Studio Notes - Lake Okeechobee - Major League Fishing

Studio Notes – Lake Okeechobee

Image for Studio Notes – Lake Okeechobee
Rob Newell headshot Angler: Rob Newell.
Rob Newell's observations and insights from the FLW Live desk.
February 1, 2018 • Rob Newell • Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit

As I transition from written coverage at FLW Tour events to FLW Live coverage in the studio with Travis Moran, I’ve promised myself that I’ll keep the ink flowing from the pen with interesting side notes we come across during the live broadcast.

This first edition takes a closer look at how the Okeechobee event became a brotherhood benefit, why winding was the way and how on-air predictions can lead to eating crow.

 

Trend in transparency continues

In the preseason I made a prediction that the trend of young pros sharing information with each other in an effort to gain an effective edge would continue to pay off for the new generation.

When it comes to the word “information” I’m always careful to point out that the type of information I’m referring to here is perfectly legal real-time information shared among competitors during practice and competition: phone calls on the water during practice, evening info-sharing sessions at dinner and that sort of thing.

I realize young guns are not the first anglers to share information with each other during a tournament. However, in their case, the transparency of information is unprecedented, from the exact number of bites to exact lures used to exact colors to exact patterns and even exact locations, shared with multiple people.

Years ago this type of “crowdsourcing” among competitors was not exactly so fluid. Professional bass fishing was a game of guarded discoveries – poker face included. Indeed, it’s a modality that still works exceptionally well for those who don’t want their heads filled with multiple possibilities at one time. Believe me, I get it. Multitasking has never been my strong suit. My early attempts at information sharing resulted in being so spun out I couldn’t even decide which ramp to put in at during practice.

But this new generation of anglers who grew up with the internet, iPhones and social media simply have a better knack for assimilating differing arrays of information streams simultaneously. Serve them up a heaping pile of information from the buffet at dinnertime and they know how to pick out the peas from the carrots without everything turning to succotash in their heads.

Case in point, two sets of brothers made the top 10 at Okeechobee – Brandon and Jared McMillan and Chris and Cory Johnston.

Who is more likely to share every bit of information than a couple of brothers? Add to that, the McMillans and the Johnstons are all close friends who have no problem being transparent with each other.

In the past I have referred to this information flow as the millennial matrix – anglers in that 25- to 35-year-old age group willing to share information candidly with each other. It was part of the recipe for success in Justin Atkins’ win at the 2017 Forrest Wood Cup.

I recently picked on Brandon McMillan to give me some more insight on how this whole information thing works. At 35, McMillan is on the outer edge of the millennial generation, and he can clearly remember a time when the sport was more singular and secretive.

“I think one thing most guys are a little apprehensive about is that everyone in the group is going to end up in the same reed patch or same creek throwing the exact same thing,” Brandon says. “What’s amazing is that hardly ever happens. Even though we all know what each other is doing, we rarely see each other in the tournament. Once you experience that, you realize the risks are minimal and the benefits are huge. You can break a lake down three or four times faster than you can by yourself. It’s like having 12 days of practice in three.”

Critical to the dynamic working is collaborating with other anglers who are confident enough in their own skills to do their own thing.

“The jealousy thing is completely taken out of it,” he continues. “All we are looking for in that pile of information is two or three things that might help what we want to do – a different lure color, another lure option, a weather condition that propelled a certain bite.”

Brandon says another helpful approach is to form alliances with anglers who fish differently, which helps prevent the entire group from winding up fishing on top of each other. He also likes to pair up with consistent limit-getter type anglers and true rookies who can see things with fresh eyes.

“I’m more of a quality guy – looking for fewer bites and better fish,” Brandon says. “So if I can team up with a limit guy, I can tell him how to get a quality bite or two after he gets his limit, and he can tell me how to scratch up another keeper or two if my quality-bite plan leaves me with just two or three fish. Also, we visit the same lakes so many times that we tend to get in ruts on what we’re looking for. Having a new stick in the group is always good because he sees the ‘same old lake’ with a fresh pair of eyes and experiments with off-the-wall stuff. That’s why I’m excited to have my brother Jared on Tour this year. He’s going to see lakes differently and might discover something completely overlooked.”

