OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Chris and Bobby Lane grew up in Lakeland, Fla., and as soon as they were old enough to drive, they started fishing Lake Okeechobee. They've seen it go up and down in terms of bass fishing, with the down periods as a direct result of hurricanes in the area.
When the Bassmaster Elite Series Power-Pole Slam begins Thursday, Lake Okeechobee is definitely on the upswing.
"People will set their heaviest all-time bags," said Chris Lane. "Some anglers will catch the biggest bass they've ever caught. It's at its peak."
With a five-bass limit over four days, some Elite Series pros are predicting it will take a total in triple digits to win this event.
"I'm guessing over 100 pounds," said Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., who has been fishing tournaments here for 10 years. "I'm expecting a couple of guys to go over 100.
"I may be wrong. But there's a big year-class of fish here that's in the five-, six-, seven-pound range. You can catch 18 to 20 pounds just about anywhere."
Both Lane and Kennedy have seen this shallow 730-square-mile lake when fishing conditions weren't nearly so good. When it was trashed by a series of hurricanes in 2005 and 2006, the lake got shallow, water clarity became non-existent and the aquatic vegetation was wiped out.
But bass habitat has gotten better every year since. And even before the tropical storms changed it, Okeechobee was noted for its ability to change.
"Every time I come back here, it looks different," Kennedy said. "It's kind of weird. It's unlike any other place we've ever fished."
Kennedy and 17 other Elite Series pros fished in an FLW tournament at Okeechobee in early February. Kennedy finished ninth with 55 pounds, 8 ounces over four days, but that was after a cold front drastically dropped the catch rates on the final day. Winner Randall Tharp still managed a triple-digit total of 101-12.
While Kennedy is predicted over 100 pounds this week, the bass won't be caught where they were in February. There are still some bass on spawning beds in Okeechobee, but water temperatures have climbed into the 80s and most bass are in a post-spawn pattern.
"With that big year-class of fish in here, if you catch five big ones they're going to weigh about 30 pounds," Kennedy said. "It's post-spawn primarily. There ought to be a shad spawn going on. There should be schooling fish; whether there are big schoolers or not, I don't know. I've heard some of them are."
Even though Okeechobee often "fishes small," concentrating tournament anglers in a few key areas, Kennedy doesn't think that will be the case this time.
"Practice made me think it's going to fish pretty big," Kennedy said. "There are fish everywhere.
"I would expect several 30- to 33-pound bags tomorrow. Whether that holds up for a couple of days, I don't know. But we're going to catch 'em, and I can't wait to see it."