Top 10 baits from Toyota Series season opener at Lake Okeechobee - Major League Fishing

Top 10 baits from Toyota Series season opener at Lake Okeechobee

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This week's event on Okeechobee was won with classic Florida tactics, but there are hints of new-school fishing on the horizon. Photo by Rob Matsuura.
January 29, 2024 • Jody White, Rob Matsuura • Toyota Series

CLEWISTON, Fla. – On one hand, the fishing in the Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats Southern Division opener was the same as it always is on Lake Okeechobee: tons of worms, a few lipless baits and a bevy of vibrating jigs were buzzed and dragged past bass crowding into spawning bays all week. On the other hand, this Top 10 had a slightly different complexion than years past: not many punch setups, lots of topwaters and literally zero swim jigs on deck for the top pros.

Here’s what got it done on the Big O to start the season.

1. Mizell frogs his way to the top

Earning the win with 72 pounds, 9 ounces, Jessie Mizell was amazingly consistent on the week. His biggest fish of the event ate a Rapala X-Rap Prop on Day 1, but the frog was his standby. Using either a doctored up SPRO or a Gambler Popping Frog in yellow belly, Mizell threw them on a 7-foot, 6-inch, heavy/fast 13 Fishing Muse Black rod with an 8.3:1-gear ratio 13 Fishing Concept A2 reel and 65-pound-test Suffix 832 braid. 

Mizell also caught fish on a Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer and a worm.

2. Campbell targets spawning bass

Blasting 31 pounds on Day 2 put Brody Campbell in position to win, and a big fish lost late on the final day may have cost him the victory. Still, the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals rookie couldn’t have scripted a much better start to the season.

“For not knowing much about Florida, I’m pretty excited about it,” he said. “It helped to have a week to break down the lake, and I was able to find a really good area.”

Fishing for bass spawning on isolated bits of vegetation, the Ohio pro’s choices did not follow the Florida script. On Days 1 and 2, Campbell relied on a Neko rig with a Zoom Trick Worm (in Junebug and a few other colors) for the most part. On the final day, he added a French pearl Megabass Vision 110 into the mix and caught a pile of fish on it.  

3. Two-pronged approach works for Tallhamer

Fishing in South Bay and nearby, Brandon Tallhamer crushed 27-8 on the final day to rocket up to third place from eighth.

Targeting isolated pads for a limit in the mornings, Tallhammer plied a Gambler Fat Ace with a ¼-ounce weight. Then, he shifted to a ½-ounce Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer in green pumpkin shad with a 4-inch Scottsboro Tackle Company Swimbait for the trailer.  

“I didn’t know what I had; I thought I might have had 24 pounds,” said Tallhammer of his big final day. “The first four fish I caught on championship day were 5-pounders in the pads. Later in the day, I had one waypoint out on the flat, and I went there, made about 10 casts and caught that 7-13 with about 10 minutes to go. It all came together that last day.”

4. Jig and a ChatterBait do work for Townend

Fishing on the south side of Okeechobee, Benny Townend sacked 65-2 for the event and did it with a vibrating jig and a flipping jig.

For winding, he used a ½-ounce black-and-blue Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer. Throwing a green pumpkin RaZor ShadZ as his primary trailer, he went to a Missile Baits D Bomb in bruiser flash when he ran out.

“I broke off about 25 ChatterBaits in three days, and I ran out of all my trailers,” he said. “I just put that together, and that’s all I had. The first couple days, I was using a Z-Man RaZor ShadZ as a trailer, but my inventory got diminished quick.”

Townend also used a ¾-ounce Gambler Ninja Flipping Jig to target places he expected fish to be spawning, and he trailed that with a matching Zoom Big Salty Chunk.

5. Lopez stays hot on the Big O

Having spent most of the early winter in Florida, Steve Lopez has been on a tear at Okeechobee, and in the process, he’s discovered a bit of a secret technique.

“I’ve been down here for a little bit, and I noticed they were spraying quite a bit,” he said. “Every time I brought my bait back up, I was bringing up dead reeds with it – they’re not gonna eat it unless they eat it on the way down, but Florida fish don’t seem that aggressive. Up north we power-shot in the grass; it can be the deal, so I tied one on. In the last three weeks, I’ve barely caught a fish on another bait.”

Making his drop-shot with a Gamakatsu SuperLine Ringed EWG hook, Lopez tied his mainline to the ring and then tied a dropper to the ring as well, using 3/16 – or ¼-ounce weights. Using a Gambler Ace in JB blue, Lopez threw the whole contraption on a 7-foot, 3-inch, medium-heavy Duckett Black Ice Series casting rod with 20-pound Sunline Sniper.

