The frigid winter weather that's been hammering the nation will have a major impact on the first Bassmaster Southern Open of 2010 at Lake Okeechobee, which kicks off Jan. 14. Over the past few weeks, the abnormally cold nights have been in the 20s and 30s with daytime highs in the 40s and 50s.
Ohioan Charlie Hartley trekked south to the Big O just before Christmas to thaw out his casting arm and practice for the Open. He has yet to shuck his winter jacket.
The water temperature was 64 degrees when Hartley arrived. Four days prior to the first competition day, it was 42 degrees, which is practically unheard of. Okeechobee's bass are in a major funk.
Then again, there are upsides. The weather forecast calls for highs in the 70s during the tournament, which should activate the bass. Two major pluses are the water level and the abundant aquatic vegetation.
"The lake level is 14 feet," Hartley says. "I like it a little higher, but there will be plenty of shallow backwaters to fish."
Hartley describes the grass as "wonderful." He claims there is more peppergrass than he's ever seen at Okeechobee and plenty of eelgrass, hydrilla, Kissimmee grass and "buggy whips."
These conditions will allow the field to spread out and access places they could not fish during recent low-water times at Okeechobee. The rim canal should play a small role, but Hartley isn't counting it out.
"If the water stay's cold, the rim ditch could be a factor," he says. "The ditch holds deeper, more stable water, so the bass there are less affected by cold weather."
Despite the shivery temperatures, Hartley has found many vacant bass beds made during the last spawn. As slow as the bite is now, the warm front could pull bass to the beds overnight. That's what happened when Dean Rojas made his record catch at Florida's Lake Toho in January of 2001, claims Hartley.
Is that likely to happen at this event? Probably not, believes Hartley. He thinks the bite will be tough early in the tournament and dictate slowdown tactics.
"I'll probably start punching through mats with heavy Texas rigs and deadsticking a Venom Salty Sling," Hartley says. "If a wave of spawners moves up later in the tournament, I'll switch to sight fishing for bedding bass."
Hartley predicts there will be some 20-pound limits but that the weights will drop off quickly. He figures 12 pounds a day will be enough to make the top 30 cut.
"There will be a lot of 5- to 7-pound limits," Hartley says. "The lake is thick with yearling bass."
Terry "Big Show" Scroggins arrived at Okeechobee on the Saturday before the tournament, but he decided not to get on the water. It was 35 degrees, raining and the wind was howling. He came off the water early Sunday afternoon after contending with a morning low of 28 degrees and a high of only 45.
"I'm spending more time looking than fishing," Scroggins says. "The guys who finish well will figure out the winning patterns during the tournament."
Spawning areas that have clean water, sandy bottoms, eelgrass and pencil reeds are high on Scroggins' checklist. He notes that there is a new moon on the final day of the tournament, and he claims that a new moon has a stronger influence on the bass spawn than a full moon.
"It doesn't take but a day or two for them to fire up when the water warms," Scroggins says. "I'll probably start out methodically flippin' mats, but I'll also be looking for spawners."
The mats could be composed of hydrilla, hyacinths, blown-over bulrushes or any vegetation that forms a shady canopy for the bass. If things go as planned, Scroggins expects to be sight fishing beds before the tournament is over.
"It might take as little as 22 pounds to make the 30 cut," Scroggins says. "I expect the winner will catch 16 to 18 pounds a day."