Anglers say cool temperatures and high water levels shouldn’t affect stringer sizes on the `Big O.’ But as usual with this fickle lake, there are no certainties.
In January of 1996, Mike Surman of Boca Raton, Fla., walked away with the first-ever FLW title on Lake Okeechobee. For his efforts, Surman received a first-place check for a grand total of $18,500. However, since Surman’s victory, a lot of history has been made on Lake Okeechobee in addition to myriad changes to the FLW Tour itself. Since that time, Steve Daniel has won two titles there (in February 1996 and again in 2000) while David Fritts (2001), Chris Daniels (1997), Joel Richardson (1999) and J.T. Kenney (2002) have all added their names to the list of FLW title winners on the “Big O.” In addition, pro anglers in 2003 will be competing for a total purse of $500,000, including a top prize of $100,000 – a payday more than five times what Surman earned after netting victory at the first FLW Tour event in history.
But those aren’t the only changes anglers have seen over the years. To be sure, Lake Okeechobee itself has undergone quite a metamorphosis in the last decade as well. Although a series of droughts, falling water levels and a dearth of healthy aquatic vegetation negatively impacted the bountiful fishery of Lake Okeechobee in the late 90s, the lake appears to have completely bounced back – offering some of its healthiest vegetation and fishing conditions in years. However, that is not to say that the upcoming Jan. 22-25 FLW tourney will be a cakewalk for anglers. With cooler-than-average temperatures dominating the landscape and water levels up approximately 2 feet over last year, the “Big O” will once again serve as a formidable opponent for the 175 pros and co-anglers making this year’s trek to Clewiston, Fla.
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, while Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake in the lower 48 states (Lake Michigan is the largest), the lake is relatively 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.
Significant changes slated for 2003 FLW Tour season
When anglers arrive at Lake Okeechobee, they will undoubtedly have one eye on the fishing conditions and another eye on the 2003 FLW tournament rulebook. Like last year, all FLW Tour anglers will be given the opportunity to compete for the first two full days of tournament action. However, unlike 2002 where the top 20 anglers advanced to day three, the day-two cutoff will feature only the top 10 anglers in each of the pro and co-angler divisions. As in previous years, a co-angler champion will be crowned on day three. However, the top 10 pros will fish on both Friday and Saturday, a dramatic departure from previous FLW tournament rules. Consequently, although all weights are zeroed before the start of day-three competition, the tournament title in the Pro Division will ultimately go to the angler who brings in the biggest combined weight during days three and four of the tournament.
Changes abound for the FLW Outdoors television program as well. Unlike years past, the entire FLW Tour season will be televised on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), which boasts upwards of 55 million subscribers. In an attempt to boost the level of tournament bass-fishing expertise and increase the overall variety of programming, viewers will also get a chance to see a few new faces on FLW Outdoors television this year. Joining “FLW Outdoors” hosts Charlie Evans, Carlton Wing and Taylor Carr are Hank Parker, best known as host of “Hank Parker’s Outdoor Magazine,” and legendary angler and FLW Tour pro Larry Nixon.
Parker will make his “FLW Outdoors” television debut Saturday, Jan. 25, 2003, at 7 p.m. EST. The broadcast will be shown again Sunday, Jan. 26, 2003, at 1 p.m. EST. “FLW Outdoors” will feature highlights from the season opener the following Saturday and Sunday as well as a strategic recap with Nixon the week after that. The “FLW Outdoors” 28-episode television season runs Jan. 25 to July 5, Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. EST. Special Jacobs Cup episodes are slated to air in September.
Lake Okeechobee poses intriguing start to 2003 FLW Tour
Since 1996, Lake Okeechobee has represented the first FLW Tour stop of each season (the lone exception being 1998, when the FLW Tour visited Lake Toho instead). This year is no different. But while the majority of anglers have had much experience fishing the Big O, the field will still need to put in a good deal of practice and strategy planning sessions if they are to have success. In fact, Lake Okeechobee has undergone so many changes over the past decade or so, it could easily be argued that the Big O provides more variables than any other lake on the tour.
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 two years ago, 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.
While that is generally good news for anglers, a recent series of significant cold fronts and high water levels could leave many anglers guessing during the first few days of tournament action.
“The lake is almost 2 feet higher than last year, but the grass population is a lot healthier than it’s ever been,” said FLW Tour pro Scott Martin, who was practically born and raised on Lake Okeechobee. “This year, because of the cold fronts, the water temperature is going to be about 7 to 8 degrees cooler than it was last year at this time. And that means that people are going to have to fish a lot slower than usual.”
FLW Tour pro Clark Wendlandt, who has had an inordinate amount of success on Lake Okeechobee, said the current conditions are unprecedented.
“The lake level is probably higher than I’ve ever seen it,” said Wendlandt. “Now, you can get to areas that you haven’t been able to get to in years past.”
However, the news is not all good. In fact, Wendlandt cautions that the recent spate of cold weather could wreak havoc with many anglers.
“Right now we’re on our second cold front with reports of a third one coming in,” he said. “The water temperature is in the high 50s and low 60s. And if it continues to stay cold, I’m not sure what the fish are going to do.”
Martin, however, says the cold fronts shouldn’t have that much of an impact.
“Typically, cold weather messes up the fishing pretty badly,” he said. “But this year we’ve had so many cold fronts that I kind of think the fish are starting to get used to it. The cover is thicker than it’s ever been on this lake, and if it remains cold, the fish will be able to take refuge there. Basically, I still think you’re going to see a lot of 20-pound stringers, with some bags even coming in around 25 to 30 pounds.”
Fishing techniques could run the gamut
As always, it’s difficult to predict the winning pattern on Lake Okeechobee. However, it’s probably a safe bet that nearly every technique will be given a shot by the full field before the week is through.
“I think the flipping bite will be a big deal, but it always is here,” said Wendlandt. “But I think the real key is going to depend upon the spawn. Typically with cold fronts present, the fish won’t spawn. But on Lake Okeechobee, you just never know. Obviously, if the fish are spawning, I think sight-fishing techniques will play a big part in the equation.”
And if that’s not the case?
“I think anglers will have success just outside the spawning areas with spinner baits and worms,” Wendlandt continued. “Overall, I’m assuming the stringers will be about the same as last year.”
Martin, who took ninth place at the EverStart Eastern Division tournament two weeks ago on Lake Okeechobee, argued that a variety of techniques could bring anglers success.
“Right now the fish are reacting well to lipless crankbaits, spinner baits and soft jerkbaits,” he said. “So far, the primary way to find fish is to be around the spawning beds. Personally, I’ve been keying on the flipping bite.”
Early tournament favorites
“Kevin is the only angler I am picking who is fishing the BASS tournament at Okeechobee the week before the FLW event,” said Wendlandt, in his Pros’ Picks column on FLWOutdoors.com. “I think it is hard to fish a tournament one week and not go out the next week and fish the same patterns. Fish typically change too fast, but Kevin fishes efficiently enough to figure out new patterns.”
For the record, Martin has his own list of early frontrunners.
“I think Mike Surman could do well; he’s just a dynamite angler on Lake Okeechobee,” he said. “I also think Tommy Biffle and Charlie Ingram, guys that like to throw lipless crankbaits, should do well. I also really like Gary Klein’s chances – he’s really fishing well right now.”
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