Photos by Clay Farmer
Fletcher Shryock has shown consistency all week. Here is his scorecard:
Day 1: 20-4
Day 2: 17-0
Day 3: 18-14
Shryock's chosen fishing style is a huge reason. He spent most of the new year fun fishing in the state of Florida. Most of it flipping, pitching and punching vegetation.
"I'm catching some spawners," he told me this morning. "A lot of those are by reaction strikes."
Shryock is making long casts anywhere he believes there to be a spawning bed. After the bait lands he gives the rod a couple of quick pumps in anticipation of a strike.
He's keeping things simple. The lure of choice is a 3/8-ounce swim jig with a twin-tailed grub.
BASSTrakk shows Shryock with a limit weighing 19-4, including what could be the big bass of the day weighing 7 pounds.
Last minute heroics have been a significant part of the three previous days. With a 3:00 p.m. check-in time, it could still happen today. BASSTrakk currently shows four anglers within six pounds of leader Timmy Horton, with the closest being Ott DeFoe, who is 2-3 back.
As a reminder, below are two key moments yesterday, from Horton and Cliff Prince:
Horton: "I had two minutes to go and I caught a 5-13, which culled out a 13-ounce bass I had been trying to get rid of all day. I made it to check-in with one minute to spare."
Prince: "I culled out a 13-incher with my last pitch of the day. I told my Marshal to have a seat, buckle his life jacket that we were about to head in. I pitched my jig out, saw my line jump and I set the hook into a bass that weighed about 7 pounds."
The culling boards are getting a workout today. That's pretty amazing considering what happened earlier in the week. Ott DeFoe catching 31 pounds on Day 1, Tim Horton coming in with 30 pounds on Day 2. Today? Not going to happen unless the moon tilts the right direction to trigger a wave of spawning females.
The latest BASSTrakk shows a different scene. The Top 12 has caught three bass weighing 4 pounds and 1 weighing an estimated 5 pounds. Timmy Horton has only three keepers weighing about 5 pounds. Ott DeFoe just landed a male bass from a spawning bed. Out came the culling beam. Today, culling up means ounces, not pounds.
After a hop, skip and a muddy jump from where Hackney was the last two hours, we are back where he started this morning.
It's also where he caught his limit. Our guess is, he understands how tough it is and wants to be around more bites.
If that's not a correct guess it at least sounds good and plausible.
If things stay the same it wouldn't take much for him to make a move to the top of the standings. From our standpoint, we like it better because we can actually see him. He may like it better because he knows the fish are here. We will see if they are the right size.
Timmy Horton has been here before, struggling on the final day at Lake Okeechobee. The third of Horton's four B.A.S.S. victories came here in 2004. He jumped out to a big lead with 33-10 on Day 1, followed by 25-10 on Day 2 of the three-day Southern Open.
Horton had an 11-pound, 4-ounce lead over second-place Greg Hackney but struggled mightily with only 6-10 on the final day. That was enough to hold onto first place. He'll be fine with a repeat of that today, even as nerve-wracking as it will be.
In doing interviews for my Lures of the Top 12 article I came across a mix of bait required to catch the bass in all spawning phases.
Reaction and finesse lures filled out the list. Some anglers, like Adrian Avena and Ott DeFoe, had rods and reels lined up on both sides of the deck. Fewer chose a simple approach. One of those anglers is Cliff Prince, who is near the top of the scoreboard. He entered the Top 12 after Day 3 in third place on the strength of a 7-pounder caught minutes before his weigh-in time.
Prince is rotating between a topwater hard bait and soft plastic topwater frog. In open water he uses the plug and the frog comes out for thicker cover.
Keeping it simple is certainly working for Prince.
Earlier today in this blog, Steve Bowman, that jack wagon, expressed disagreement with my theory that today would offer a repeat of the previous three days at Lake Okeechobee. I understand why he might have thought that. I come by the nickname "Mr. Sunshine" honestly, as I'm always looking at the sunny side of life. (Sarcasm alert.)
What I failed to emphasize previously is the downside of Lake Okeechobee, where no matter how good the fishing is for most, it always sucks for some. For every 20-pound bag at the top of the leaderboard, there's a 7-pound, 5-bass limit at the bottom. And it often changes from one day to the next, Jesse Tacoronte being the prime example with 10-12 on Day 1 and 28-4 on Day 2.
Gerald Swindle noted on the weigh-in stage Thursday that at some lakes, when you're not catching 'em, you think it's just one of those days where it's tough all over. But at Lake Okeechobee, there is always somebody catching 'em somewhere. That's got to be haunting Timmy Horton right now.
When a lake covers 448,000 acres, like this one, finding where they're biting is no easy task. And it's not just the "where," it's also the "when." Both Kelly Jordon and Keith Combs fished where Timmy Horton caught his fish the first two days, but had no success there. Jordon weighed a 7-pound, 13-ounce big bass one day here in 2012. Thursday he saw the biggest bass he's ever seen at Okeechobee – an estimated 12 pounds – but couldn't get it to bite. The next day an area that had been sprinkled with big spawning bass, including that 12-pounder, was vacant.
"If you want to go to a place that'll make you bang your head against the wall, this is it," Jordon said.
So, yes, even after whittling the field down to the top 12 anglers over the past three days, it's going to suck for someone today.
It's been a long dry spell for Hackney, much longer than he's had all week.
The day is obviously tough on just about everyone. We've moved from Coot Bay to outside it a bit. It's the same kind of marshy area we were in. But he's yet to swing on one since we got here.
He knows he has to have some big fish today, but he likely doesn't know he's just one big bite out of being in the lead.
We are sitting about as far away from him as we can get and still see at least a piece of him. We are Power-Poled down watching what we can. Any swirl of the trolling motor and you can see a cloud of mud. So we have to stay away.
Still it's a good indication of how quickly these areas can mud up. The wind is still smoking.
The water where we are sitting is marginal. It has to be cleaner in the reeds Hackney is flipping. But we can't know that.
We still expect he will latch into a big bite but it's obviously not coming as quickly as we first thought.
Ott DeFoe's Day 1 lead (4-6) ranks as the fourth best in Bassmaster Elite Series history. Only for the sake of trivia what could or not happen could bring him a dubious distinction.
Should DeFoe not win he will have the second biggest blown lead in Elite Series history. That honor is held by Aaron Martens, who led by 6-4 after Day 1 at the Elite Series event held in 2008 on Falcon Lake in Texas.