Fishing near Campbell, Lopez rotated the same water with him and also caught a few on a Gambler Popping Frog.

“I was using my Lowrance ActiveTarget 2, scoping them,” he said. “The bigger fish were staging, and there would be isolated dead reed clumps. One would pull up, and he would catch it or I would catch it. There were about 25 clumps in the area we were fishing, and we would just rotate around as they were swimming in.”

6. Worm and a frog work for Sexton

Just 18 years old and fishing on the home pond, Rafe Sexton opened some eyes this week on Okeechobee.

“Day 1 I caught them on a frog pretty good; that set the pace for the week,” he said. “Day 1 I was just fishing isolated cattail stubble. Day 2, I threw the worm all day long on stuff you couldn’t see with your eyes, fishing for fish that were coming in to spawn and roaming. Rather than casting to actual structure on the hardline, they were out in open water on pieces you couldn’t see – cattail stubble, hard spots, stuff like that.”

For his frog, he went with the venerable killer gill SPRO Bronzeye Poppin’ Frog. His worm of choice was a Bruiser Baits Stick Worm with a 3/16-ounce weight and a 2/0 Gamakatsu G-Finesse Heavy Cover Hook.  

7. Greico sacks ‘em up at Okeechobee again

Always a force in Florida, Christian Greico made it happen in again for his sixth Top 10 on Okeechobee.

For baits, he stuck with the staples: a Zoom Magnum UltraVibe Speed Worm in Junebug with a 1/8-ounce tungsten weight, plus a Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a Googan Baits Happy Trailer and a BOOYAH One Knocker. He used Trika rods for all his presentations and did the most work with the ChatterBait, which he threw on a 7-foot, 3-inch medium heavy Trika 6X.

After catching just shy of 12 pounds on Day 1, Greico blasted back with 26-14 on Day 2.

“I didn’t get the bites on Day 1. I was fishing a community hole, and towards the end of Day 1 I figured out a little zone within the community hole,” said Greico. “Day 2, I started in that zone and never left it. So, I was around the fish, but hadn’t pinpointed them yet.”

8. Whole tacklebox plays for Camp

Robert Camp knocked out a Top 10 with some unique baits.

A West Volusia Custom Baits prop bait and a Bitter’s Mega Vibe worked well for Camp, and he also mixed in a Berkley PowerBait Gilly with an unusual rigging.

“That’s what I was hitting them with when I would miss them on the prop bait,” Camp said of the Gilly. “I would throw it in there and I’ll run it and then kill it. I try to make it look like a bream that’s dying. I’ll run it a little bit so it gets that waggle, and then drop it down.”

Fishing it on a 3/0 Gamakatsu Weedless Drop/Split Shot Hook, the Gilly accounted for some key fish for Camp.

Like some of the other leaders, Camp tried to focus on areas that were near the best community holes, but not directly in the mix with other folks.

“I was about 1,500 yards from everybody else,” he said. “You can find the juice just by driving around. If people are around fish, I try to find the out-of-the-way spot. I was near Moonshine, but not on Moonshine, and I was near Tin House, but not in Tin House. I try to be out of the way a little bit.”

9. Lipless does work for Collins

Bo Collins used a pair of lipless baits to make hay.

“There’s a big flat, and there were a ton of boats in there fishing,” he explained. “A lot of people were throwing a [lipless], but they were throwing chrome. I would watch for an area that didn’t have any boats on it for 30 minutes or so, and I would switch to a copper color, and that is usually when I could get my bigger bites.”

A copper brown eye Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap got a lot of miles on it for Collins, as did a blue Bahama Azuma Shaker Z. Collins also caught fish on a 6-inch Yamamoto Senko, and a white Strike King Thunder Cricket with a Yamamoto Zako trailer. He used Joe Burns Custom Rods for all his presentations and threw his lipless baits on 18-pound-test Sunline Sniper.

10. Venditto gets the right bites  

Finishing 10th, Michael Venditto fished Florida staples and relied on a few quality bites to make his tournament.

For baits, he worked a Gambler Popping Frog and a Gambler Fat Ace with a 1/8-ounce tungsten weight.

“In the mornings I was starting off with the frog,” he said. “For me, it was super slow. I caught seven fish on Day 2, and that was the day I caught the most fish. I knew the right fish were in that area, and if I stuck it out, I’d get the right bites. I fished two different spots the entire weekend, but mainly one spot. On Day 3, I made the same circle all day long.”

Venditto used Scenko Stix and Phenix Rods.