By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
It may or may not have been B.A.S.S.' goal to start the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series season on two completely diverse fisheries. If that was indeed an objective, the organization succeeded magnificently.
There's zero chance that anglers will be fishing amid snow flurries on day 1 this week at Lake Okeechobee, as they were at Cherokee Lake 2 weeks ago. And there's almost no chance the derby will be won with spinning gear.
The Elites are visiting the renowned "Big O" for the first time in 5 years. It's a gigantic body of water, covering 730 square miles, but per usual, a lot of it is either unfishable or completely devoid of bass life.
The field will congregate in a few specific areas and some bags exceeding 20 pounds will be caught, but likely not as many as in 2012, when Ish Monroe averaged 27 pounds per day en route to victory. An unpredictable spawning season caused by an abnormally warm winter is likely in its waning stages and a lot of the large females seem to be in a transition mode that's making them difficult to entice with artificial baits.
It's highly unlikely that any competitor will threaten the century mark for 4-day weight this time around. The winner's aggregate will probably settle somewhere in the mid 80s – still hefty, but certainly not eye-popping by traditional Okeechobee standards.
Before getting deeper into the bite, here's some of the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Okeechobee
> Type of Water: Shallow Florida natural lake
> Surface Acres: 448,000 (730 square miles)
> Primary structure/cover: Vegetation (many types)
> Average depth: 11 to 14 feet
> Species: Largemouths only
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: Prolific fishery with potential for explosive weights (30-plus pound bags), but can be stingy when conditions aren't quite right.
> Weather: A mix of clouds and sun with temperatures ranging from the high 70s to the mid 80s; none of the dreaded Florida cold fronts
> Water temp: Low 70s
> Water visibility/color: Darker than ideal in many places due to recent wind
> Water level: Near full pool
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Spawn/post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing, topwater, frogs, swimbaits, bladed jigs, rattlebaits, Senkos, flipping
> Winning weight: 80 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 51 after 2 days): 23 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Okeechobee
> Biggest factor: Weather – a strong wind from any direction can really mess up some well-laid plans.
> Biggest decision: How much to run around. Some areas will be crowded, but that's always the case at Okeechobee.
Here's a look at how Okeechobee lays out, thanks to the Navionics WebApp:
Weights Down This Year
Tom Mann Jr. forged a long tour-level career that included victories on both major circuits, eight Bassmaster Classic appearances and seven Forrest Wood Cup qualifications. He retired from competition after the 2012 campaign and moved from his native Georgia to Okeechobee, where he guides about 250 days each year out of Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina (click here to visit his website).
He said the Big O is a bit fickle at the moment.
"It's not great – the weights have been down," he said. "(One-day) local tournaments are being won with bags in the low 20s, and in February those weights should be in the high 20s somewhere.
"The numbers are good – people are catching a lot of fish. The water level's good and the grass is in good shape, but as far as those giant sacks, they're always related to the spawn, and the spawn's been messed up this year with the weather being so warm. It'll be a good tournament with lots of limits, but a lot of those bags will be in the low to high teens instead of 20 to 25 pounds, although there probably will be some 20-plus."
Former tour pro Tom Mann Jr., now a guide at Okeechobee, thinks the frog bite could be big this week.
Other than the warmer-than-normal weather and its resulting effect on the spawn, he's at a loss to explain the light tourney weights. About 80 percent of his trips involve using shiner minnows and the big girls are biting the live bait, but they seem to be averse to imitations made of plastic, rubber or metal.
He likes the chances of competitors who are proficient at throwing frogs.
"If some guys can figure out the frog bite or something with another lure in the thicker grass in the right areas, they could make stuff happen quickly doing that."
Only a Few Good Options
Mann said the vast majority of the field will gather in one of four specific areas.
"I'd say half the field will be fishing something related to the North Shore – Harney Pond, Bird Island, Horse Island and the mouth of the Monkey Box. That's a big rectangle there.
"There will be a number of guys down south in what we call 'the hay fields' and there will certainly be some fish caught around the mouth of the river at (the town of) Okeechobee, and there's a bite going on there at the shoal."
Pelican Bay was a popular area in 2012 and Monroe was one of the competitors who exploited it, but Mann said it's not happening right now.
"It's fairly well dead – I haven't heard any good reports from there in months, actually, and it won't be much of a factor. And there's a big spawning area at J&S Fish Camp (on the east side) that's normally in play, but the water there is apparently really dirty."
Although the bulk of the spawn has already taken place, Mann said his clients caught two big ones that were full of eggs on Tuesday, which leads him to believe that one of the final migrations toward the beds might be under way. Prior to that, he hadn't seen an egg-laden fish in 2 weeks.
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"It's been pretty tough for me. I think there's only a few areas that have really got fish, and it's obvious that everybody's going to be in the same areas. It's Okeechobee and people are going to catch them, but practice wasn't great. I've run lots of areas trying to find new water and put something together. A lot of the lake is blown out and muddy.
