Phoenix Bass Fishing League Gator Division set to start at Okeechobee - Major League Fishing
Phoenix Bass Fishing League Gator Division set to start at Okeechobee
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Phoenix Bass Fishing League Gator Division set to start at Okeechobee

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January 6, 2023 • Jody White • Phoenix Bass Fishing League

CLEWISTON, Fla. – As it so often does, the Phoenix Bass Fishing League Presented by T-H Marine Gator Division kicks off the season in south Florida on legendary Lake Okeechobee. This year, due to high water from a duo of devastating fall hurricanes, the lake may fish a little differently than usual.

Tournament details

Phoenix Bass Fishing League Presented by T-H Marine Gator Division

Lake Okeechobee

Clewiston, Fla.

Jan. 14, 2023

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About the fishery

When it comes to bass fishing, Okeechobee is probably one of the most talked about and dreamt about fisheries on the planet. The Big O, as it is commonly called, covers more than 450,000 acres – making it roughly half the size of Rhode Island. The lake boasts nearly every type of bass-holding cover you can think of, from eelgrass to hyacinths to lily pads and everything between. The lake is teeming with all sorts of gamefish and prey, which, paired with its rich habitat, makes it the fishing Mecca it is.

Historically, the north and south sides of Okeechobee have been the most popular areas, but in recent years the west side of the lake has been producing as well. Anglers are most often flipping various types of emergent vegetation throughout the lake, or winding baits like a swimming worm or vibrating jig around eelgrass , hydrilla or haygrass. Additionally, the old Florida standby of fishing pads or isolated reeds with a worm or prop bait can do some damage.

Matt Wieteha made the Top 10 at the Toyota Series Championship and he and partner Nick Hoinig won Team of the Year in the Roland Martin Marine Center Series on Okeechobee.

What to expect

A rookie in the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals, Miami angler Matt Wieteha spends a lot of time on Okeechobee and looks forward to a good event.

“I fished the north end of the lake on Tuesday, and it was two parking lots to go fish at, with 15 or 20 boats in every one, and everyone was catching 1- to 2-pounders,” he said. “Catching males was easy, you could just fish spawning stuff they would get on and catch 2-pounder after 2-pounder. But, I never saw anyone catch a big fish that day. If you weren’t fishing in a parking lot, you were basically in muddy water and catching no fish.”

The next day, Wieteha fished the south end of the lake and says he ran into similar issues.

“The bottom in so much of the lake now is mud and silt, so the wind really stirs it up,” he said. “You’ve really got to be somewhere that is tucked away with some kind of cattails on the outside protecting it.”

This year, the water is a foot higher than average due to the hurricanes in the fall. That has given fish a lot of room to roam, but Wieteha thinks that a lot of the newly exposed water isn’t usable for the bass.

“You can run as far back as you want and get to places, but the fish haven’t really followed the water back,” Wieteha said. “And, when you get in the back, it’s all mud bottom, so the fish don’t really have a reason to swim all the way back. In order for them to have a successful spawn, they need hard bottom. I’ve learned that you gotta stay close to the main lake to run into consistency. That’s where most of the fish live; I feel like everything I’ve ever done good on is within a decent swim of the main lake.”

Still, despite sounding down on the fishing, Wieteha is high on the lake. According to Jared McMillan, Okeechobee is on a definite upcycle, and Wieteha’s winning weight estimates back that up.

“It’s been hard to catch a big bag and back it up,” Wieteha said. “It all depends on the weather, if we get a bad cold front, I’m going to say low- to mid-20s. It’s still Okeechobee, somebody is going to find them and figure them out in a community hole. If everything sets up perfect, I’d say high 20s. it totally contradicts everything I said, but at the end of the day, it’s Okeechobee and they live there.”

Nick Hoinig shows off the winding standards for Okeechobee.

Baits and techniques

Okeechobee is also known for its stellar winding bite – whether it be a swim jig, ChatterBait or swimbaits like a Gambler Big EZ. Some of the best topwater bites in history have come with winding baits on Okeechobee, and it can be an electric way to catch bass.

Probably the biggest Okeechobee staple is a Texas-rigged Yamamoto Senko – or similar bait – pitched to spawning fish or areas fish are likely to spawn on like pad stems and reed clumps. It’s almost a guarantee that this rig will be spotted on most front decks come Day One of the derby.

Wieteha thinks all the normal stuff will play, but adds one exciting bait to the mix.

“It’s pretty much all the Okeechobee staples, and a topwater frog has been huge the last couple of years,” Wieteha said. “ChatterBait, frog, worm, and flippin’ of course.”