By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

There's a school of thought regarding tournament bass fishing in Florida that says if you're not around other boats, you're not around fish. Not everybody buys in to it, though.

"A quote by Greg Hackney that I read a couple years ago has stuck with me ever since," said Floridian Cliff Prince, who finished 3rd at last week's Lake Okeechobee Bassmaster Elite Series in his home state. "He said if you're fishing around these guys all day, day in and day out, you're not going to win. They're too good.

"I think most of the people you saw do well in this tournament, for at least some part of each day, they were off by themselves."

Indeed. Winner Tim Horton relied primarily on a single place in the southern part of the lake that he shared only with Dean Rojas. Runner-up Ott DeFoe, Prince, 4th-place finisher Fletcher Shryock and 5th-place finisher Hackney all had at least one key place that was away from the crowd that gathered along the North Shore on the full-field days.

Following are some pattern details for the anglers who finished immediately behind Horton.

2nd: Ott DeFoe

> Day 1: 5, 31-03
> Day 2: 5, 17-03
> Day 3: 5, 14-14
> Day 4: 5, 18-13
> Total = 20, 82-01

DeFoe, who nearly pulled off his second win in the last three regular-season Elite Series events and now sits atop the Angler of the Year (AOY) race, had a starting area along the North Shore. From there, he continually worked his way south and had little company for the rest of the day.

He keyed on the shad spawn during the early hours and on spawning bass during the rest of the day, fishing mostly around dollar pads. He'd occasionally pull out a flipping stick and switch his focus to extremely thick Kissimmee grass, along with reeds and cane.

"I also caught a few out of mats, but not the really thick stuff," he said.

He boxed a tournament-best 31-03 on day 1 – a bag that was topped by a pair of 8-06 brutes. He came in 14 pounds lighter the next day, however, and his stout 18-03 on the final day wasn't quite enough to overtake Horton, who'd amassed 26- and 30-pound sacks over the first 2 days.

His primary baits were two different-colored versions of the Terminator Walking Frog Jr. He employed a smoke/silver shad frog early on and a coco camo later in the day.

"The area in the north where I started, I only caught one big one there (one of the 8-06s on day 1), but I caught a lot of 2 3/4- to 3-pounders," he said.

> Frog gear: 7'2" medium action Bass Pro Shops Titanium 8 rod, Bass Pro Shops CarbonLite casting reel (7.5:1 ratio), 30-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS 8 Advanced Braid line, Terminator Walking Frog Jr. (smoke/silver shad or coco camo).

> Flipping gear: 7'10" heavy-action Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum casting reel (8.3:1 ratio), 65-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS 8 Advanced Braid line, 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Swagger tungsten weight, punch skirt (black/blue), 5/0 VMC Heavy Duty Flipping hook, Bass Pro Shops River Bug (black/blue flake).

> Main factor in his success – "Keying on the shad spawn in the morning and also catching good filler-fish – I didn't have to weigh in 14-inchers."

> Performance edge – "Probably my (Nitro Z21) boat and motor as much as anything. That lake gets pretty bouncy and even running 25 miles one way, I didn't have to worry about anything."

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Cliff Prince caught quality fish in a variety of ways.

3rd: Cliff Prince

> Day 1: 5, 21-11
> Day 2: 5, 21-06
> Day 3: 5, 19-11
> Day 4: 5, 15-07
> Total = 20, 78-03

The lack of a giant bag on any of the 4 days prevented Prince from truly threatening Horton – his best haul was 21-11. His presentations varied considerably as a topwater propbait accounted for his best fish on day 1, sight-fishing ruled day 2 and he utilized a frog for most of the weekend.

"I stayed in the north, but I really wasn't in the crowds," he said. "Two of the areas I fished I didn't have any other competitors in there with me. I almost didn't go to one of them on the first day because I figured it'd be covered up with boats, but when I showed up there was nobody there.

"I stopped out there in the crowd on the first morning and I said to myself, 'If you stay out here, you're fishing for 50th (place). I got bit and I caught a couple, but nobody was doing a whole lot."

One of his key areas off the beaten path was a field of hydrilla in Harney Pond and the other was a pad-laden spot in the Monkey Box. He spent the final hour behind King's Bar, not far from the launch site.

"I wish I'd won the doggone thing. One of these days I'm going to put 4 days in a row together."

> Frog gear: 7' heavy-action Fitzgerald Versa rod, Team Lew's Custom Pro Speed Spool casting reel (7.5:1 ratio), 40-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line, Fitzgerald T-Fitz Poppin' Frog (brown).

