After experiencing nearly polar conditions at Lake Cherokee a week earlier, I was ready to warm things up on the “Big O.”
Prior to cutoff, I did considerable prep. And I knew the area had been experiencing relatively stable conditions since that time, so I felt what I had learned then would still apply.
The fish were shallow in several stages of the spawn, and there was a solid topwater bite — something I love to do. It looked like a great week ahead.
On the first day of practice, I headed directly to Fisheating Bay, in the northwest corner of the lake. Although that area receives continual pressure, it also harbors the most fish — big ones too!
I began in an area I scouted a month earlier. Alternating a Rapala X-Prop and Husky Jerk, I targeted holes in a field of topped-out grass.
Almost immediately, the two began pulling quality fish to the surface. In most cases, I could take the lure away before they could connect. But one weighing 8 pounds crushed the X-Prop and the fight was on.
After releasing her, I trolled to the area where the strike occurred … to see if there was a bed. There was. I marked it on my Raymarine GPS and moved on, thinking I would return and possibly fool her again during the actual competition.
Keeping the MotorGuide at a steady pace, I zigzagged across a giant flat of eelgrass and hydrilla mixed. I could see a bed in nearly every pothole — many of them occupied.
By day’s end, I had visited all of the productive areas I had found before cutoff. Most of them still held quality fish. I felt I had the beginnings of a good game plan. It was now time to consider other parts of the lake.
The next morning, I targeted Observation Shoal — an area that produced many high finishes the last time our tour visited the lake — but things weren’t the same. After nearly two hours of pitching reeds and swimming a jig, I never had a strike. It was time to move on.
Farther south, near Clewiston, I probed West Wall. The water looked good and there were some fish there, but everything I caught was under two pounds. On this pond, all those will get you is a quick ticket home. Your fish must have size if you want to compete.
From there, I moved south to Long Point. During pre-practice, there were a number of good areas holding shallow fish. Most were concentrated in needle grass and scattered reeds clumps. Working through the area, I alternated several lures and presentations. Included were a Terminator Popping Frog, a Chatterbait with Zako trailer, a Stretch 40 swimming worm, and a green Senko.
Clearly, good fish were still in the area, but the number of other competitor boats was concerning. I decided my best chance was to stay north and maximize my fishing time.
On day three of practice, I planned to scout Eagle Bay, King’s Bar and the canals inside Taylor Creek. Wind forecasts were 20-30mph out of the northeast, and that would severely limit the options.
Hours passed and all I found were more average-size fish. My game plan was now centered on the North Shore in Fisheating Bay.
Knowing the lake would fish small, I wanted an early draw. That didn’t happen. I was boat number 101 in the last flight. By the time I would reach my destination, many anglers would already be filling out their limits.
I was frustrated and helpless.
Then, the take-off area inside the Kissimmee River began to fog in. Tournament Director Trip Weldon called for a delay. He also advised that, once we were released, we would be restricted to a 30mph speed limit until reaching open water in the main lake.
The fog delay reminded me that a late draw wasn’t all that bad. I’d actually have more time to fish than those in the early flight.
Finally, after nearly an hour delay, my number was called. Once through the checkout procedure, I raced toward the North Shore at Fisheating Bay.
Upon arrival, I found Bobby Lane, Mark Davis and Koby Krieger sitting on the juice. Conditions were calm … almost too calm. It took some time, but eventually Bobby broke the ice. Then Koby, then Mark and finally, me. The first fish were on the small side, but all of us were glad to have them.
Soon, the bigger fish began to bite. I watched as Bobby and Mark boated several between four and six pounds. My gut tightened. Koby, too, caught a 4-pounder.
Gradually I upgraded with a series of 3-pounders. But when would my kicker come?
At noon, with nearly 15 pounds in the boat, I decided to run west to the spot where I caught the 8-pounder in practice. As I approached with the sun to my back, I could see her massive body centered perfectly in the round, white bed.
My heart started pounding.
Doubting she would fall for a topwater twice, I decided to try a weightless, 5-inch Senko. Keeping a safe distance, I presented the lure as lightly as possible and allowed it to sink into the bed.
After what seemed an eternity, I finally felt a tick on the line.
Taking up loose slack, I swung hard in the opposite direction. As my rod bowed, I quickly realized it was the male, only about 11 inches. I released him and searched for his bedmate.
Apparently, the disturbance rattled her. She was now pacing nervously back and forth. It was as if she were searching for her missing companion.
As the minutes passed, she became more comfortable, eventually settling into one side of the nest. Methodically, I tried a number of lures and presentations, hoping to provoke her. Yet, she remained cautious. Even with the male back on the bed, she was still wary. I stayed on her, knowing if she bit, my catch would be more than respectable.
It never happened. Even after hours of persistence, the fish never responded. I tried a drop shot, jerkbait, swimbait and several bream imitations, all to no avail. It was time to head in.
Competition Day Two
Sitting just inside the cut at 44th place, I knew I would have to repeat my first day’s catch in order to cash a check. But I also knew, with the take-off order reversed, I could reach the best areas first.
Like the day before, dense fog blanketed the mouth of the Kissimmee River. Even though we were released on time, navigating such a long run was too risky. I opted to try Eagle Bay, at least until the fog lifted.
When I set down well inside the reed line, I noticed the water was much lower. The north winds had pushed it like a falling tide to the south — a strange, yet common occurrence on this huge, shallow lake. I decided to stick it out.
Making long casts with the X-Prop, I worked each isolated reed and lily pad clump methodically … expecting a bite on any cast. Nearly an hour passed and, finally, I got my first bite. A 10-incher. Soon after, a 3-pounder struck. With that one in the box, I settled down.
The fog was still thick. I traversed the area, targeting isolated objects with each cast. I never had another bite. At 9am, I pulled the trolling motor and raced toward Fisheating Bay.
When I arrived at my day-one starting spot, I noticed a dramatic increase in the number of boats. Bobby, Mark and Koby were smothered by numerous competitor and non-competitor boats. Media were also there. It was a zoo!
Disgusted, I planed off and headed to the big bedding female waiting down the shore.
Right where I had left her, she sat in the center of the bed. I made a long cast past it with the Stretch 40, hoping she might explode on the worm as I raced it by, but no luck.
Next, I tried crawling it through the bed. Still no response. As time quickly lapsed, I tried a range of lures and presentations. Still no luck. It was time to move on.
Over the next few hours, I filled out a limit with 2-pound fish and decided to return to the big female … for one last try.
In just minutes, I could see it was futile. I told my Marshal I wish I had never caught her in practice. She had thrown me off my game plan completely, and I had wasted way too much time on her.
Back at the scales, I realized a weight of 11lbs, 13oz was not enough. My 26-pound total was two pounds light of the cut. I was going home early.
As much as I love fishing in my home state of Florida, it seems I get burned here more times than not.
I was optimistic for this event, but things just didn’t work out. All I can do now is look toward the next one — Toledo Bend — a place that has also had my number is recent years.
Maybe things will take a turn for the better.