"Any bites you get here are encouraging, but you want to find something different, find your own area, and that's really hard to do right now. It's kind of hard to pattern things and run around the lake doing them because there's so much dirty water."
"The first 2 days (of practice) I found three areas that all had fish in them and I got a big bite out of all three, but other than that it was just a grind. It was tough.
"The places I found were just community holes. One of the things I've noticed in Florida, coming down the few times I did with FLW, is that you're more than likely going to end up fishing around other boats. If you refuse to do it, it's probably going to bite you in the butt.
"There's always that chance that you can find something off the wall that nobody else does and I've been looking for that the last day or so. It's something you have to just stumble on.
"With the water level falling and a lot of the fish being post-spawn, the outside edge (of grasslines) should be a solid pattern, but I've yet to really develop it. I've gotten a few bites, but not enough to base my tournament off of."
"It's been pretty slow, to be honest. The wind's got a lot of water messed up. The water's falling, but it needs to fall a little more to suit me.
"I've had trouble catching good ones – they're just so hard to find. I think 20 pounds a day is probably going to be pretty strong."
Hank Cherry got some good bites in practice, but said they seemed to be random occurrences.
"Overall, it seems like it's pretty tough. The quality bites are kind of random – there's not one specific thing that you can target and then hunt and peck around. It's definitely going to fish small and guys are going to be right on top of each other.
"I've gotten some good bites, but there's a lot of dirty water and the weather's kind of goofy. I think any (bag) 18 pounds and above will be really good. You'll have some guys doing some sight-fishing and people catching them all kinds of weighs.
"Whoever wins is going to wreck them."
Top 10 to Watch
With the above and more in mind, here are BassFan's recommendations for the Top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Randall Tharp – He comes in with momentum after an 8th-place finish at Cherokee and is pretty much a lead-pipe cinch to advance to the final day of any derby in his adopted state of residence. He won the FLW Tour event at the Big O in 2012 and was the runner-up the previous year.
2. Skeet Reese – He's a long way from his California home whenever he's fishing in Florida, but he almost always excels in the Sunshine State. He badly needs a strong finish after a 97th-place bomb at Cherokee.
3. Dean Rojas – He hasn't traditionally fared as well at Okeechobee as he has at some of the other Florida venues, but there's no question that the lake suits his style. If he can get things going with the frog, he'll be a real threat to still be in the game on day 4.
4. Terry Scroggins – "Big Show" has had a couple of off years back-to-back after making 10 consecutive Classics through the 2014 event, but he got the new campaign off to a solid start at Cherokee by rallying from far down in the field to end up 32nd. He's one of several native Floridians who'll be expected to produce big sacks this week.
5. Keith Combs – The Texan is on a run of eight straight Top-30 finishes and has become one of the most consistent competitors in the sport. He's traditionally done his best work at big-fish venues and Okeechobee certainly fits that bill.
Ish Monroe averaged more than 27 pounds per day en route to winning at Okeechobee in 2012.
6. Ish Monroe – The 2012 winner at the Big O was the first guy out of the money cut (52nd) at Cherokee, so he has even more motivation to produce this week. His skill set and preferred style are in perfect harmony with the lake.
7. Drew Benton – The Panama City resident won his FLW Tour debut at the Big O in 2013, then finished 92nd in the same event a year later. After starting the season with a 92nd at Cherokee 2 weeks ago, perhaps he'll reverse that sequence and post another single-digit finish this time out.
8. Chris Lane – The 2012 Classic winner had his streak of four consecutive seasons with a victory broken last year and he won't be competing next month at Lake Conroe. Additionally, he was a miserable 105th at Cherokee to start the new campaign. Maybe a place he knows extremely well will get him back on the right track.
9. Bobby Lane – Was it really 12 years ago when he launched his tour-level career with three straight Top 10s in FLW events? The first of those was a 7th at Okeechobee, and another home-state single-digit finish this week would do a lot for his Angler of the Year hopes.
10. Shaw Grigsby – He turned in a real stinker at Cherokee (103rd), but his career ledger shows that he often follows up a horrible event with a strong finish. Florida pros tend to fish well in Florida, and he's certainly no exception – he was 4th in the 2012 event at the Big O.
Anglers will launch at 6:45 a.m. ET each day at C. Scott Driver Park in Okeechobee, Fla. Weigh-ins will take place in the same location starting at 3:15 p.m.
> Brent Chapman feels as if he got an adequate number of bites in practice, but he's still a bit unsure as to the quality because he was hesitant to hook fish with numerous boats around him. To read his practice recap, click here to visit Pro View Reports.
> Thurs., Feb. 23 – Mostly Sunny - 77°/59°
- Wind: From the WNW at 6 mph
> Fri., Feb. 24 – Partly Cloudy - 83°/55°
- Wind: From the N at 10
> Sat., Feb. 25 – Partly Cloudy - 84°/55°
- Wind: From the W at 5 mph
> Sun., Feb. 26 – Sunny - 80°/59°
- Wind: From the NNE at 10 mph