Chris Johnston says the No. 1 rule of information sharing is not to poison the well with bad information.

“You can’t embellish how many bites you got doing a certain thing or hide key elements,” he says.  “For instance, at Okeechobee, if I got bites in those old bushes snarled with floating vegetation, I wouldn’t come in and say I got bites out of ‘grass clumps’ because that’s misleading and is destructive to the cause.”

If someone in the group gets in trouble during the tournament, there is an open door policy on “borrowing” a couple keepers from another guy’s area to get back on track.

“It doesn’t happen often, but when it does we’re good with it because we know they will return the favor if the other guy needs it down the road,” says Chris.

“I think it’s safe to say there have been more $10,000 checks scored in our group working together than if we did not work together,” Brandon adds. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out. For example, a couple of years ago Gussy [Jeff Gustafson] let me in on his spot, and I just couldn’t get bit doing his thing, so I moved on. The key is working with other guys who know their strengths and limitations. I know when I’m trying to do something that I’m not comfortable with, and so do the other guys in my group, and that’s what makes it work.”

Another interesting aspect of this information dynamic is that the intensity ebbs and flows. It’s not like there is a mandatory information meeting each night.

“When we go somewhere new like Cumberland last year, the info sharing is in high gear and creates a tremendous advantage,” Brandon says. “But if we go back to a place like Beaver or Okeechobee, we’re not quite as intensive with it.”

 

Why winding topped flipping

The FLW Tour’s near-yearly trip to Lake Okeechobee usually turns into either a flipping free-for-all or a casting-and-winding showdown.

This time around, casting and winding proved lethal. Brandon McMillan and Chad Morgenthaler made punching work for a top 10, but it was not the dominant deal.

So why is it some years favor the winders and some years favor the flippers?

“It all has to do with the cycle of the lake,” says McMillan, who lives in Clewiston, Fla., the host city for the tournament. “We just didn’t have much to flip this year.”

Much of the grass loss is due to the hurricane that rocked the region in 2017.

“Plus, the lake is higher, and there is much more open water,” he adds. “A lot of those reed clumps have been cut off just under the water, leaving thousands of perfect targets to bump with a ChatterBait, swim jig or worm. Basically all the ingredients were right for a casting-and-winding tournament this time.

“In a year or two FLW might come back, and the lake will be low, clear and overgrown with matted stuff everywhere. Then things shift back into my wheelhouse of pitching and punching. It’s just the nature of the Big O beast.”

 

The precarious business of predictions

As I have learned in the studio, making predictions in bass fishing is a precarious proposition. Prophesizing one angler doing well means betting against the others. And if you’re going to bet against the others, you better have a reason for doing so.

As Travis and I were winding down the Okeechobee live show on the last day, I made the comment that the remainder of the tournament would be between Bryan Schmitt and Mark Rose.

Rose, I reasoned, was a veteran closer; his record proves it. Schmitt had experienced several magical meant-to-win moments, including keeping a 7-pounder buttoned up through two aerials, only to have the hook fall out of the fish’s mouth after getting it in the boat.

Tim Frederick, I portended, was done for. I felt like if his fish on isolated reeds were going to bite, it would have happened in the mid-morning. It had been the warmest night of the week before that day, and the sun was beaming first thing that morning. I figured any fresh fish that had moved up overnight would have pounced on his intruding lures immediately. Plus, he lost a big bite that should have cratered him. But Frederick straight proved me wrong, catching a monster bass for the win in the fourth quarter. So much for studio-chair forecasting.

Now I get to wear egg on my face when people watch the archived FLW Live show. However, there is a silver lining to this Frederick folly I have committed: In the preseason, I predicted that FLW would see another extremely rare back-to-back win performance like Rose provided last year. Back-to-back wins in back-to-back years! People said I was crazy, but with Frederick’s win at Okeechobee, I’m halfway there. His home fishery – the Harris Chain – is next on the Tour schedule. Yes, I’m aware of the “local’s curse,” but I’m also well aware of just how much being a local in Florida is a huge plus. So from the fraternity of fair-weather fans in the forecasting booth … Go Frederick!