Brett Hite Wins FLW Lake Okeechobee

Brett Hite Wins FLW Lake Okeechobee

Brett Hite kicked off a new chapter in his career by conquering Lake Okeechobee while fishing a pattern that's not typically thought of as a way to win a major event there in February. Sure, casting and winding baits will catch some decent fish at the Big O, but it's usually not the main course, especially across a 4-day tournament that's scheduled smack in the middle of prime spawning time. Hite discovered some areas in practice that harbored just the kind of vegetation he was looking for - and plenty of it - and he worked the edges of those grass lines to pick off fish he believed to be in all three phases of the spawn. He flipped and punched sparingly and caught the bulk of his weigh fish on a Z-Man ChatterBait, a swimjig, a Texas-rigged Senko or an ultra-shallow crankbait. Had the moon phase set up for a new or full moon to fall during the event, there's no telling how much of a role sight-fishing would've played or if Hite's fish would've cooperated. Some bedders were hauled to the scale, but the final analysis shows that the winding more than held its own on a lake typically dominated by flippers this time of year. "The area I was fishing didn't have as many mats as far as hyacinth or hydrilla mats," Hite said. "It was all subsurface vegetation and that's the way I like to fish here. In years past, I've gotten a lot of checks here, but I'd have one good day and one bad day because there wasn't enough water with that type of vegetation to fish. "As soon as I pulled in there, I said, 'Oh yeah,' because I saw a lot of the good stuff and knew I'd be able to fish the way I like to fish." He started the event with a bang, catching 34-15 on day 1 and never looked back. He held a 12-pound lead after days 2 and 3 and finished with 88-14, beating Greg Bohannan by more than 6 pounds. The win kicks off a busy year in which Hite will fish both the FLW Tour and Bassmaster Elite Series for the first time. "Seldom do guys win a tournament leading start to finish and I'm proud of that," he said. "That's more of a mental deal a lot of the time - keeping your head in the game and staying focused. I just told myself to put my head down and go fishing because I knew it definitely wasn't over after the first day."

In practice, Hite went immediately to the known community holes on the west side of the lake known as the Monkey Box and Fisheating Bay, and he stayed put. "Those areas have the most vegetation and have a mix of hydrilla and eelgrass," he said. "I told myself going into the tournament that I needed to commit to a certain area. "Last year on the final day of practice, I went in there, but left and I kicked myself the whole time. I knew I had to put my head down and learn the area really well this time." Instead of identifying spots in other portions of the lake, he devoted his entire practice session to the west side. "It's a pretty good-sized area," he said. "I wouldn't call it gigantic, but I spent all 3 practice days in there. I just did what I could to learn as much as I could about it. I identified enough spots in there, too, that I had ample time to run back and forth so if I wanted to make a move, I'd only have to go a quarter-mile. "Most tournaments are won in there and it has the biggest population of fish and the most vegetation. I put all of that into my game plan and decided I wasn't going to leave." He said his biggest bites in practice came punching 1 1/2-ounce weights through the few mats he could find. He also caught some decent fish casting reaction baits on outside grass lines. Ultimately, the casting pattern won out and punching was his fallback option. "It's important down here to have a couple patterns working because things are never the same 2 days in a row in Florida," he said.

Competition:

