept is simple: Pick the top six finishers of a tournament, you win a million bucks. Even if you don’t hit on all six, you can still win some nice prizes if your picks show you know a little something about fishing on the FLW Tour. Best of all, it’s free to play.
When the writers at FLW Outdoors heard about this, naturally we wanted in on the action. Granted, we can’t win the cash or prizes, but we think we know a thing or two about the FLW Tour and its pro anglers. (Some think they know more than others. Trust us, the trash-talking has already begun.) So, after digging deep into our mental fishing almanacs, running the numbers through our computers and flipping countless coins, we present our pundits’ picks.
Keep in mind that these picks are simply the respective opinions (educated or otherwise) of these writers and that they in no way represent any kind of favoritism on the part of FLW Outdoors or the writers. Every FLW tournament is different. Almost everyone will have a different top-six prediction list for each tournament, and, in the end, only one list will be correct. Judge for yourself. We’ll see how smart we really are after the tournament.
We’ll score the season just like we’re playing the Conseco Fishing Challenge amongst ourselves. At the end of the year, the top points-getter wins a big, funny hat or something.
Let the games begin.
Wal-Mart FLW Tour stop #1
Lake Okeechobee, Clewiston, Fla.
1) Kevin VanDam. Okay, I’ll admit this pick is a little bit of a cop-out. However, why on earth would you bet against the hottest angler on the FLW Tour right now? Not only was VanDam recently crowned 2001 FLW Angler of the Year, his last six finishes in FLW Tour events were as follows: second, 29th, 28th, 12th, second and 28th – an amazing accomplishment by any measure. And guess where one of those second-place finishes occurred? That’s right, on Lake Okeechobee last January.
2) Aaron Martens. Basically, I just like this guy. Not only is he an excellent fisherman, consistently placing in the top 20 throughout the year, but he is also one heck of a character. Although he could easily be mistaken for a laid-back surfer dude, Martens can definitely fish. In six tournaments last year on the FLW Tour, he placed 17th, 81st, third, 39th, 32 and 14. In short, Martens is going to have a breakout year and it’s going to start on the Big O.
3) Johnny McCombs. Without a heart-wrenching disqualification on the Pascagoula River last year, McCombs would have a prestigious first-place finish to his credit heading into the 2002 season. But no matter, McCombs is poised to have a breakout year as well. In fact, other than last year’s Lake Okeechobee tournament, McCombs put on a virtual fishing clinic for the remainder of the year, finishing fifth, 26th, seventh, 59th and 12th. He’s young, he’s hungry and he’s ready to take the next step.
4) Clark Wendlandt. As the only two-time FLW angler of the year, Wendlandt is always a tough customer when it comes to battling for tournament titles. This year will be no different. He’s done well on Okeechobee in the past – see his fourth-place finish in 1999 and his 10th-place finish in 2000 – and he’s arguably the best sight fisherman in the business. The relatively shallow water will play right into his hands. Although it might be too cold and too early in the season for the bass to be spawning in droves – Wendlandt’s seasonal specialty – it’s just too risky to keep an avid Dallas Stars’ fan out of the top six competitors.
5) Craig Powers. Here’s another young angler who is going to make some noise on the tour this year. Powers not only won the Red River tournament in 2001, but he’s done particularly well on Lake Okeechobee – placing 11th in 1999 and fourth in 2000. If history is any indication, Powers will still be standing on the final day of competition.
6) Paul Elias. Despite a poor performance on Lake Okeechobee in 1999, Elias has improved steadily on the Big O in each of the last three years, finishing in 28th place in 2000 and seventh place in 2001. Elias is usually sniffing around the top 10, where he is especially strong early in the season. This tournament should be no different. Although he’s had some problems cracking the top five, Elias is poised to make a run at the top six this year.
Other anglers who could make some noise: Steve Daniel, Dale Teaney, Larry Nixon, Rick Clunn and Mickey Bruce.
Freelance Writer, FLW Outdoors
With the weather warming up in Florida and a full moon coming on during the Okeechobee FLW season opener, I predict that the spawn will be in full swing. For this reason, I have selected a field of anglers who possess sight-fishing talent.
What I do not know is how clear the replenished water is at the Big O. But even if the anglers cannot see fish directly, bed-fishing anglers know what to look for in terms of where fish will make their beds. – Rob
1) Clark Wendlandt. The guy has made the top 10 nearly every year at Okeechobee and he is a sight-fishing maniac. Plus he likes to get away from the crowd. He has the potential to find a group of big spawners.
