Starting the season at home

The beginning of a new Bassmaster Elite Series season is always exciting, but this year is unique because we’re starting on my home lake — Okeechobee. This lake is literally world famous for being an incredible bass fishery, but to me, it’s a personal connection.

Okeechobee is part of the family. It’s a living, breathing ecosystem that I’ve fallen in love with.

It’s where I learned to fish and how to make decisions on the water. It’s the lake that made me who I am today.

Lake Okeechobee is where my family’s business is located and where I spent my early years of guiding and showing other people just how special this lake is. I don’t do much guiding anymore, but I still do a few educational trips every year.

What I’m now enjoying the most is sharing my knowledge and passion for Lake Okeechobee with my daughter Hillary. She has become a serious high school competitor, so it’s very meaningful when I get to take her around the lake, show her some of the places I like to fish and tell her stories of what I’ve experienced here.

For example, one of the things I enjoy is pushing deep into the cattails to find little areas that the bass never leave. I’ve taken Hilary into these places and shown her how the fish set up.

In addition to teaching my daughter about the Lake Okeechobee fishing, I’ve also stressed the environmental aspect. For many years, I’ve been an advocate of the lake by fighting for habitat restoration and water quality protection.

I realize the importance of maintaining a healthy lake, so I formed an environmental advocacy group, AFLO — Anglers For Lake Okeechobee. On behalf of this group, I speak at various meetings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The goal is to interact with water management leaders to make sure our concerns for a healthy Lake Okeechobee are heard. I love this lake, and I want to make sure it remains in good shape for my daughter and future generations.

When you look at Lake Okeechobee, I believe what captivates people the most is its vastness. There’s not another North American lake below the Great Lakes where you can’t see across to the other side.

Along with its incredible size, Lake Okeechobee’s resiliency is amazing. As much as the water level fluctuates, it’s ever changing. That can be frustrating, but there’s always something new. That usually means great opportunities somewhere.

The best thing about this lake is its year-round productivity. Most other lakes have their windows of opportunity when the fishing is best, but Lake Okeechobee is productive every month of the year.

My personal best was an 11-pound, 6-ounce giant that I caught flipping one of the lake’s many mats. I’m hoping to run into something like that during the Elite tournament, but overall, I’m looking forward to fishing at home and sleeping in my own bed.

As much as we travel each year, this will be a comfortable way to start the year. However, fishing my home waters does not guarantee any advantage. I have to be smart and make good decisions.

The only home field advantage I may have on this fishery is understanding how the lake fishes at its current water level. Beyond that, I’m competing just like the rest of the field.

I’ll definitely come out swinging and do my best to earn my first Elite Series trophy on the lake that is so special to me. Taking nothing away from my Forrest Wood Cup win in 2011, a win on Lake Okeechobee would rank No. 1.