Overall, I had a very successful practice in the days leading up to the start of the event. I didn’t catch any giant fish, but the fish I was catching were all quality keepers which told me I was in the right areas. After looking at the weather forecast for the coming weekend and taking into account which ramp we were launching out of, I decided to focus mostly on the north end of the lake from the Kissimmee River to Harney Pond. By the time my practice was over I had narrowed down my focus to two main areas that both had one thing in common, submerged eel grass. Throwing moving baits in the morning was key to getting bit early while transitioning to flipping matted vegetation seemed to be the ticket once the sun got up.
Day 1: 17lbs 14oz
On the first day I started off in the Horse Island area. In practice I had found a group of fish that were tucked in just behind where the eel grass and dollar pads topped out and then opened back again. I started with a Zoom Horny Toad in the black/white swirl color on a 5/0 Berkley Fusion swimbait hook with an upgraded Owner CPS screw lock and 65lb braided line. In the first 30 minutes of my tournament I lost one good fish and boated three small keepers by buzzing the frog over the top of the eel grass and dollar pads. After the quick flurry in the morning, the bite died in the area due to a lack of wind. At around 9:45am I decided to move to my primary spot in the Bird Island area.
In practice I found two small patches of eel grass that were separated from the main eel grass patch growing in the Bird Island area. I spent two hours in this area in practice catching a couple good fish on a chatterbait as well as shaking off fish that bit when punching matted vegetation. When I first arrived in this area in the tournament I quickly filled out my limit with a bruiser colored 3/8oz Z-man Jack Hammer Chatterbait on 15lb flourocarbon. After making a couple passes through the isolated patches of eel grass without a bite, I switched techniques and began punching loosely matted vegetation that was lodged in the reeds and maidencaine. My bait of choice for flipping mats was a Z-Man Palmetto Bugz in the Bama Bug color with a pegged 3/4oz weight, 4/0 Owner Jungle Flipping Hook, and 50lb braided line. This is a lighter setup than the typical 1 to 1.5oz tungsten weight I typically use for punching mats on Okeechobee, but the lighter weight seemed to give my bait the right fall rate to trigger the larger fish to bite. I took my time and methodically flipped into every clump of matted vegetation in the area. I immediately started catching fish in the 2-3lb class, and was finally rewarded with a 6lb beast that was the anchor for my bag. I continued to fish the Bird Island area for most of the day, finally catching one more 3lb fish on a ½ oz black and blue Dirty Jigs swim jig on 17lb flourocarbon. I decided to leave the area around 2:15 to give myself plenty of time to make it back to Scott Driver weigh in site. I brought 17lbs 14oz to the scales leaving me in 14th place and inside the top 30 cut to fish the final day.
Day 2: 15lbs 4oz
Day two was an absolute grind all day. Fishing pressure had taken its toll on both of my areas making bites hard to come by. I switched things up in the morning by spending the first hour of the day fishing two new areas located near takeoff where I had got bites in practice. Neither of the two spots panned out, so I ran to the area located around Horse Island. Instead of fishing behind the topped out grass, I opted to stay out in open water. I fished this area for roughly an hour with only one bite from a fish I couldn’t get a hook into. Instead of forcing the area like I did the day before, I left earlier in order to capitalize on the morning bite in the Bird Island area.
Once I got to Bird Island I immediately caught a keeper from the isolated patch of eel grass on the black and blue swim jig, but things just weren’t the same as the day before. Overnight a large floating mat had drifted over the top of one of the grass patches shrinking the area that was holding fish. I spent the rest of the day making passes through the isolated patch. I would fish the area thoroughly, leave for a little while, and then make another pass. Nearly every time I would fish through the area, either myself or my coangler would catch or hook up with a nice fish. The key was letting the area rest for 30 minutes, and then cycle back through. My bait of choice for the area was the ½ oz swim jig on flourocarbon, but I failed to capitalize on all of the bites I got. I lost several good fish that were swimming straight to the boat as soon as I hooked them. This kept me from keeping the fish pinned to the hook and made for an agonizing day. To top things off, the flipping bite from matted vegetation had died off for me as I only caught one keeper using this technique. Finally, at 1:45pm I caught my 5th fish bringing my total weight up to a measly 10lbs.