2) Randy Howell. Howell is a sight-fishing junkie. If he can see a fish, he can make it bite. Also, Howell is creative in his approach to gaining access to backwater. Last year he used a jet boat to get into some extreme backwater areas, but the spawn was not on time. If he finds his way into a clear backwater loaded with fish this year, he could walk away with it by sight-fishing.
3) Koby Kreiger. He has a fantastic tournament record during spawn tournaments and he knows Okeechobee pretty well, too.
4) Aaron Martens. Again, this is an angler who excels during the spawn. He has eagle eyes and has some wild West Coast techniques for catching spawners.
(I round out my picks with two locals because Okeechobee is a much different animal this year. Those who have been fishing the monstrous lake more often this season will have an advantage.)
5) Roger Crafton. He is an Okeechobee expert and has a solid track record in previous Okeechobee EverStarts.
6) Scott Martin. Scott makes his home in Clewiston and is due to do well on his home water. Since Okeechobee is so different this year, I think Scott will have an inherent advantage.
1) Kevin VanDam. Should be on everyone’s list. Why? He’s the hottest pro out there right now with two FLW top-fives and the Angler-of-the-Year trophy in 2001, not to mention the Classic win. One of those top-fives was at Okeechobee, where he fell just short and placed second behind a tough David Fritts. The Yankee can fish here, and he’s proven he can win anywhere, anytime. He’s overdue for his first FLW victory. He’ll win this one.
2) David Walker. Has 11 FLW top-10s, plus an additional 13 in EverStart and BFL tournaments. Of those 24 top-10s, seven of them were at Okeechobee. Walker likes the big pond and caught the tour’s biggest bass of the year here in 2001. Expect him to improve on his sixth-place finish from last year.
3) Steve Daniel. Can’t talk about Okeechobee without mentioning Mr. Okeechobee. The Clewiston native has already won two FLWs here – the only pro to do so. The water’s coming back up where he likes it and last year’s 55th-place finish was just a glitch. He’ll top-10 at his home lake this year.
4) Mark Hardin. My wildcard. Hardin posted a fourth at Okeechobee in 2001 and only has one other top 10, at Beaver Lake. But he’s a solid angler who has never finished outside the top 100 in standings. Call it a hunch, he holds onto the fourth spot.
5) Mike Surman. Won the inaugural FLW tourney here in 1996. Of his nine FLW and BFL top-10s, eight of them are at the Big O, including two on the FLW Tour. He’s been quiet at FLW Okeechobee the last couple of years, but he, too, will benefit from the rising water. Plus he’s from Boca Raton, and there’s no place like home.
6) Clark Wendlandt. This tourney looks like it’s going to hit pretty close to the peak lunar cycle for the spawn. No one in the world likes spawning bass better than Wendlandt. Look for him to get a hot start out of the chute this year. He’s good at Okeechobee, just like he is most everywhere else.
Executive Editor, FLW Outdoors
1) Steve Daniel. When you’re fishing the Big O, Daniel is the man to beat. Two of his three Wal-Mart FLW Tour victories were on Okeechobee, most recently in 2000. Last year was a fluke. The water was down and so was Daniel. Now that the water is back up, he’ll set the pace on day one and there will be no looking back.
2) Kevin VanDam. It’s going to be close. VanDam was almost my top pick, but he is going to fall a few ounces short on Okeechobee. He racked up two second-place finishes en route to his Angler-of-the-Year title in 2001, and one of those efforts was on Lake Okeechobee. Look for another near miss this year.
3) Scott Martin. Like Daniel, Martin is a Clewiston native. Unlike Daniel, he has struggled on his home water. After a great 2000 rookie season, 2001 was a disappointment. This year is going to be different. Expect Martin to squeak into the final round and then make a run at the top. He is sharp, young and aggressive. He is going to be a contender.
4) Koby Kreiger. A former college placekicker, Kreiger has been kicking butt and taking names in FLW Outdoors tournaments since 1997. He has 16 top-10 finishes, including three on the FLW Tour and five in last season’s EverStart Series. He came up empty – for the first time in his career – during the semifinals of his last FLW Tour event, and he has had seven months to think about it. Kreiger is a man on a mission.
5) Clark Wendlandt. No top five would be complete without Wendlandt. After all, he has five of them since 1998. Wendlandt cracked the top 10 on Okeechobee in 1999 and 2000. Conditions should be right for him to make a solid run this year, too. Mr. Kellogg’s will start each day with a bowl of Frosted Flakes then finish off with a solid five-bass limit. It’s all just another day at the office for this levelheaded pro.
6) Aaron Martens. Watch out for this guy. He may look like a California surfer, but he nearly landed the Land O’Lakes Angler-of-the-Year title his first year on tour. Now, in his second season, I’m expecting big things from him. Look for Martens to improve on last season’s 17th-place finish.