When Hite arrived at his chosen starting spot on day 1, he found it occupied by a group of shiner fishermen. He did a U-turn, but didn't really have an alternate spot picked out to go to. Once he did settle on a spot, he couldn't keep the big fish off his line as he cleaned up with a ChatterBait and swimjig. "I just started jacking them," he said. The ensuing flurry that lasted until 1 p.m. saw him put four fish weighing 7-05 or more in his livewell, including an 8-02 kicker that ate a Texas-rigged Senko fished slowly on a grass edge. His small fish on day 1 weighed 4-09. He repeatedly looked in his livewell with a sense of disbelief. He backed off the area eventually, thinking there was no use in throwing back 4-pounders he may need to catch later in the event. "It was crazy," he said. "I can understand going to Lake Falcon and having the expectation to catch a bag like that, but here 25 pounds is considered a strong day. I kept looking in the livewell, saying, 'These are some gigantic bass.'" Hite was at the tournament at Lake Toho in 2001 when Dean Rojas weighed in a 45-02 stringer that still stands as the B.A.S.S. record for a five-fish limit. While he fell just short of breaking the FLW single-day mark, he knew things lined up just right for him that day to catch the biggest bag of his tournament career. "I've been around long enough to know it doesn't happen like that all the time," Hite said. Knowing how finicky Florida bass can be with even the slightest change in weather, Hite was fortunate to follow up his massive day-1 catch with a 23-08 bag on day 2 that widened his lead to 12 1/2 pounds over Randall Tharp.

"I started in the same spot from day 1 and caught a decent one - not a giant, but a good fish - and caught a couple more keepers," he said. "Looking back, maybe I stayed a little too long, but I was just wondering if they were still there or if they had moved up." He then shifted to the stretch where he'd caught his biggest fish the previous day. It was a half-mile long hard grass line that had certain key areas along it. "I'd go along for a while and not catch anything, then I'd get to within 20 or 30 yards of my waypoint and catch three or four real quick," he said. "Within a half hour, I had two 7-pounders on a swimjig. When it got to be 11 or so, the lake slicked off and it was high skies that day. Under those conditions, I caught most of my fish on the swimjig. It's more of a finesse scenario when conditions aren't great for a ChatterBait." On Day 3, he caught a decent keeper off his starting spot, but the bite wasn't what it had been. He opted to go to his backup punching spots, a crucial decision that resulted in some key fish that allowed him to maintain a 12-pound cushion entering the final day. "I ran to spots I'd been saving because the bite was better there later in the afternoon," he said. "I had three little keepers and a 3-pounder. We had high skies and no wind and I knew I should've had more bites by then. I had been keeping those spots in my back pocket. "Around 11, I said I'd give myself until 12:30. On stuff like that I like to set a time limit for myself. I figured if I didn't have any bites by noon, I'd go do something else. At 11:45, I was literally lifting my punching rig off a mat and a 4-pounder boiled on it and grabbed my bait."

Winning Pattern:

When Hite won at Lake Toho in 2008, he fished more shoreline-related cover, or "hard lines," as he called them. At Okeechobee last week, he was nowhere near the shore. At times, he was a half-mile from the bank. "It was like structure-fishing grass," he said. "For me, I like fishing a grass edge or a break in the grass. That's how I've fished here the last 4 years. "Sooner or later, it'll hit and the conditions will be right. There was ample hydrilla with no mats and those bigger fish seem to congregate along those edges whether they're spawning, coming in to spawn or post-spawn." Some of the grass he fished was topped off, but other stuff was 1 or 2 feet beneath the surface. He said the fact that shiner fishermen were on his first spot the first couple days didn't bother him. "I always waited for those guys to clear out, but it was like they were feeding the bass and getting them fired up," he said. "It was like they were chumming the water and I'd go in there and clean up on them later."

Winning Gear:

ChatterBait gear: 7'3" medium-heavy EverGreen Heracles Leopard casting rod, Shimano Chronarch Ci4+ casting reel (6.2:1 ratio), 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Z-Man ChatterBait Elite (black/blue and green-pumpkin), 4.5" Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Swimming Senko (black/blue and green-pumpkin). He also used the 4-inch version of the Swimming Senko, but relied more on the larger size because he liked the tail better.

Swimjig gear: 7'1" medium-heavy EverGreen Kaleido Super Stallion casting rod, same reel, 20-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. unnamed swimjig (green-pumpkin), same trailer (green-pumpkin). Hite called the EverGreen Super Stallion "the most impressive rod he's ever picked up." They're hard to find in the U.S. and will set you back more than $1,000 if you procure one from overseas. He opted for Shooter fluoro because it has less stretch than Sniper and with the thicker swimjig hook, he was able to get better hook penetration.

