April 13, 2012
Ever since the days of old
Men would search for wealth untold
They'd dig for silver and for gold
And leave the empty holes
And way down south in the Everglades
Where the black water rolls and the saw grass waves
The eagles fly and the otters play
In the land of the Seminole
So blow, blow Seminole wind
Blow like you're never gonna blow again
I'm calling to you like a long lost friend
But I know who you are
And blow, blow from the Okeechobee
All the way up to Micanopy
Blow across the home of the Seminole
The alligators and the gar
The lyrics above remind me of the howling winds we experienced during the BASS Elite Series event on Lake Okeechobee. According to locals, easterly winds blew in excess of 20mph for three weeks straight, prior to our arrival.
And just as John Anderson's song suggests, the wind seemed to carry a spirit—one that would favor some while punishing others.
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Like the St. Johns River, I invested considerable time in preparing for this event. I made three separate trips ahead of cut-off, searching the lake's more renowned areas—places known to produce winning stringers.
At the time, the lake was nearly 15-feet above sea level—an adequate depth to keep fish shallow and happy. But as the tournament approached, the water dropped significantly. By the time official practice began it was down to 13.6 feet. I knew most of the better fish would be forced to the outer edge of the grass and reed lines, making them accessible to anyone in the field. And with low water and stiff easterly winds persisting, I believed much of the western shore would roil up. So I spent the first two days fishing in the lee along the lake's eastern shore.
Baits And Tactics
I began the official practice period in Eagle Bay, a large area of flooded reeds located just east of the mouth of the Kissimmee River. Leaving from the boat ramp at Government Cut, I broke through the outer reed wall to find a large number of gulls and terns diving in the distance. I raced to their location and discovered a massive school of bass breaking beneath them. Every cast was a strike. For more than an hour I hooked fish after fish, but they all ran small. I knew I'd need bigger ones to make them count.
Over my shoulder I noticed a small group of birds working well offshore. I ran to their location and fired a Rippin' Rap lipless crankbait into the nervous water. My first cast yielded a 3-pounder. The next produced another, then another. I punched the coordinates on my GPS and moved quickly away—other boats were beginning to run by and I didn’t want to give the spot away.
Much too soon, the schooling stopped and the birds disappeared. With that I moved to the closest reed line, figuring the fish would seek cover after their morning feed. No luck—just a few 12-inchers were all I could catch.
I spent the rest of the day probing various reed lines and grassbeds with a variety of lures and techniques. I fished from Okee-Tanti all the way south to
Again, I began fishing near Taylor Creek, a natural drainage with numerous manmade canals stemming from its main channel. Intersecting with the
Switching between a green-pumpkin Texas-rig Senko and a shad colored Rapala DT-6 crankbait, I covered water as quickly as possible. Within four hours I counted a dozen strikes or so. The few I stuck came on the crankbait—the rest I shook off, wondering what size they might average.
On day three of practice I ran south to Uncle Joe's Cut, a canal that reaches far out into the lake from the southwest shore. Stiff east winds generate current in the canal and a strong bite usually results. I began inside at the
From there I worked my way north on Observation Shoal. Before cut-off the reeds along the shoal produced strong numbers of quality bass, so I had to check them—in spite of the pounding easterly winds.
Recalling a large expanse of eel grass just outside of the reeds on the lower end, I thought that might serve as a filter to keep the water clean. It did—there was more than a foot of visibility along the edge of the reeds. Unfortunately, after a solid two-hour effort, I was unable to catch any quality fish there. So I headed up the shoal, hoping to improve the grade.
Near Cochran's Pass I began to encounter other competitors—too many, in fact. Every hundred yards or so there was at least one boat, usually two. Due to the traffic, I wrote the area off completely.
Entering Fisheating Bay, I visited the same hyacinth mats that produced for me in the previous months. They looked even better now, but because of it, they attracted other competitors like a magnet. I committed the rest of the day to them anyway, shaking off several quality bites under one particular raft of hyacinths—all on a black-blue Fat Baby Craw rigged with a 1-ounce tungsten weight.
Eventually I ran out of time and had to leave for the tournament briefing.
Ready Or Not
The morning of the first competition day, I decided to start on the schooling bass I found near Government Cut. Although the wind had switched more from the southeast, I believed they would still be there.
Finally our number was called and I headed south out of the Kissimmee River. Immediately upon entering the lake I encountered a flock of diving terns. I shut it down and fired the Rippin' Rap in their direction. A steady stream of competitors passed by with looks of curiosity. In minutes I had several small fish in the box, but they were barely keepers so I decided to press on to the shoolies east of
As we approached the area, there were no birds in sight. I told my marshal we were locking through to
The first cast yielded another 3-pounder. After a quick cull, I fired another cast to the same exact spot. My line suddenly went slack. As I caught up to the fish, I could tell it was much bigger than the others. In the next instance a 6-pounder cleared the surface, shaking its head frantically. My partner yelled, "Whoaaaa!"
The fish plunged back into the water and sounded beneath the boat. I checked the drag—all was good. The fish surfaced, again shaking its head in an effort to dislodge the crankbait. I led her around the boat and away from any potential obstacles. Again she jumped, and again my partner yelled.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I brought her boatside. Believing the battle was over, I stooped to reach for her. In that instance she thrashed her head one final time and my lure flew from her mouth. I lunged in a desperate effort to grab her as she sank out of sight. "Nooooooo!" I yelled, collapsing back onto the deck.
In my mind I had the battle won, but somehow the fish managed to escape. Looking back, it was a blow I never fully recovered from. I spent another hour fishing the bulkhead, but never had another strike.
Eventually, we locked through to Taylor Creek. I retraced my path from practice, focusing on the banks where I recorded the most bites. After a couple of hours, I realized the many fish I shook off in practice were all small.
My day ended with disappointment. After posting a weight of 11-15, I left weigh-in knowing I could have easily added another five pounds had the big crankbait bass not escaped.
Listless and confused, I wondered what tomorrow might bring.