Why Florida pros fell short at FLW Lake Okeechobee
When the Lake Okeechobee FLW tournament started Wednesday morning, Jan. 23, there were 20 anglers from the state of Florida competing in the event. Many of those Florida anglers live within 150 miles of Okeechobee and fish it on a regular basis.
But when the top-20 cut was made on Thursday afternoon, only two Floridians, Jeff Sims (14th place) of Punta Gorda and Chuck Economou (19th) of Redington Shores were still standing.
Okeechobee bass-fishing powerhouses such as Steve Daniel, Mike Surman, Scott Martin and Roger Crafton were forced out of competition early.
When the final cut was made Friday afternoon, the state initials “FL” could not be found anywhere on the list of top-10 anglers.
One would assume that on Lake Okeechobee, a local would have a tremendous home-court advantage on such a massive fishery. But the locals disagree. In fact, they argue that knowing the “Big O” too well is actually a hindrance most of the time.
“Local knowledge only comes into play when we have really adverse conditions here in South Florida – like extreme cold or high winds,” says Steve Daniel, an FLW Tour pro who lives in Clewiston and guides on Okeechobee.
“When I won the FLW tournament in 2000, it was brutally cold down here. Many anglers who are used to fishing the grass did not know how to adapt to such severe conditions. But I knew where to go and what to do to trigger bites, as did other Florida anglers,” says Daniel.
Daniel’s point has some merit. A peek at past Okeechobee FLW tournament results reveals that four Florida anglers made the top 20 in 2000, and Jeff Sims finished second behind Daniel.
When asked about the local advantage on Friday morning, Sims says that he has no local advantage in a tournament with such stable conditions. “When the water is up, the weather is normal, and the fish are in some phase of the spawn, as they are now, it is anybody’s ballgame out here,” says Sims.
“This lake changes constantly,” adds Sims, who has fished Okeechobee for many years. “This is a huge natural body of water that changes drastically from year to year, week to week, and even day to day. How can you be a local on a lake that changes so much?”
Mike Surman, of Boca Raton, who has fished Okeechobee heavily for 23 years, puts it another way, “Anybody that fishes Okeechobee hard for two solid weeks under the kind of conditions that we had in this tournament could be considered a local. Some anglers who fish the FLW Tour come to Okeechobee as much as 10 days in advance of the tournament. By the time the tournament starts, they know as much about what is going on as I do.”
But Surman also admits that locals do have an advantage in extreme cold or wind. Surman won an FLW Tour event on Okeechobee in 1996. And like Daniel’s victory, Surman’s victory came during a tournament that was very cold and windy.
In fact, both Daniel and Surman suggest that the better the fishing is on Okeechobee, the more their home-court advantage becomes a home-grown nemesis. They know how good Okeechobee can be on any given day, and thoughts of big weights continuously loom in their heads.
For example, on Friday and Saturday before the tournament began, FLW Tour anglers were reporting terrific catches all around the lake. “It was nothing to pull in a place and catch 20 to 25 pounds on a soft-plastic Flappin Shad,” says Surman. “So when guys like Steve and I start the tournament, we are looking to start catching 5-pounders immediately. Even if we are catching 2-pounders every cast, we move on because, as locals, we are always haunted by that 25-pound bag.”
While the Okeechobee locals are seeking that monster string of bass, other contestants have relegated themselves just to staying in one area and banging out a limit of bass. “Pretty soon a guy has put together a nice 12-pound limit, and I am still looking for an illusive 25-pound string,” says Surman.
Daniel reported burning 45 gallons of gas on the first day of the tournament searching for big bass. “I had so many places I wanted to check, I spent more time running than I should have,” he says.
“There are times when Okeechobee locals have an advantage,” adds Daniel. “That is why we are usually praying for cold fronts when the FLW Tour comes here.”