Senko gear: Same rod as swimjig, Shimano Metanium casting reel (7.4:1 ratio), same line as swimjig, pegged 1/8-oz. Reins Tungsten slip sinker (black), 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG Superline worm hook, 6" Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Senko (black/blue flake).

Punching gear: 7'7" EverGreen Heracles flipping rod, same reel as Senko, 60-pound Sunline FX2 braided line, 1 1/2-oz. Reins Tungsten slip sinker (black), 5/0 Gamakatsu Heavy Cover worm hook, 4.5" Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Flappin' Hog (black/blue flake).

Shallow cranking gear: 6'11" medium-heavy EverGreen Heracles casting rod, same reel as ChatterBait, 16-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, EverGreen Combat Crank Shallow 60 (black back/gold sides). He opted for this particular crankbait because it doesn't dive as deep as a squarebill. It fishes like a Mann's Baby-1 Minus, but has a wide wobble and Hite prefers it around shallow grass. He made parallel casts along the grass line to pick up two key keepers on day 2.

Main factor: "Execution was big and so was having all of my spots in one area. That was important being able to fish as much as you can and not have to run around. On Lake Okeechobee, so many people get up with catching them around North Shore or J&S or Kings Bar or South Bay, you can burn a lot of your day running around. My spot, I could see them all from one general area and it was a couple-minute run at the most to get to each one. Being able to rotate through them all was key. It was a big timing deal."

Performance edge: "My MinnKota Talons were huge with fishing that huge outside grass edge. I'd catch one and put the Talons down because as soon as that fish goes in the livewell, I want to be able to make that same cast again whether they're on beds or on that corner feeding. I don't want to get blown around. Also my MinnKota Fortrex 112 was important because on day 3, I had a couple of fish tied up in the grass and that thing just blasts through there."

Lake Okeechobee Winning Pattern Bassfan 2/11/14 (Todd Ceisner)

Greg Bohannan's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Bohannan didn't have to knock off the rust from a lengthy offseason once he arrived at Okeechobee. "One thing I did this winter was I fished all winter long at home," he said. "I was on the water a bunch and I normally don't do that. I killed two big deer with my bow, then I got on the water. I guided some, but mostly I fished a lot." He pointed to a decision in practice that ultimately led him to the area he camped in during the tournament. "I felt like I could catch them on a spinnerbait on the outside at a spot I had a in the Monkey Box," he said. "But I fished through there a couple hours without a bite. "I moved to my secondary spot where I thought it was going to be more of a numbers deal, but the big ones just came to me. It had extremely hard bottom and there were a lot of bass beds. I felt like they were coming to me every day." While he never had to share water, there were plenty of other competitors in the vicinity. "There must've been 200 pounds of bass caught there over the 4 days," he added. When he got around gator grass he would gurgle a swimbait across the surface and flip reed clumps. It was a 1-2 punch that resulted in his career-best Tour finish. "I've never had a tournament where I went somewhere and just sat there," he said. "The last 3 days of the tournament, I spent all 8 hours each day in there. My graph looked like spaghetti from going back and forth in that small area."

Flipping gear: 7'9" extra-heavy Denali Kovert casting rod, Ardent Apex Elite casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 65-pound Sufix 832 braided fishing line, 1-oz. unnamed tungsten weight, 4/0 VMC Heavy Duty flipping hook, Missile Baits D-Bomb (bruiser flash). This was Bohannan's first Tour event using the new Ardent Apex Elite reel, which weighs 5.9 ounces. "I was worried about them holding up with the braid and abuse down here," he said. "I'm not worried anymore."

