Anglers say perfect weather conditions and rising water levels could lead to bountiful tournament harvest
After a six-month layoff, the FLW Tour is poised for a dramatic return in 2002. Not only does the tour have a new live-television format (FLW Outdoors), a new network (PAX TV), new on-air talent (Carlton Wing, Taylor Carr and ex-Vikings coach Dennis Green) and a new production company (Dempsey Film Group), but it also boasts a new championship format as well as a record $5.1 million purse for the 2002 season. However, although the FLW Tour has undergone some dramatic changes in preparation for the start of the new year, the same could be said about Lake Okeechobee itself.
Although a series of droughts, falling water levels and a dearth of healthy aquatic vegetation helped to reduce the bountiful fishery of Lake Okeechobee over the past several years, the lake has all but bounced back for the start of the 2002 season.
Unlike the lean years of 1997-2001, water levels have now risen high enough to open up significantly more fishing territory for the anglers. In addition, with the help of some controlled burning of old lake vegetation that occurred when the area experienced a drought last spring, new and vibrant aquatic plants have come back to the lake, invigorating a wide array of new and healthy bass habitats. In particular, anglers have cited a dramatic increase in the amount of lake-cleansing alligator grass – an important vegetation source that helps clear up muddied water while strengthening fishing environments.
In sum, the “Big O” is poised to be as good of a fishery as it’s ever been leading up to the start of the first FLW tournament of the season.
Lake facts and history
Located just south of the city of Okeechobee and just north of Clewiston, Fla., Lake Okeechobee literally translates as “big water” in the native Seminole language. Covering more than 467,000 acres (or more than 750 square miles), the lake spans approximately 40 miles from north to south and about 30 miles from east to west. However, although Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake in the lower 48 states (Lake Michigan is the largest), the lake is relative shallow with an average depth of 15 feet. Despite its shallow waters, however, the Big O is home to myriad wildlife including alligators, osprey, pelicans, eagles, crappie, bream and, of course, bass.
Anglers anticipate good weather, big sacks of fish
After a cold front ripped through the Okeechobee area approximately two weeks ago, EverStart Eastern Division anglers were greeted with some of the most difficult fishing conditions on the Big O in recent memory. However, the conditions in southern Florida have changed dramatically leading up to the start of the FLW contest, scheduled to begin Jan. 23. With temperatures currently in the high 70s, mid 80s, the bite is almost certain to rebound. Throw in some vibrant new vegetation, “normal” lake levels, the prospect of a full moon and the emergence of prime spawning conditions and it appears all but guaranteed that anglers will have their fair share of monster catches.
“From what I’ve heard, the lake is back up to normal levels. The vegetation is back to where it was. And it looks like the weather is going to be perfect,” said Marty Stone, an FLW Tour angler and native of Linden, N.C. “If everything holds up, we’re really going to have some great fishing. I’m really looking forward to it.”
FLW Tour pro Carl Svebek also believes that the Okeechobee tourney could be one of the most exciting events all year.
“We’ve got a lot more water to fish and the weather is really warming up,” said Svebek, who called into FLWOutdoors.com while fishing from his Land O’ Lakes boat on Lake Okeechobee last week. “Now that the cold front has passed, there is going to be a lot of bass coming up to the beds to spawn. I think it’s going to be a totally different tournament compared to what the EverStart anglers went through last week. I think it’s going to take 30 pounds or more to make the top-20 cut.”
As one of only a handful of FLW anglers who fished last week’s EverStart tourney, Wesley Strader agrees that Lake Okeechobee should be quite different this time around.
“The weather is getting a lot warmer and the fish are starting to move up onto the beds,” said Strader, who finished in sixth place at the 2002 EverStart tournament on Lake Okeechobee. “By the time the tournament starts, we’ll be coming up to a full moon. So, my guess is that there is going to be some pretty good fish caught during this tournament. It’s probably going to take about 25 to 26 pounds to make the cut.”
Techniques could favor shallow-water fishermen
Carl Svebek believes that flipping sticks, worms and top-water baits will be featured primarily throughout the tournament.
“There is a lot more vegetation now that the lake has filled up with water and that means a lot of fish can be caught by flipping around that vegetation,” said Svebek. “In my opinion, top-water baits should work well. And, as usual, a big portion of the field will be throwing a worm one way or another. But because of the higher water levels, the lake is going to fish a lot bigger than it has in years. And that means people will be able to fish to their strengths.”
Strader argues that sight-fishing will be a popular technique as well.
“There will be a lot of sight-fishing going on,” said Strader. “I think you’ll see a lot of soft jerkbaits being used. There will also be a whole lot of flipping going on.”
Stone predicts that anglers will use a combination of baits and techniques.
“On Lake Okeechobee, I think it’s pretty cut and dried regarding bait choices – plastic worms and gold shiners,” said Stone. “I’ll probably be throwing a 7-inch or 10-inch Gambler worm, a gold shiner and maybe a few spinnerbaits here and there. Assuming the weather stays nice, I really don’t see myself using too many other baits.”
Early tournament favorites
While predicting the winner of an FLW Tournament is a little like predicting the outcome of the stock market on any given day, some anglers were willing to make cautious predictions on who should be watched most closely from the outset.
“I’m looking for some of the local guys to do well,” said Stone. “Guys like Steve Daniel, Mike Surman and Scott Martin are all capable of winning this thing. They all know how to catch fish down here.”
While Carl Svebek said that some of the locals would be tough to beat, he wasn’t willing to discount the perennial bass-fishing heavyweights.
“I think you’re going to see several locals like Steve Daniel and Mike Surman do well,” said Svebek. “But you also have to keep an eye on the small group of anglers who dominate tournament after tournament – guys like Rick Clunn, Gary Klein and Clark Wendlandt. And I think that there will also be some fishermen who you wouldn’t expect to see up there on the leaderboard by the time the tournament is finished.”
However, Strader argued that the relatively stable weather conditions and improved lake environment should allow the entire field – 350 anglers from more than 30 states – to have a legitimate shot at the title.
“Right now, the fish are moving up to the banks so fast that I really think it’s anyone’s game,” said Strader.
Final weigh-in of the FLW Tour event on Lake Okeechobee will be televised live Jan. 26 on PAX TV at 3 p.m. (EST) and 2 p.m. (CST).
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