OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Like a lot of things in this country, Lake Okeechobee, also known as "The Big O," has seen its ups and downs in recent history. But it's never seen the rarefied air that's hovering over this 730-square-mile lake like it is now, according to the Bassmaster Elite Series pros fishing this week's Power-Pole Slam.
"The first time I fished Lake Okeechobee was in the mid- to late '70s," said 56-year-old Shaw Grigsby from Gainesville, Fla. "It's real different. It used to have a lot of backwater.
"But this is as good as I've seen Okeechobee. It's real, real healthy. That year-class of 5-, 6-, 7- and 8-pounders is just crazy. It's absolutely crazy."
Grigsby backed up his words with a five-bass limit weighing 30 pounds, 7 ounces Saturday. It propelled him into sixth place in the standings on the day the field was cut from the Top 50 to the Top 12.
"There's still a pile-load of big ones out there," Grigsby said. "I've got three big ones that I left out there."
Grigsby has found some spawning bass that have sent him shooting up the standings from 58th place Thursday, to 41st place Friday, to fourth place Saturday.
This tournament has been all about huge five-bass limits. Ish Monroe started it by weighing 34-5 on Thursday. He expanded his Day One lead with 24-15 Friday. But Monroe had "only" 18-2 Saturday, when Chris Lane cut Monroe's 13-pound lead to only 10 ounces with his own 31-3 bag.
"I'm telling you, this is one of the greatest lakes in the country," said Lane, who grew up in nearby Lakeland, Fla., before moving to Guntersville, Ala. "Golly, it's just nuts out there."
Chris and his brother, Bobby, started fishing Okeechobee as soon as they were old enough to drive. They've seen its ups and downs. Between hurricanes and a piling-up of silt, the lake took a downturn. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed tons of silt from the lake when it was low about four years ago, and it has come back stronger than ever.
Chris Lane, who has previously won two B.A.S.S. tournaments here, predicted before this tournament started that several Elite Series pros would catch their biggest bass and their biggest five-bass limits — ever — on Okeechobee this week.
Kevin VanDam did neither, but he made a statement Saturday with a limit weighing 28-11, which included the big bass of the tournament so far, an 8-14. That performance moved VanDam from 39th place into seventh place for Sunday's finale.
"There's so many big ones out there on this lake, that if you get in the right areas when they move up, it's just crazy," VanDam said. "It's about as incredible a lake as you're going to see down here (in Florida) right now.
"I've probably fished four or five tournaments here. I've seen it go through a lot of changes. It's totally different from the last time I was here. It's the best I've ever seen it.
"Every bank on the lake now that has got reeds on it is spawning habitat. They've kept the lake at perfect levels the last few years during the spawn. So there's just a tremendous class of bass between 5 and 8 pounds."
If the wind stays relatively calm, like it did today, VanDam predicted another "freak show" of a weigh-in on Sunday.
However, one cast that Randy Howell made Saturday may have made the biggest statement about the bass fishing in Lake Okeechobee. The Springville, Ala., resident knew there was a chance to catch schooling bass early. So on his first cast of the day, Howell tossed out a big topwater lure.
"It's called 'The One,'" Howell said. "It's like a big Pencil Popper with three treble hooks on it."
Howell reeled in a bass attached to each hook. They weighed 4, 3 1/2 and 3 pounds. In other words, Howell caught 10 1/2 pounds of bass on one cast.
"I've never seen that happen before," Howell said.
There have been a lot of those type moments on The Big O this week.