OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Bass fishermen generally have a love/hate relationship with Lake Okeechobee. Yes, it's one of the best bass fishing lakes in the world. And it can also leave you frustrated enough to break a flipping stick across your knee.
Gerald Swindle has experienced the highs and lows of Lake Okeechobee during the first two days of the Bassmaster Elite Series Power-Pole Slam.
"It all looks good, from the boat ramp to the cafeteria," Swindle said. "And you can't catch jack in most of it."
The Warrior, Ala., pro has managed to stay in the hunt on this 730-square-mile monster of a bass fishery. But it hasn't been easy. He had only two bass weighing about 4 pounds at 12:30 p.m. Friday, but changed course and finished with 16-11 on the day. Swindle is in 20th place with 30-13.
"There's nothing else like this place," Swindle said. "You can't read it. Wind direction doesn't mean anything. The contour — the fish don't relate to that. You really just have to go on a gut feeling, get on your trolling motor and let the fish tell you what to do. If you don't get any bites in one place, don't stay."
Just about every Elite Series angler was confident after the practice days earlier this week. Then the tournament started, and many anglers were left scratching their heads.
"Honestly, compared to what was biting in practice, I've really not figured anything out," said Ott DeFoe, who is in eighth place with 35-10. "It was ugly then. I've done okay every day, but I was expecting to catch 17 or 18 pounds pretty easy each day, then go catch some big ones. It's been a struggle to catch a 3 1/2-pounder really.
"I've figured out a little bit more, but it's still a grind. You've just really got to keep your head down and know you're doing the right thing, and eventually you'll get a bite."
No one was more confident going into this tournament than Steve Kennedy. The Auburn, Ala., resident finished ninth in an FLW tournament here last month and has had success in the past on Okeechobee. Then Kennedy managed to catch only 10-15 Thursday, and joined the ranks of the head-scratchers here.
"Today I down-sized everything," Kennedy said. "I went out looking for 15 pounds and a check. I wasn't trying to win anymore. I just wanted a check."
Kennedy assured himself of a paycheck by catching 21-2 Friday when the field was cut to the top 50. He's in 16th place with 32-1.
"I whacked them," Kennedy said. "I had a blast. I probably caught 30 or 40 fish."
With Ish Monroe's first-place total of 59-4, it seems he's about to lap the field. But Kennedy, DeFoe and Swindle know that Lake Okeechobee can turn from a friend to an enemy in 24 hours.
"It's really hard to put together four good days in a row on this lake," Kennedy said. "You've got to have places on opposite ends of the lake in case the wind comes from different directions."
By Friday afternoon there was no wind coming from any direction. And that could cause problems for anyone who thinks he finally has a reading on Lake Okeechobee's bass fishing.
"I think it's going to change," said Chris Lane, who is in second place with 45-9 and has two B.A.S.S. victories in his Lake Okeechobee history. "The wind still blew all morning. Now it's slick. It's changing right now."
Yesterday seemingly means nothing here; every day is a new day.
"I'm learning a lot about Florida fishing," Swindle said. "When they decide not to bite, you ain't going to do nothing with them.
"It's amazing how 4 feet will make all the difference between getting bit and not getting bit. That's what blows your mind about fishing here. You've got this whole giant lake and it comes down to 4 feet."