Lake Okeechobee has been the career launching pad for several young rookie pros through the years. Full-time pros like JT Kenney, Bryan Thrift and Drew Benton all took their first big career wins on the Big O before the fishing world had ever heard their names. Now you can add the name Taylor Ashley of Warrior, Ala., to that list.
At just 19 years old, Ashley won the Costa FLW Series Southeast Division opener presented by Power-Pole on Lake Okeechobee. It was the first FLW Series event Ashley had ever entered. It was the first time Ashley had ever been to Lake Okeechobee. And it ended with his first big career win.
“Four days ago, there was no way in the world I would have said I could have won this tournament,” Ashley says. “There is nothing that can prepare you for coming to this lake for the first time. I studied Google Earth for hours, but it does you no good because everything changes so fast here – the grass, the water levels, nothing looks like you think it's going to look.”
Ashley’s first couple of days on the lake during practice were demoralizing.
“I got so lost on this place,” he admits. “I’ve never been that lost on the water before. It’s so big it’s just overwhelming. By the third day I had gotten so lost and had not caught any fish – I was seriously ready to quit.”
With one day left to practice, Ashley decided to stay close to Clewiston along the East Wall out of desperation. A friend had given him a waypoint in the area and told him he had caught some 2-pounders there years ago.
“I had nowhere left to go,” he says. “I had burned a bunch of gas and not found a thing to fish. My only choice was to sort of stay close so I wouldn’t get lost again and figure something out so maybe I could just scratch out a check.”
With nowhere left to turn, Ashley put his trolling motor down, picked up his favorite lure – a swim jig – and just started fishing for miles through vegetation fields near Clewiston.
Late in the day on that final day of practice, two big bites on his swim jig gave him all he needed: a place to just start the tournament.
And from there the rest is history. Each day Ashley learned more and more about his area, sacking up daily weights of 21-0, 25-6 and 22-6 to win with a three-day total of 68-12.
The main focus of his winning pattern centered on a single boat lane amid a network of boat lanes through fields of scattered vegetation. The particular lane he favored terminated into the main lake, acting as a conduit for female bass moving into spawn.
“I could fish all out in those vegetation fields and catch bucks,” he says. “But whenever I got near that one particular lane – I’d get a big bite. All I can figure is those bigger females had to be using that one lane to travel in.”
With that in mind, Ashley began fishing a zigzag pattern, weaving back and forth across the big bass pipeline.
Ashley’s lures of choice were a pair of 3/8-ounce Dirty Jigs No-Jack Swim Jigs – one white and one green pumpkin. He trailered them with Zoom Super Speed Craws in matching colors and fished them on 65-pound test Power-Pro braid.
Having put in many hours of swim jigging along Alabama’s Coosa River, Ashley fished the swim jig “Alabama style,” constantly twitching and popping the rod tip as he reeled it across the scattered vegetation alongside the productive boat lane.
“I was working it just like I do back home,” he adds. “But instead of twitching it around bank grass, I twitched it around reeds and lily pads – it’s the first time I’ve ever fished down here so I just fished the best way I knew how to.”
And it appears the first time was certainly the charm for Ashley all week at Okeechobee.
Top 10 pros
1. Taylor Ashley – Warrior, Ala. – 68-12 (15) – $60,400
2. Joshua Weaver – Macon, Ga. – 61-2 (15) – $25,900
3. Derek Yasinski – Senoia, Ga. – 61-1 (15) – $17,000
4. Gary Milicevic – Labelle, Fla. – 57-12 (15) – $15,000
5. Scott Byrd – Ocklawaha, Fla. – 52-5 (15) – $14,000
6. Robert Beatty – Clermont, Fla. – 51-4 (15) – $10,500
7. Brian Holder – Denver, N.C. – 49-3 (15) – $9,300
8. Buddy Gross – Chickamauga, Ga. – 45-2 (15) – $8,000
9. Bill Tervin – Pocola, Okla. – 44-14 (15) – $7,000
10. Ron Nelson – Berrien Springs, Mich. – 44-1 (12) – $5,000