OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — When the Bassmaster pros were at Lake Okeechobee last fall, they found the big lake considerably higher than most had ever seen it.
When they return to the Big O for the CITGO Florida Bassmaster Southern Open Nov. 18-20, they'll find a Lake Okeechobee transformed by Hurricane Frances and higher than ever.
A perennial favorite of BASS pros and fans, Lake Okeechobee has maintained its status as one of the country's premier bass factories for more than 30 years. The second-largest freshwater lake located entirely within the continental United States, it surrendered a seven-bass stringer weighing 36 1/2 pounds to Kentucky pro Ron Shearer — a record that stood for years. In a survey of the pros in the mid-1980s, Okeechobee was selected as the best lake of the previous 20 years, the best lake at that time and the most likely to be the best lake over the next 20 years.
But the Big O will have a new look this time around.
The hurricane pushed water levels to near capacity, but that was just the beginning. Winds from Frances have caused extremely turbid conditions and uprooted much of the lake's famed vegetation.
"A little over a month ago, I was on the lake fishing out of Moore Haven in the Fisheating Bay area," said Robert Miley, an Okeechobee regular and Southern Open competitor from Miami. "I had two fish over 10 pounds and several 6-pound fish. Then the hurricane blew in, and it changed everything.
"They had a 12-foot storm surge from the hurricane when it came through around the Slims area, and it did some damage. The water was an ugly chocolate color, but it's starting to settle down."
Veteran Florida pro Steve Daniel, a longtime guide on Okeechobee, isn't fazed by the changes to the 730-square-mile lake.
"Okeechobee has always been there, and there have always been hurricanes," the three-time CITGO Bassmaster Classic qualifier said. "I think it's going to be a good tournament if it settles down a little more.
"There's not a lot of clear water, but the water that is clear is full of bass. The lake was really good before the storm, and sometimes those storms have a way of doing things that are good. It's going to be interesting when we finally see what the storm did to the water.
"I think we're going find that there are a lot of sandy areas in places that weren't sandy before the hurricane. I think Mother Nature has a way of helping natural lakes like Okeechobee."
One of the peculiarities about Lake Okeechobee is that its largemouth population is drawn to clear-water areas. The lack of such areas is likely to concentrate both bass and bass fishermen during the three competition days.
"It's coming down now, but it's sill high," Daniel added. "It's been this high before, but usually it's a slow rise.
"The clear areas are going to get hammered. For some reason, the fish in the muddy water in Okeechobee have always been tough to catch. It's just a matter of finding a little area of clear water that nobody else finds. It might take riding around in an airboat for a few days to do it."
A Big O regular since 1972, Miley pointed out that the hurricane's impact has created more vegetation tussocks — floating mat-like islands that bass often hold under. That should bode well for the Southern Open anglers. He predicts that the South Bay, Harney Pond and Kings Bar areas are going to prove particularly productive.
"It's going to take a load to win," Daniel said. "There are some one-day tournaments right now that are taking 28 to 30 pounds to win.
"It's probably going to be a flipping deal, and there might be a topwater bite. We know there are a lot of mats. When the water gets high, the fish like getting under those mats, so the guys who really like fishing that way will have an advantage."
There's a lot in stake in this event, the final of three Southern Open tournaments. In addition to the $50,000 first-place prize, the top 15 in the season-ending standings will earn a ticket to the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship, while the top 20 gain entry into the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Tour.
The top five finishers in the Open Championship will earn a spot in the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh.
Daily weigh-ins will begin at 3:00 p.m. at Okee-tantie Marina and are free to the public.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Southern Open include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Toyota, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, and Bass Pro Shops.
Local Sponsors include Okeechobee County Tourist Development.