Tough doesn’t begin to describe what the first Southern Open was like at Okeechobee last week. All I’d been hearing for weeks was how great the fishing had been. Phrases like “Catching 3 pounders like they were 12 inchers”, “Best fishing we’ve seen in years” and “I’ve got several spots where you can catch 15-19 pounds without moving the boat” were the reports that I was getting.
But as anyone who has fished post cold front conditions in Florida knows; a drop in temperature changes everything. And this was no ordinary cold front. Low temp records were falling all over the state and news reports said that those were the lowest recorded temps in over 20 years. That means that there was not a single fish in Okeechobee that had ever experienced these conditions.
Water temperatures were anywhere from 45 to 48 degrees in the lake and 50 to 53 degrees in some of the protected canals. Tilapia, a warm water species to start with, were dying by the hundreds and littered the bottom in all of the spawning areas that I visited. Those few left alive were so slowed down by the cold water that you could reach out and touch them with the rod tip.
I had fished post cold front conditions at Okeechobee and other Florida fisheries before, so I knew what to expect and thought that I knew what to do. Pre-fishing became more of a matter of looking for areas that you felt that the fish would be in when the water warmed up than finding where they were now.
It’s hard to establish a pattern when you have 6 bites in 4 days of pre-fishing, so I had to fish baits that I knew they liked in these waters and that I’d caught fish on before. Also, it was important to fish something that you had an extreme amount of confidence in, because you would go hours between bites.
Since I’ve always ended up fishing a Senko type bait in Florida, that’s what I decided to use. In this case, I used the Ocho, by Strike King. I really like this bait (even though Strike King is not a sponsor), primarily because I believe that the flat sides make it fall at a different pace than a normal Senko and also because of the built in coffee scent. Fish will not put it down, mostly because of that scent. In fact, I find it hard to get them to drop it during practice.
Tournament fishing is a game of decisions and one little mistake can make all the difference in the world. That was certainly the case down there. On the first tournament day (and the first day that I got up without frost on the boat), I made one of those critical decisions that looking back on it, you have to wonder what you were thinking. I went into my primary area, which I had chosen because I got 3 of the 6 bites that I had gotten there, and got two bites in the first couple of hours. THEN I LEFT! Yeah, I know. But you know the water is always better on the other side of the lake. Not in this case, however, so after wasting about 2 hours there, I came back to where I’d started and caught the only fish of the day.
On day 2, I did what I should have done and dropped the trolling motor at my primary area and picked it up when it was time to go to the weigh-in. That day I had 7 bites and should have caught the limit which would have put me into the money and fishing on Saturday. But I had one of those days that we all have, where nothing goes right. I had 3 fish swim around cross members, one around a grass stalk and one just come off. 2 fish out of 7 bites. Batting 290 in baseball might be acceptable but in this game, it means that you get to go home early and broke. Not that it’s all that new to me. I’ve done it before and hopefully will have the opportunity to do it again in the future. But making the most of those opportunities is what makes the KVD’s of this world what they are; truly amazing.
There were as always some bright points to the trip. As happens at almost every event, I learned a lot. First; and I should have this printed on the inside of my windshield, “NEGATIVE RESULTS ARE STILL RESULTS”. What you learn from not catching them during pre-fishing is that most of the time, everyone else is struggling as well. If you only get a few bites, prepare yourself mentally for a slow tournament where 5 bites a day is a great day. Find a bait and area that you have confidence in and fish it, HARD! Don’t waste time looking for greener pastures that probably don’t exist.
Secondly, pay close attention to what the fish are telling you. 6 of the 7 bites I got that last day came out from under docks and came within an hour and a half window. Once I got a couple of bites under the docks, I really concentrated on those areas and fished them hard. So don’t give up, it can happen fast once you figure them out.
And finally, I have to remember what this game is all about. After all, I’m living the dream and fishing against some of the best anglers in the world. For every guy like me, out there trying to make a go of it, there are hundreds sitting at their desks wishing they could be there. I’d rather be out here struggling and freezing my butt off than sitting somewhere wishing I was fishing.