The first Southern Open, on massive Lake Okeechobee, was marked by a cold weather practice, gently warming tournament conditions and three anglers who persevered to put together winning bags of bass, as well as another who caught a giant.
Here's how they did it.
(1st place — 41 pounds, 2 ounces)
Practice was tough. I saw 43-degree water. But late on the last day I found a mat with some fish under it. That turned out to be what allowed me to win the tournament. It was about 50 yards long and medium thick on top. I really think the water under it was warmer than anything else around there.
I flipped it with a Gambler BB Cricket — a creature bait that first came to prominence on Okeechobee — late on the first day and early and late on the second day. It produced more than half my weight, including a 4- and a 7-pounder on the second day.
I fished it with an All Star 7-foot, 6-inch heavy action flipping stick, a Revo Winch (5.4:1 gear ratio), 65-pound-test Spiderwire, a Gambler 1- or 1 1/2-ounce screw-lock tungsten weight and a 6/0 offset worm hook.
As the water warmed during the day, the bite got better in the shallower water — around 3 feet seemed to be the best depth. That's when I went to a moving bait. I caught a couple on an Azuma Shaker-Z (lipless crankbait), but my main lure was a Gambler Cane Toad rigged with my signature series Double Trouble Toad Hook.
I think the deal here was that they wanted something moving but not something big. The Cane Toad was just right. It moved through the water fast enough to get their attention, but it was slow enough and small enough to let them get a good hold on it.
I fished my moving baits with an All Star 7-foot, 2-inch rod, medium-heavy Frog/Jig Rod, a Revo STX reel (6.4:1 gear ratio) and 50-pound-test Spiderwire.
The lesson here is that you have to fish the conditions. You can't just complain about the cold. You have to find places that'll produce anyway. My mat did that. And then, when conditions changed and the water started to warm up later in the day, I changed with it by going shallow and switching to a moving lure. A lot of guys didn't do that, and they paid a price for it.
(2nd place — 38 pounds, 1 ounce)
Unlike most of the other guys, I had a great practice flipping and pitching mats. Unfortunately, my flipping bite disappeared after the first day of the tournament. I knew I had to do something different.
As the water warmed each day, and especially in the afternoons, I decided to go shallow and fish something moving. My choice was a Berkley Ripple Shad. Rigged with a 5/0 Mustad Big Bite hook, I could pull it through the slop without too many hang-ups.
I threw it with a 7-foot, 6-inch All Star heavy action flipping rod and a Revo Premier reel (6.4:1 gear ratio) spooled with 50-pound-test Spiderwire Ultracast line.
This was a tournament where you had to adjust to conditions. Both Chris and I did that. We went shallow when the water warmed because we knew the fish would become more active. Not a lot of guys did that. They continued to flip and it hurt them. You have to adjust as conditions change.
I want to say something else about this tournament, if I can. I'm more proud of Chris for winning than if I'd won myself. This was a big win for him. He's off to a good start this year, and I know it's going to continue. Go get 'em, Chris!
(3rd place — 37 pounds, 9 ounces)
The weather was severe. I found water in practice that was 42 degrees. That, coupled with the quality of competition, made this one tough. I'm tickled to death with a third place finish.
I caught some of my fish with a Carolina rig, but my primary pattern was flipping and pitching hydrilla and hyacinth mats in 3 and 4 feet of water. It was a matter of slowing down and believing the fish were there. You had to pick everything apart inch by inch.
My flipping lure was a Black Blue Shadow and Cooter Brown Yum Big Show Craw. I fished it with one of the new Duckett Fishing Micro Magic rods — a 7-foot, 10-inch extra-heavy flipping stick — with Shimano and Daiwa reels spooled with 65-pound-test Hi-Seas Braid.
I weighted everything with 1- to 1 1/2-ounce XCalibur Tg tungsten weights and armed my plastic with a 5/0 straight shank hook.
These new Duckett rods are really nice. The micro guides make the rods lighter, which, in turn, makes it less tiring to fish with them. They also decrease line resistance as it goes through the guides, which makes the rods cast longer and more accurately. My flipping stick made a big difference this week.
(Big bass — 10 pounds, 3 ounces)
I wasn't targeting giant bass. I was just trying to catch a limit under a brown hyacinth mat when it happened. My plastic — a black with blue flake Culprit Foxy Craw — just went dead. I really didn't know if it was a fish or not, so I set the hook and out she came.
My rod was a Quantum 7-foot, 6-inch flipping stick. My reel was an old Quantum Accurist Flipping Reel (6.2:1 gear ratio) spooled with 65-pound-test Spidewire Ultracast. I rigged everything with a 1 1/4-ounce Tru-Tungsten weight and a 6/0 Gamakatsu hook.