After I filled my limit, I decided that I was going to give the isolated grass patch one more shot before leaving to fish a couple areas on the way back to the boat ramp. I told my coangler “last cast”, and right on cue I hooked up with a 3lb bass. As I was culling my smallest fish from the livewell, my coangler quickly caught two good fish on back to back casts. This was the biggest flurry of bites we had all day, signaling that the fish’s mood had changed. With time running out before I had to leave for weigh-in, I decided to switch to a ½ oz Bhite Delight colored Jackhammer Chatterbait on 17lb flourocarbon. This was a good call as my second cast resulted in my biggest fish of the day, a 4lb largemouth. After once again culling my smallest fish, I was out of time and needed to make the run back to the ramp. At the scales I weighed in 15lbs 4oz bringing my total up to 33lbs 2oz and moving me up to 12th out of 157 competitors.
Overall, I am pleased with my performance on Lake Okeechobee. I needed to have a solid finish to move up in the yearly points standings, otherwise I was going to miss out on the BFL Regional located on my home waters of the St. John’s River. After the dust settled, I finished the year 39th in points and just inside the cut to make the regional. I feel like the key to my success was the fact that I had narrowed down my focus two main areas to spend my time in instead of bouncing around all over the lake. I have made this mistake in the past, and told myself that I wouldn’t let it happen again. I also feel like using flourocarbon instead of braided line for my chatterbaits and swim jig was the key to getting bites. The Bird Island area had received a lot of fishing pressure causing the bass to become weary, but the flourocarbon was the trick to getting them to bite. At the end of day two a storm was beginning to move into my area. I believe that the drop in barometric pressure is what ignited the final flurry of the day allowing me to make two key culls to increase my weight.
Next up is the MLF BFL Regional on the St. John’s River in Palatka, FL on October 21-23. I have a great deal of knowledge and confidence on this body of water, so my expectations are high. This can be a difficult time of year to fish the river, so I like my odds of doing well. The top six finishers at the regional move on to the prestigious BFL All American, so wish me luck!
Buzzing Frog: Custom Built 7’6” Heavy MXH Mag Taper Rod (MB904), Shimano SLX reel 8.2:1 gear ratio, 65lb Fitzgerald Vursa Braided line, Jethro Baits Snug-Itz bait protection cone, 5/0 Berkley Fusion 19 swimbait hook, Owner CPS Centering Pin Spring, and Zoom Horny Toad (black/white swirl)
3/8 oz Chatterbait: Custom Built 7’3” Heavy MHX Crankbait rod (CB907), Lew’s Speed Spool LFS reel 6.8:1 gear ratio. 15lb Seaguar Red Label Flourocarbon, 3/8 oz Z-man Jack Hammer Chatterbait (bruised green pumpkin), Reaction Innovations Little Dipper swimbait trailer (Penetration).
½ oz Chatterbait: Custom Built 7’3” Heavy MHX Crankbait rod (CB907), Lew’s Speed Spool LFS reel 6.8:1 gear ratio. 17lb Berkley Trilene 100% Flourocarbon, 1/2 oz Z-man Jack Hammer Chatterbait (Bhite Delight), Yamamoto Zako trailer (green pumpkin white laminate).
½ oz Swim Jig: Custom Built 7’3” Medium-Heavy MHX Mag Taper Rod (MB873), Shimano SLX reel 8.2:1 gear ratio, 17lb Berlkey Trilene 100% Flourocarbon, 1/2oz Dirty Jigs No-Jack Swim Jig (black blue purple), Reaction Innovations Little Dipper swimbait trailer (Junebug).
Flipping/Punching: Custom Built 7’9” Heavy MHX Flipping and Pitching Rod (FP935), Lew’s Super Duty Speed Spool LFS Casting Reel 8.3:1 gear ratio, 50lb Fitzgerald Vursa Braided line, Jethro Baits Sinker Stops, 3/4oz Fitzgerald Tungsten weight, 4/0 Owner Jungle Flipping Hook, Z-Man Palmetto Bugz (Bama Bug)