CLEWISTON, Fla. – There are few places in the country better to kick off a new Toyota Series Presented by A.R.E. season than on Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. One of the best bass fishing lakes on any schedule, the Big O is setting up to host a slugfest as the 271-boat field takes off this morning from Roland & Mary Ann Martin’s Marina and Resort in Clewiston.
Frigid (and not just for Florida) temperatures moved in during the leadup to the tournament, which oftentimes spells trouble for bass anglers on Okeechobee. Fortunately, temperatures have bounced back up to what everyone expects from South Florida – high 70s and low 80s – and that warming trend might just be enough to entice masses of prespawn fish to move up shallow, in prime position to be caught.
At about 730 square miles with an average depth of roughly 8 feet, Okeechobee is essentially a huge, shallow bowl of vegetation. From mats to reeds, hay grass to hydrilla and everything else in between, the Big O is heaven for many grass-minded anglers in search of big Florida-strain bass.
While Okeechobee is loaded with plenty of those big bass, it doesn’t hold quite as many double-digit brutes as many Florida fisheries are known for, though you can expect to see plenty of 6-plus-pounders weighed in this week.
There’s a lot of fishable water on Okeechobee, but a handful of areas tend to attract the most fishing pressure, which may be true this week as fresh waves of prespawn fish move up shallow. The northernmost and southernmost ends of the fishery, in general, tend to find congregations of boats all seeking out the same clusters of fish.
While water levels have been especially high for months (currently almost 15 feet above sea level), it’s the temperature that has everyone talking. Just a few days prior to the start of the tournament, overnight lows dipped into the upper 20s and low 30s, essentially triggering every bass in Okeechobee to come down with a serious case of lockjaw.
That’s often terrible news for anglers, but in this case, timing is everything. Wednesday’s high touched 80 degrees and the forecast calls for mid-80s throughout the event. That extreme warming trend might be enough to get Okeechobee’s bass population on the move in a big way, at least according to Florida ace Mikey Keyso, who has two Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine wins to his name on the Big O.
“In my opinion, this cold snap here was absolutely perfect,” Keyso said. “It should be really good. I think you’re going to see some really big bags in this tournament.”
The reason for that, in Keyso’s estimation, is contrary to what many anglers believe about cold snaps in Florida.
“Typically, what it does here in Florida is it brings fish in,” he added. “Most people think it’s a warming trend that brings them in, but it’s that cold weather that brings that next wave in.”
As the lake begins to warm, those fish that already started moving up into staging areas during the cold spell make a beeline for the shallows to begin spawning in earnest.
That’s good and bad news for anglers hoping to get on a shallow bite this week. There will be plenty of fish closer to shore, but high water levels mean a whole lot more shallow water to cover.
Nick Thliveros won the 2019 Toyota Series event on Okeechobee at the exact same time of year as this tournament. In that event, Thliveros saw – literally – just what a post-cold front warming trend can do to Okeechobee’s bass population.
“When I won in 2019, I was catching staging fish, but the last two days of the tournaments it warmed up,” he said. “I was catching them moving up, and I ran into an area where they were supposed to be spawning. As I was going into that area, I watched 40 pounds of bass swim by me. I was on the trolling motor, and I watched a group of three 8s and a group of 6s go in there with me.”
This time around, Thliveros expects the same kind of action in a much earlier time frame.
“Thursday, somebody’s going to land on them,” he added. “Someone is going to get dumb lucky and be in the right spot at the right time and they’re going to sit there and waylay them.”
If Keyso’s and Thliveros’ hunches are correct, there are going to be masses of big females moving shallow (or already on beds) on Day 1. On Okeechobee, that typically means flipping stick baits to shallow vegetation, though some anglers might find some success winding ChatterBaits, swim jigs or swimming worms in those same areas.
If there are still some fresh waves in staging areas and someone can get them to bite, expect those bites to come on a variety of moving baits like swimbaits and lipless crankbaits.
Thliveros believes it’s going to take 22 or 23 pounds a day to win this event, which is saying something for someone who admits he didn’t catch a single keeper by the end of practice on Tuesday. That’s how good Okeechobee is, especially on the heels of a warming trend.
Keyso’s estimate for winning weight is about the same (just over 62 pounds to win) and expects it to take about 15 pounds per day to make the final-day cut, thanks in part to what he expects to be a monster Day 2 as conditions begin to stabilize further and more fish move shallow.
“I think the guy who wins is going to find them coming,” Keyso said. “And I think you’re going to see some really big bags the second day.”
“It’s scary what happens when you’re in the right spot,” he said. “When they move, they move.”