2023 Tackle Warehouse Invitationals: Lake Okeechobee preview - Major League Fishing

2023 Tackle Warehouse Invitationals: Lake Okeechobee preview

Look forward to a traditional kickoff for the new tour
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January 31, 2023 • Jody White • Invitationals

During the FLW years, starting the season at Lake Okeechobee was almost a tradition, and the Big O was home to a lot of special FLW Tour moments. From that topwater bite Greg Bohannan got, Randall Tharp’s boat-flipped 8-pounder, to the 100-pound smashfests of old, you can usually count on a little drama in South Florida.  This year, the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals kick off with Power-Pole Stop 1 Presented by Phoenix Boats at Okeechobee, and it will be one of the few really familiar stops on the season.

Lake Okeechobee

Clewiston, Florida

Feb. 8-10, 2023

Hosted by the Hendry County Tourism Development Council

Tournament details

Massive and filled with various types of vegetation, it’s easy to get lost on Okeechobee.

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 in between. The lake is teeming with all sorts of gamefish and prey, which, paired with its rich habitat, makes it a fishing Mecca.

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 or haygrass. Additionally, the old Florida standby of fishing pads with a worm or prop bait can do some damage. Word is, there’s more hydrilla in the lake now than in recent years, which could open up some of the old vibrating jig patterns that folks like Bryan Thrift and Brett Hite made headlines with back in the day.

While fishing vegetation in flat areas of the lake will account for a lot of checks, there are some oddball ways to get bit. One year, Jimmy Washam got on a pretty good jerkbait bite in the Monkey Box; and the rim ditch, canals and various ponds around the edge of the lake can sometimes produce in interesting ways as well.

Robert Branagh won the most recent Toyota Series event at Okeechobee.

Last time

Okeechobee has hosted literally hundreds of MLF tournaments over the years, so the history to paw through is rich. The most recent big events were the 2021 Pro Circuit kickoff and the 2022 Toyota Series Southern Division opener. In ’21, Skeet Reese won an event that featured really good fishing, with a lot of 20-pound bags and a few over 25 pounds. Robert Branagh won the Toyota Series event with a three-day total of just 51-5, and the fishing was far from great, with limits being a struggle for many. In fact, the biggest bag of the event was caught by Chris McBeath and it was only 23-8. In both events, the whole gamut of Okeechobee techniques worked, though there was less emphasis on flipping than we commonly saw back in recent years.

Jared McMillan has seen everything the Big O has to offer over the years.

What to expect this time

One constant at Okeechobee is change, and hurricanes are a major factor in that, with wind physically moving vegetation and water level changes doing their own work. In the fall of ’22, Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole both hit the lake hard, causing it to rise almost 4 feet in a matter of months. That much water level rise isn’t a big deal on Lake Cumberland, but it completely changes the complexion of Okeechobee.

“The lake looks a lot different than it did in ’21 for sure, as far as how much grass we have now, and how much more water we have since then,” said Jared McMillan in the fall of ’22. “If we had the event right now, you would see parts of the lake that people have never seen before. The outside reed line is barely above the surface, you can actually swim a jig through the top of the reeds. It looks like the hay grass used to look in the south end.”

With Hurricane Ian, there was also a fish kill, though thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have devastated the lake.

“I can’t remember a really bad hurricane like that, granted, we didn’t get the full effect of it like the coast did,” McMillan said. “Less than an hour from my house it was completely devastated. We got like 80 mph wind, and it stirred it up and killed a certain section of the lake. Maybe 5 miles of dead fish; you could see ‘em, and you could smell them. But, we have so many fish, I don’t think it really impacted the population. It still seems like there are a lot of fish in the lake. It was looking bad for a few weeks, it was rough, like 15 or 16 pounds was winning, and we were worried about how many actually did die. But, the fishing now is good and the weights are good.”

As proof that the lake can take a beating and bounce back, the November Roland Martin Marine Center tournament took 26.81 pounds to win, and the second and third-place teams also caught more than 25 pounds. 

“As of right now, it seems to be getting back on track to where it was last year,” McMillan said. “And last year, I think it was getting on track to see some of the best weights we’ve had on Okeechobee in 10 years. If we hit it right and didn’t get a cold front or something major, but, those two hurricanes are something major. But, as of right now, it seems to be on track to maybe be a 25-pound-a-day win. Granted, we don’t need a cold front, but I think we have the fish to make that happen.”