OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — After starting Championship Sunday more than 8 pounds ahead of his nearest competitor, Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals, Ala., struggled throughout the day, but held on tight to win his first championship in a decade at the A.R.E. Truck Caps Bassmaster Elite at Lake Okeechobee.
Horton was only able to bring 11 pounds, 7 ounces of Okeechobee largemouth to the scales today, which pushed his total four-day weight to 83-5. His success topped second-place finisher Ott DeFoe of Knoxville, Tenn., by 1 pound, 4 ounces.
Horton's last victory was at the 2007 Elite Series Champion's Choice on New York's Lake Champlain. It's been 10 years since the 11-time qualifier of the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods took home the trophy and $100,000 first-place prize.
"Today was a very difficult day, no question about it," Horton said. "I'm so thankful and so very blessed that Thursday and Friday went as well as they did. If it weren't for those two heavy limits, I wouldn't have won."
Looking back at Saturday's semifinal round when Horton lost a 9-pounder early on, he said that fish would have put his total near 26 pounds for the day.
"If I would have caught and weighed that fish, I would have been ahead by 13 or 14 pounds," he said. "Had that been the case, I would have stayed closer to the boat ramp and fished conservatively for the win — you can't always do that, but that big bass would have made today a lot easier."
Horton caught his first keeper bass on Sunday at 11 a.m., but not at the spot where he had been fishing the past three days.
"When I arrived at my spot this morning, the wind and fishing pressure made the water a big mess," Horton said. "I knew catching the fish I needed to win from that location was a long shot, so I spent some time looking at a couple other locations and ended up deciding on Harney Pond."
Harney Pond is a 30-mile run from Okeechobee, Fla., on the southwest side of the lake. When Horton scrapped the game plan that had put him in the driver's seat the first three days, he was taking a big risk.
"My family drove 13 hours to watch the final weigh-in, and I really felt like I had let them down," he said. "I literally walked on stage thinking DeFoe had me beat, and it ended up that my 11-pound limit was the most beautiful 11 pounds I've ever caught."
An emotional Horton said having his family present, and sharing the final-day stage with good friend Ott DeFoe made this victory the best of his career.
"I have a tremendous support system, and I wouldn't be here without my family," he said. "So much happened this week — so many ups and downs that I'm not sure the gravity of what's happened has sunk in yet."
Horton won a Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open on Lake Okeechobee in 2004. He relied on this experience but kept an open mind as Florida's renowned big-bass factory has dramatically changed over the years.
The big lake has endured numerous hurricanes, water-level fluctuations and struggling habitat. But the potential for big fish has remained the same thanks to miles of various vegetation types, including hydrilla, milfoil, hyacinth, pencil reeds, alligator grass, pennywort and lily pads.
"Everything I weighed in this week was on a 4-inch Klone Crawsome in two colors: black/blue swirl and a black/red copper," Horton said. "I rigged the creature-style baits on a heavy-duty flipping hook beneath a 3/4- to 1-ounce weight — depending on how thick the reeds were I was flipping to — on 50-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS braid."
Horton's rod of choice was an 8-foot Duckett Flip Stick, Gary Klein Edition, paired with a Lew's SuperDuty Speed Spool baitcaster in an 8.0:1 gear ratio. On the final day, however, he made a few subtle changes.
"Today I caught my fish on a 3/8-ounce tungsten weight rigged on 20-pound test Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon," he said. "I focused on Harney Pond because the water was a little bit clearer, which I felt required a different line selection, but the main presentation stayed the same."
Rounding out the Top 12 are: Ott DeFoe (82-1), Cliff Prince (78-3), Fletcher Shryock (77-10), Greg Hackney (73-12), Dave Lefebre (73-0), Bobby Lane (72-10), Jason Williamson (69-10), Dean Rojas (68-14), Andy Montgomery (67-12), Stephen Browning (67-5) and Adrian Avena (63-14).
Tyler Carriere of Youngsville, La., earned the Phoenix Boats Big Bass Award of $1,500 with a 9-5 largemouth.
DeFoe was awarded $1,000 for leading the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race at the end of the event.
Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla., earned the Power-Pole Captain's Cash Award of $1,000 for being the highest-placing angler who is registered and eligible and uses a client-approved product on his boat.
Horton earned $500 as the recipient of the Livingston Lures Day 2 Leader Award.
The event was hosted by Okeechobee County Tourism.