Swimbait gear: Same rod, Ardent Apex Elite casting reel (6.5:1 ratio), same line, Paycheck Baits Nose Job, 6/0 Gamakatsu EWG Superline worm hook, 5" Gambler Big EZ (McMillan magic). The key to getting bites on the Big EZ was fishing it along the surface like a buzzbait.

Main factor: "Just finding the right area. There's no doubt that area was key."

Performance edge: "My MinnKota Talons and trolling motor. I cut through some of the thickest stuff you could imagine. My Ranger and Evinrude were great, too, but those Talons were crucial there."

Lake Okeechobee 2-5 Patterns Bassfan 2/12/14 (Todd Ceisner)

James Watson's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Nobody in the Top 10 had a better weekend than James Watson. He caught more than 43 pounds over the final 2 days, including the biggest bass of his life on Day 3. He parlayed that strong finish into a career-best Tour finish. He was the lone finalist to catch 20 pounds three times during the event. He paired a random morning open-water moving bait pattern with an afternoon flipping strategy to average just over 20 pounds a day. "This year, I fished a lot more open water hydrilla than ever before," he said. "I gave zero effort to hyacinth mats or other big things. I didn't punch at all in the tournament." During practice, the flipping bite didn't turn on until the afternoon, so he filled his mornings with plenty of casts with a spinnerbait, a Zoom Speed Worm or a swimbait. "In the morning, it was just totally random," he said. "I'd see something and think I needed to burn a spinnerbait over there or a swimbait over here. If I went 20 minutes without a bite on something, I knew it was time to try something else. "I was covering a lot of water and was fan casting areas with an abundance of hydrilla and eelgrass. The bites I got on moving baits came where there was a mix of hydrilla and eelgrass." As he fished, he said he'd do laps, starting on the outside edge, then working through the middle before fishing along the reed lines. When he got to a section of reeds, he'd throw his bait into them and slowly bring it out. "That made it more difficult because most of the bites would come right on the inside," he said. "I couldn't parallel the reeds because those fish wouldn't come out to get it."

Flipping gear: 7'10" extra-heavy Waft Iron Feather casting rod, Johnny Morris CarbonLite casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 65-pound Maxima Ultragreen braided line, 1-oz. Medlock double weedguard flipping jig (black/blue), Zoom Big Salty Chunk trailer (black/blue).

Spinnerbait gear: 7'6" extra-heavy Waft Iron Feather casting rod, Pro Qualifier casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen monofilament line, 1/2-oz. War Eagle spinnerbait (gold shiner).

Main factor: "Shooting from the hip and throwing a particular bait at the right time for nothing but a random reason. We used to say in the Army, 'Adapt and overcome,' and that's what I did."

Performance edge: "My Bass Pro Shops super-fast CarbonLite reel and that 65-pound Maxima braid. I fell in love with that braid. It's the same braid I used when I won at Table Rock."

Lake Okeechobee 2-5 Patterns Bassfan 2/12/14 (Todd Ceisner)

Randall Tharp's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Randall Tharp was the lone angler to focus the majority of his effort on punching, which is his preferred method of fishing at Okeechobee. He knew the way the lake set up didn't favor that style, but he stuck with it and came away with his third Top-5 finish in the last 4 years at the Big O. "It was pretty much dominated by guys winding," he said."Where Hite and everyone else was, it was offshore. There was no grass topped out, but there are some subtleties there. Those guys were fishing off hard lines. There fish bedding everywhere and notoriously that corner of the lake has the biggest population of fish. "Obviously, flipping and punching and doing what I do, you have to commit to that," he added. "I committed to it last year and had my worst finish in 5 years [15th]. I committed to it again." Had two key bites on a jig on day 1 that he suspects were bedding fish on a reed head point. "The rest of the time, I fished isolated hyacinth or trash mats as we call them," he said. "Some of them were about the size of a kitchen table. Others were as big as a trailer. I keyed mostly on the smaller ones." He said he wasn't able to expand on the primary stretch he fished on day 1, when he caught his heaviest stringer. He had other other areas, but they weren't as productive. "The weights were way up over what I thought they'd be," he said. He said he saw videos and pictures of Okeechobee taken during the Bassmaster Classic Wild Card event in early December. He said there was little resemblance to what it looked like last week. "It didn't look anything like that now," he said. "For that Wild Card deal, it was a flipper's paradise. This week, it was more of a winder's paradise. I've spent several winters here and I've seen how fast the lake can totally change with just one cold front. "I really feel pretty pleased to have stuck it out and have gotten a few good bites every day."

