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Fishing Lake Okeechobee

By Joe Suroviec

From laidback shiner fishing to fast-paced tournament action, Lake Okeechobee offers something for everyone.

Fishing a long rod and short line under post frontal conditions.

I slowly swung my shiner rig towards the pocket of a cattail edge and it hit the water with a lazy splash. The neon pink bobber attached to my 20-pound mono 24 inches above the shiner never made it back to the surface, and my guide, Larry Wright out of Garrard's Bait and Tackle in Okeechobee, said to me, “They gotcha!”

Quickly I reeled down, came tight, and set the hook. I saw the fish rush towards the boat and felt its heaviness as it bore its way around the back of the boat and then with a mighty splash and tail-walk display burst back towards the cattail edge.

I thumbed the reel to thwart the fish's attempt to reach safety. Several stress-filled minutes later, I held up my first over-10-pound bass. Slightly over 26 inches long and officially weighed in at 10.6 pounds, she glistened in the sunrise, dime-sized eyes darting, white belly fins waving slowly.

What an awesome feeling to lift a fish like that for a quick picture. Then, a swirl and she was gone. Moments like this are happening more and more on Florida's biggest and most famous bass lake, Lake Okeechobee.

From historic low water and drought conditions several years back, to near-record high water levels now, Lake Okeechobee, also known as the “Big O” here in South Florida, has come roaring back like an on-again, off-again sports hero. The lake has been in high gear in recent years.

“The lake looks as good as I can remember it,” said Wright, who has more than 30 years on this 50-mile-wide lake. “As far as the size and numbers goes, the bass are obviously flourishing here with the higher water levels that have been sustained this season."

Wide fluctuations in water levels are bad, according to Wright. Bass beds, those fanned-out areas where the female deposits her eggs, may be exposed when water levels drop dramatically. If the water is too shallow, the adult bass cannot protect the eggs and fry against marauding bluegill, catfish and other predators. Stable levels provide optimum conditions for successful spawns, and according to Larry, the bass have been “doing double duty in the procreation department in recent years.”

Wright theorizes that Okeechobee bass are now spawning year-round, which promises more and larger bass for those who enjoy the pursuit of the largemouth bass.

Located in the eastern middle of the state, Lake Okeechobee is truly a huge body of water. Miles of shoreline, bays, airboat trails, grass edges, floating hyacinth islands and a host of other bass habitat await anglers. It seems that every foot of it is prime bass water. The lake also holds stable populations of black crappie, shellcrackers, bluegill, channel catfish, gar and a host of other freshwater fishes.

Gearing Up

Bass fishing lends itself to revolving spool baitcasting reels and rods, for accurate casting with heavy line, 20-pound-test and up. Spinning gear can be as effective, if you are an accurate caster. You'll be targeting narrow zones, such as points, bends, areas of different vegetation, and boat trail openings. Why heavy line? Lake Okeechobee bass fishing is usually done in areas that have heavy vegetation cover, and moving fish out of this stuff is not a job for ultralight outfits. When fish are schooling in open water, as they sometimes do in summer, medium spinning outfits are handy for casting small topwaters, spinnerbaits and other lures.

Many anglers use braided polyethylene lines, such as Power Pro. When flipping heavy cover I tie direct to the lure, but when live baiting I prefer to use a 3-foot section of 20-pound fluorocarbon as my leader. For livebait fishing lake Okeechobee, kahle-style hooks in the 4/0 range are preferred, as they can pull through the cattails if you cast your bait a tad too far and become entangled.

Tournament Treasure Hunt

By Vance McCullough

As days become shorter, Okeechobee bass move to well-known spawning grounds. So do hordes of diehard anglers, many of them participating in tournaments restricted to artificial lures only.

Last February, I had the opportunity to fish the FLW Tour season-opener out of Clewiston, on the south shore. I was a co-angler, which meant that I'd fish with a boater. On the second day of the tournament, I was matched with Drew Benton, a 24-year-old angler from Panama City, Florida. He went on to win the event, a $100,000 payout. As we approach another season, Benton's strategy is worth recalling.

Sight-fishing for spawning bass is usually a good bet from about November through March. So is flipping heavy, compact plastic lures into matted surface vegetation. But in February 2013, the lake threw a curveball at Benton and the remaining field of 174 anglers. At 14.5 feet, the lake level was 2 feet higher than what locals say is optimal for fishing.

“When the water gets up, it floods back into thick grass where nobody can get to the fish,” said Clewiston-based guide Mike Jones, with whom I spoke after the FLW event. “That makes it really hard on the fishermen, especially the ones who like to flip for big fish in the matted stuff.”

Benton had a solution. Rather than fish the shallows behind tall, thick cattail walls that protect the interior spawning flats, he located bass grouped outside the wall leading to a major spawning flat in an area known as South Bay. Water was dirty, as usual in the wind-whipped area outside the reed line.

The fish he caught had just moved in from the wide, almost-oceanic expanse of Okeechobee. They likely roam no-man's-land most of the year and seldom see a lure. But they had landed in South Bay, ready for love, hungry, and reckless. You can tell how deep a fish has been living by the shade of color on him. Shallow

bass are dark, almost black. Their bellies are often tinged of gold. The bass Benton caught were bright green with bellies of white that stretched to their lateral lines before meeting another hue.