> Topwater gear: 6'6" medium-heavy Fitzgerald Stunner rod, same reel, 17-pound Seaguar monofilament line, Greenfish Tackle TAT (custom painted chrome with black back and orange belly).

> Flipping gear: 7'8" Fitzgerald Titan HD rod, Team Lew's Super Duty Speed Spool casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 50-pound Seaguar Denny Brauer Flippin' Braid, unnamed 1 1/4-ounce weight, Owner 5/0 flipping hook, Bass Assassin Fat Job (gold rush).

> Main factor in his success – "Having those places that I had to myself."

> Performance edge – "I would say my rods. For what I was doing, they were exactly what I needed to get the job done."

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Fletcher Shryock's 21-08 haul was the best of day 4.

4th: Fletcher Shryock

> Day 1: 5, 17-00
> Day 2: 5, 20-04
> Day 3: 5, 18-14
> Day 4: 5, 21-08
> Total = 20, 77-10

Shryock spent 2 weeks pre-fishing for the event and familiarized himself with Okeechobee's most popular bass haunts. When he came back for official practice, he decided to try to find something different.

What he came up with was a very small area on the northern end that had clean water, but very little cover. Nonetheless, big fish were hanging out there.

"It had a hard reed line all the way around and some isolated pencil reeds and maybe a little point," he said. "That was about it."

He threw a swimjig and said he lost numerous big fish on days 1 and 2 before figuring out how to keep them hooked up – he needed to loosen the drag on his reel until it slipped a little when he set the hook.

"When they'd bite, they'd almost take the rod out of my hand, and it didn't take a lot to get a hook in them," he said. "On the first day I had one open the hook all the way up and get off.

"After I loosened the drag, when they'd get near the boat and want to take off and run, I'd just let the drag slip a little line out and I'd wear them out. When I got them in they were hooked perfectly."

A stealthy approach and precise casts were critical.

"If I didn't hit within 6 inches (of his target), I didn't catch that fish. If I got bit, it was always within the first 1 to 2 feet of the retrieve."

> Swimjig gear: 7'4" medium-heavy Abu Garcia Ike Power Series rod, Abu Garcia Revo ALX casting reel, 50-pound Spiderwire Stealth Smooth braided line, unnamed 3/8-ounce swimjig (black/blue), Yamamoto Twin Tail Grub trailer (black/blue).

> He flipped up one weigh-in fish at the end of day 4 on a Medlock jig and caught one on day 1 swimming a worm.

Main factor in his success – "Being able to get away from the crowd. These big Florida fish, if they don't have trolling motors going by and big engines over their head all day, they will bite. It's almost like you have to get away from fish to find fish."

Performance edge – "The Spiderwire line was a big key – it casts really, really well."

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Greg Hackney wasn't around a huge number of fish, but he had them mostly to himself.

5th: Greg Hackney

> Day 1: 5, 20-02
> Day 2: 5, 19-09
> Day 3: 5, 21-07
> Day 4: 5, 12-10
> Total = 20, 73-12

Hackney fished the southern part of the massive lake, but his area was a considerable distance west of the place where Horton caught the two giant bags. Like Prince, he was ultra-consistent over the first 3 days, but lacked an eye-popping stringer.

"I did learn a lot about the lake this week from the way I approached it," he said. "In Florida, you can't just blow through an area in practice and then (disregard it) the way you can in places with northern-strain fish.

"When you get the big ones to bite in Florida, they're one of the most aggressive fish anywhere on the plant – but it can be hard to get them to bite. Every one I caught this week was extremely aggressive."

He had a relatively uneventful practice – he got only a couple of bites in the 5 1/2- to 6-pound class. When the tournament got under way, he returned to those places and picked them apart methodically.

"I knew I wasn't around the Mother Lode, but I didn't see very many competitors. Under those circumstances, you don't need to have a lot."

He caught everything he weighed on Strike King jigs – one that he swam around pads and another that he flipped into cattails and bulrushes.

> Swimjig gear: 7'6" Quantum Tour Tactical rod, Quantum Smoke HD 200 casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 50-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 3/8-ounce Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover Swim Jig (black/blue), Strike King Rage Lobster trailer (black/blue).

> Flipping gear: 8' Quantum Tour Tactical flipping stick, same reel and line, 3/4- or 1-ounce Strike King Hack Attack Heavy Cover Jig, same trailer.

Main factor in his success – "Really slowing down seemed to be the deal."

Performance edge – "My (Phoenix) boat, without a doubt – that was a pretty treacherous trip down there and back. The Power-Poles would be No. 2."

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