Punching gear: 7'11" extra-heavy Halo Twilite flipping rod, Shimano Core 100Mg7 casting reel (7.0:1 ratio), 60-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 1.2- and 1.5-oz. Reins Tungsten slip sinker (black), 4/0 4/0 VMC Heavy Duty flipping hook, Trigger X Goo Bug (black blue sapphire).

Main factor: "Just my stubbornness with my flipping stick. I wouldn't have finished 4th winding or sight-fishing. I'm just so dedicated to that way of fishing here."

Performance edge: "Any time I fish down here, my Power-Poles are important. There were key, especially in the wind on day 4. All of my equipment my rod, reel and line all worked flawlessly. Some people come down here under matched and don't understand what you have to have."

Lake Okeechobee 2-5 Patterns Bassfan 2/12/14 (Todd Ceisner)

Cody Meyer's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Cody Meyer came to Lake Okeechobee with a couple goals in mind this year. First, he had to avenge a miserable 118th-place last year that left him scrambling the rest of the season to make the Forrest Wood Cup. Also, he wanted to focus his attention on one portion of the lake rather than have spots all over the big pond like he did a year ago. "Last year, I'd fish a half day there and a half day up north," he said. "This year, I focused all of my efforts on one area and had plans B and C nearby. The area had open water and hydrilla and within 2 minutes I could be flipping mats or isolated reeds, which made it nice." Meyer said he chatted before the event with eventual winner Brett Hite and they talked about places they've fished that are comparable to the west side hot spots at Okeechobee. "We talked about Frank's Tract at the California Delta and how a lot of tournaments are won there," he said. "Harney Pond and the Monkey Box at Okeechobee are about the equivalent to Frank's Tract. I focused on those two areas and really tried to dial them in and figure out those areas." He focused mostly on areas with hard bottom, flipping mats and reeds on days 1 and 4. He caught his fish on the middle 2 days on moving baits. "The bite was better (this year) and the weather was great," he said. "There were fishing moving in and I was able to learn a lot about the lake and what to look for in terms of types of grass and areas with hard bottom where fish will move during pre-spawn and the spawn and how they migrate. "Every day, it was something drastically different. I was able to make the right adjustments and that was key."

Flipping gear: 7'11" extra-heavy Shimano Cumara flipping rod, Shimano Metanium casting reel (8.5:1 ratio), 65-pound PowerPro Super 8 Slick braided line, 1 1/4-oz. unnamed tungsten weight, 5/0 Paycheck Baits punch hook, 4" Jackall Sasuteki Craw (black blue). He lauded the new Metanium reel that picks up 36 inches of line per turn. "When you stick a fish there, they come flying at you and it was important to have them under control," he said. He split his weigh fish on days 2 and 3 between a Gambler swimjig (black/blue) and a Z-Man ChatterBait (black/blue). "I couldn't get bit on anything other than black and blue," he said.

Main factor: "Adapting to the situation and concentrating on one area in practice and dialing it in and mixing it up with an open mind trying to understand the grass. I was able to visualize where the fish were moving in."

Performance edge: "My Typhoon glasses were big. There were a lot of the spots where I was pitching to sub-surface hydrilla and they allowed me to see that stuff. My Power-Poles were key as well. With the wind blowing, I was able to slow down and pick those places apart."

Lake Okeechobee 2-5 Patterns Bassfan 2/12/14 (Todd Ceisner)