Benton's biggest task was to find a lure the fish could easily locate. He choose a vibrating jig made by his friends at PGM Lures. “It has a curved blade which comes through the grass better,” he said. Scattered

bulrush and maidencane were part of the terrain, but the primary draw, from the fish's perspective, was the rocky bottom that held heat and warmed eggs in the bellies of big females.

“These fish are right on the bottom,” explained Benton. Though he fished in only 3- to 4-foot depths, it was crucial that the lure scrape the firm earth beneath the water. “I'm using 20-pound fluorocarbon

line to keep my bait down. I used braid in practice but it pulled the lure up toward the surface and I didn't get near as many bites.”

I watched Benton replace a 5-fish limit in his livewell with bigger bass in about 15 minutes. He had gone from an aggregate weight of about 13 pounds to 23 pounds of bass. The gracious young man gave me one of the lures he was using. I had rigged five rods with various weights of braided line. The material had served me well in the types of places I had fished all week, but out here in the open water, needing to get a lure down just a foot deeper, it handicapped me. By the time Benton noticed I was using braid, the school had quit biting. But the lesson is burned in my brain now—always rig at least one rod with fluorocarbon line.

Late on the final day, Benton's outside reed line let him down. He had only small fish. And he had hunted them from spawning grounds behind the cattail walls. On his fourth trip through his prime area Benton changed lures. With 7 minutes left to fish, he tied on a Hildebrandt Okeechobee Special spinnerbait, made a cast and caught the 7-pound bass that sealed the top spot.

The FLW Tour (named for Forrest L. Wood, founder of Ranger Boats) has begun its major league tournament season in Clewiston every February for years.

Like many avid Florida bass fishermen, I enjoy following the FLW Tour to see how the traveling pros dissect a lake. In February of 2012, Randall Tharp ran way with the trophy on Lake Okeechobee by flippin' matted vegetation with a Bitter's Bait and Tackle beaver style lure behind a heavy weight. After four days, he had brought over 100 pounds to the scale.

Flippin' is a very popular technique. Basically, you're punching a piece of soft plastic through the canopy of collected eel grass or floating hyacinths blown against a reed line or the matted surface of topped-out, folded-over hydrilla stalks.

For sight-fishing interior shallows, Power Poles are helpful, as the hydraulic anchors can be deployed to stop the boat before an angler rolls over a big spawning fish in 3 feet of water. Alternately, use a push pole to guide the boat and to stop it instantly as need be.

The spawn lasts more than half the year on Okeechobee. Bass are constantly moving in from the main lake or moving back out. When shallow fish scatter back into unreachable places, the best bet is to take a page from Drew Benton's playbook: Find a wave of offshore females making a push into transition areas where they will feed heavily before moving in to spawn. FS

Lake O North and South: Where to Go

South: Clewiston

Clewiston is one of the small towns which have grown up around the Hoover Dike on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.

Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina is the epicenter of fishing here. “It's basically a small city to itself,” noted Jillian Sparks of Hendry County Tourism. Aside from the rooms, condos and cabins available, the marina has lots of dock space, boat rentals and the well-known Tiki Bar which draws huge crowds for karaoke on the weekends.

The Clewiston Inn is another wonderful place to stay. Established in 1938, the inn is on the National Register of Historic Places. The inn offers modern conveniences including strong wi-fi service. It also boasts an elegant dining room and cozy lounge with a full bar.

Of course, truck tailgates still make for some of the best meeting places. That's where I met Tom Dixon. Tom was charging his boat batteries. The Clewiston Inn has power outside for that purpose.

“My wife and I have come down here every February for the past 6 years,” said Tom. “I can't tell you how many 100-plus bass days we've had on artificial lures.”

This was the Dixons' first stay at the Clewiston Inn and they were enjoying it. “We usually stay at Roland's. They're a little busy this week,” he laughed, drawing reference to the FLW Tour tournament.

For more, see; 800-473-6766. Or visit the Hendry County Tourism Development website at —V. McCullough

North: Okeechobee

If you're new to the lake, and thinking to yourself that even the boat ramps looks fishy, consider hiring a guide.

Most tackle shops in the Lake Okeechobee area can point you to a few good guides. A number of guides fish out of Garrard's Bait and Tackle off 441 in the town of Okeechobee, for instance. Recently Margaret Helton expanded the operation to move into a larger facility and increase her tank space for holding a steady supply of wild golden shiners. They can be purchased for around $15 to $20 per dozen. See or call 800-600-3474.

Captain Mike Shellen (; 888-203-3474) is another Okeechobee local who keeps close tabs on the fishing. His website includes a host of valuable information about the lake, including updates on water levels.

Shellen runs livebait or artificial lure charters on a 21-foot Ranger, often launching at the Okee-Tantie

ramp. The little bait and tackle shop there was closed at press time, but Lightsey's Restaurant is not to be missed, offering a host of Florida specialties including frogs legs and all-you-can-eat catfish.

Shellen suggests visiting anglers overnight at the Hampton Inn in Okeechobee.

First Published Florida Sportsman November 2013

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