By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Tim Horton's victory at last week's Lake Okeechobee Bassmaster Elite Series was akin to a race-car driver who crosses the finish line with nothing but fumes coming from the fuel tank or the marathon runner who breaks the tape and immediately collapses in exhaustion. It was a position he was unaccustomed to.
For one thing, Horton hadn't won a tournament in nearly 10 years. For another, the majority of his previous wins had been blowouts. On the final day of his most recent earlier triumph at Lake Champlain in 2007, he was back on dry land eating pizza hours before check-in time.
This one was much, much different. He again had a massive lead (8 1/2 pounds) going into the final day, but a stiff north wind had decimated his primary area at the southern end of the lake. He was forced to return to the North Shore and scramble up a small limit that, surprisingly to him, proved to be enough to hold off the red-hot Ott DeFoe for the fourth tour-level victory of his career and second at the Big O.
It came on his daughter Lauren's 17th birthday with his wife Kim, younger daughter Leah and father Raymond in attendance.
"It's the best win I've ever had – I put it ahead of everything except winning the Angler of the Year (in his 2000 rookie season)," he said a day later. "After that length of time, it moved me like I've never been moved. And I really thought Ott had won, so I went through the full range of emotions."
Once one of the circuit's top stars, the 44-year-old Horton done relatively little of note on tour over most of the past decade. He'd logged just over a handful of Top-10 finishes since his Champlain win and failed to qualify for six of the past seven Classics. At one point several years ago, he admitted that instructing amateur anglers via his TV show and other avenues had become his real passion and that competition had been relegated to a passenger seat.
Will his Big O triumph spur a career revival?
"I think it definitely can," he said. "The (competitive) juices are flowing right now and success can create confidence.
"I'm ready to get back out there already."
Following are some of the pertinent details of his long-awaited victory.
Horton bunked in Clewiston, Fla. – far south of tournament headquarters in Okeechobee City – for the 3-day practice period. He spent 2 days exploring the water in that vicinity and the final one, which was plagued by rain, in the north.
The place that became his primary locale was close to the one he'd exploited en route to victory at the lake in 2004, but he's not sure how close because he no longer has that old waypoint.
"I think the bottom was the biggest thing about the area," he said. "I never pulled muck up on any of my baits – it was just a firm, sandy bottom."
He described it as being about the size of a football field. It was littered with reed patches and the water was about 3 feet deep.
"I couldn't see the bottom – it wasn't muddy (until the final day), but not clear. To me, that's what you want. It's what I call the mixed water at Okeechobee."
He's unsure whether the fish were in there to feed or reproduce, but "with the bottom like it was, my guess is that they were spawning."
He had no trouble getting bites on a plastic crawfish imitation.
The action in Horton's primary locale was sizzling for the tournament's first 2 days.
"Even if you're just covering water, you're not going to miss a place like that if it's the right deal. There will be enough fish there that you're going to get a bite.
"I didn't set the hook on anything in practice, but the way they hammered the lure and shook the reeds, they seemed like good fish."
> Day 1: 5, 25-15
> Day 2: 5, 30-04
> Day 3: 5, 15-11
> Day 4: 5, 11-07
> Total = 20, 83-05
Horton was one of three anglers (along with DeFoe and Stephen Browning) to sack at least 25 pounds on day 1. He had more than half of that total within 15 minutes of making his first cast as he boated an 8-pounder and a 6.
"It was a good feeling to see that it was going to be a special place," he said. "I felt like if the wind didn't get it, it was going to be a good week."
The conditions there were even calmer there on day 2 and he took full command of the event by boxing 30-04 to build a lead of nearly 8 pounds. He and Dean Rojas, the only other angler fishing in the vicinity, combined to catch 10 fish that weighed 55 1/2 pounds that day.
The action began to cool off on day 3 – a pleasant Saturday that enticed a lot of weekend anglers and other recreational traffic.
"It was kind of like a circus, but with no intent on anybody's part. It seemed like there was an airboat going by every 30 minutes and one of those things shakes the entire water column. But probably all the guys had to deal with things like that – Okeechobee's a popular lake, and rightfully so. It's an incredible place."
He managed to catch only about 11 pounds there and lost a 9-plus-pounder right at the side of his boat. He later made a huge upgrade in the final hour after returning to the northern part of the lake.
"I had a place up around Buckhead Ridge near the weigh-in. I'd caught a couple there that didn't help me the first day, but on day 3 I caught one almost 6 pounds that culled a 13-incher, so that was about a 4 1/2-pound improvement."
A cold front featuring strong winds moved in overnight and he basically wasted the first 2 1/2 hours of day 4 running to his southern area, fishing around there for awhile to no avail in water that had become extremely muddy, checking a couple of nearby places and then returning via the Rim Canal. He spent the remainder of his time pounding well-known places on the North Shore.
He scrounged out five keepers, and it turned out that he needed every one of them.
Horton targeted reed heads in his southern locale with precise pitches of his crayfish imitator.
"Most of the fish were close to the outside, but some were up in there a little tighter," he said. "I just fished everything I came to. There was one stretch about 30 yards by 30 yards where a lot of the best ones came from."
He sought out holes in the eelgrass on day 4 when he bagged his limit of 2- to 3-pounders on the North Shore.
He used a black/blue bait under low-light conditions and a black/reddish version when the sun was out.
Winning Gear Notes
> Pitching gear: 8' heavy-action Duckett White Ice 2 Gary Klein Flip Stik, Lew's Super Duty Wide Speed Spool casting reel (8:1 ratio), 50-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS braided line, 3/4- or 1-ounce Bass Pro Shops tungsten weight (pegged), 5/0 Lazer TroKar Mark Zona flipping hook, 4" Profound Outdoors Klone Crawsome (black/blue swirl or black/red and copper flake).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "I can't emphasize enough how important having that finishing-up spot near the ramp was – catching that 5-13 at the end of day 3 gave me another 4 pounds. The other thing was not being so stubborn that I stayed down south."
> Performance edge – "The Power-Poles were a big deal, and so was having an aerial photo in my Raymarine unit that allowed me to navigate without guessing where I was going. Also, in some of those places I was running in 3 feet of water for half a mile, so the Atlas hydraulic jackplate was huge."
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