Okeechobee wind a factor in Elites' strategies

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Lake Okeechobee, this week hosting its 20th Bassmaster event since 1980, has undergone its share of changes over those years. But the “Big O” still ranks as one of the country’s best bass fisheries, say several of the Bassmaster Elite Series pros here for the March 22-25 Power-Pole Slam.

“It’s been one of the top fisheries in the country for, well ... for forever,” said Elite pro Tim Horton, who won a 2004 Bassmaster event on Okeechobee.

Yet that doesn’t mean catching bass here is easy. One reason for that, Horton said, is the prediction for brisk winds this week.

High winds result in stained water across much of the 730-square-mile natural lake. Because it is shaped like a very shallow bowl, wind quickly creates a chop, which stirs the bottom silt, and the water takes on color.

“There are no obstructions on the lake to break the wind,” Horton explained. “What on land is a 10-mph wind can be 20 or better on the water. And, when the wind is from the east, as it has been the past few days, the west side of the lake gets pounded. It’s normally one of the best areas, but that wind makes the bite fall off.”

Elite pro Gary Klein, who first fished Okeechobee in 1979 and won a Bassmaster event here in 1990, also has been watching the wind over the Monday-Wednesday practice period.

“The wind’s got the bottom all turned up,” Klein said. “The fish are still there — they don’t go anywhere —they just don’t like to bite when the water’s silted up.”

But the sediment can settle and the bite can suddenly turn back on, he said.

“It’s a big lake and forever changing. We’ll see a lot of that this week,” he added.

Paul Elias won on Okeechobee in 1988, and he has competed many times since on the big lake. Like Horton and Klein, Elias points to the wind as a factor this week in the Power-Pole Slam.

“With the lake silted up, everyone will probably be crowded up in the areas with the clearest water,” he said.

Wind plays another role, Elias said. A straight run across the lake in a stiff wind is a bone-jarring experience. Some anglers will elect to travel in what’s known as the “rim canal,” a deeper cut that runs along the perimeter of the lake.

For James Niggemeyer, this trip to Okeechobee is only the second of his career. In his first tournament on Okeechobee, the January 2006 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open, he finished fourth.

 “Water clarity is a factor here. The cleanest water will attract the anglers. If there’s more of it, we can spread out more,” he said.

Wind or no wind, Niggemeyer, Elias, Klein and Horton were among those pros expecting to see big sacks top the leaderboard each day. It might take 100 pounds to win, Elias said.

“It doesn’t usually take the amount of weight to win here that it should take this week,” Elias said. “There’s a lot more big fish here now.”

Said Klein, who also guessed 100 pounds over four days to win: “What a great lake, it is chock-full of fish. This lake’s in better shape than I’ve ever seen it.”