Breaking through on the Big O

Pro winner Randall Tharp holds up part of his 23-pound, 2-ounce final-day stringer.

CLEWISTON, Fla. - In his brief time as a professional bass fisherman, Randall Tharp has achieved considerable success - numerous Triple-A wins, top-10 finishes and over a half million dollars in career earnings. But up until today, he'd never won the big one - falling just short last year at both Okeechobee and at the Forrest Wood Cup. This week he was able to accomplish two of his biggest goals simultaneously - winning a Walmart FLW Tour event and winning a major tournament on the Big O. Tharp has been performing at such a high level lately his victory is hardly a surprise. Even he knew it. Randall Tharp celebrates after learning he won the 2012 FLW Tour event on Lake Okeechobee.After finishing second to friend Brandon McMillan last year, Tharp prophetically said on stage, "I will get my win down here; there is no doubt I will." Tharp proved to be a man of his word. Coming in to this event, he had six consecutive top-10 finishes on Okeechobee spanning FLW and BASS competition. The EverStart pro and wife his Sara travel to the lake every winter to shoot television shows, enter a few tournaments and sample some of the best bass fishing southern Florida has to offer. It's become almost a second home. This year, they headed south on Nov. 15 and with his free time, Tharp learned as much as he could about every single mat on the lake. Then he went to work - catching giant stringers the first two days and then grinding it out as the blustery cold front arrived. He had several different areas, all located from the Monkey Box to Horse Island/Dyess Ditch - areas Tharp believes simply hold the biggest bass on the lake. Each day he concentrated on one technique - flipping, and the bait he used might surprise some people. Instead of the more popular brand-name baits, Tharp flipped a Bitter's Best Value BFM (Bigger, Fatter, Muskrat), a beaver-style bait in Black Blue Glitter color. The retail price on these BFMs? A whopping $5 for two packs of 10. Tharp would rig the bait on either a 1 1/2 or a 2-ounce black tungsten weight depending on the wind and how compact the mats were. He would tie the BFM to 70-pound Diawa She shows off for the camera. Samurai braid and flip with a 7-foot, 11-inch Halo Twilight Series rod. "I tried to make something else work in the three days of practice, but it never happened," said the EverStart pro. "So going into the tournament I knew I was going to flip the thickest, nastiest mats. But I didn't know what areas were going to be the real deal. The whole key to me winning was knowing when to go to the good places. Once the fish started biting, I'd run to those big-fish areas. Waiting to go to those key places was painful. But if I would have gone there earlier, I would have screwed them up." Tharp described the action in some of these better areas as a game of chess. "I know where all the best stretches of mat are. From there it was just determining what was and what wasn't getting fished and managing them accordingly. The key area I used today and on day two really had smaller, isolated mats. I made good moves for four days." To cement his dominating week, Tharp sacked 23 pounds, 2 ounces on a day when only four of the top 10 pros caught a limit. His total weight of 101 pounds, 12 ounces gave him back-to-back Okeechobee tournaments over the century mark and the new FLW Tour record for margin of victory (23-9). Tharp EverStart pro Randall Tharp gets his long-coveted win on Lake Okeechobee.earned $125,000. "I've been coming down here now for six years and I still can't get enough of it. My first bass I ever caught was on this lake. I've said many times if I could win one tournament in my career it would be here. So now I've got that out of the way and I can set my sights on other places. But this place has always been No. 1 for me." The only thing Tharp didn't do this week was break McMillan's total weight record. "I want to dedicate this win to Jimmy and the McMillan family," Tharp said. "They've been through a lot. Jimmy was probably the best fisherman to ever fish this lake and ever will fish it and his sons are following in his footsteps and he's proud of them. I guarantee it." Cox hangs on to second John Cox of Debary, Fla., never threatened Tharp Sunday with a small limit weighing only 8 pounds, 6 ounces. But he was able to tap into a unique postspawn pattern right outside the off-limits area, just past Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina. After takeoff the first day, Cox faked engine problems as the field drove past him so as not to tip off his location. Despite catching a small limit Sunday, John Cox retained his second-place position on the leaderboard, earning $35,000.Catching 25-pound-plus sacks the first two days, everything was going according to plan until the wind shifted to the north. "Today I decided to go north and flip mats in an area that was nice and calm," said Cox, who fished in the Taylor Creek area on day four. "It's an area I was saving. I check it every year when I come to Okeechobee. It always looks good, but it never produced in practice until this year." The mats really didn't produce much as Cox caught only a few keepers flipping. Most of his catch randomly came from throwing a small square-bill crankbait around the "V" in the lock area. Each of the past three days, Cox started his morning with a Rattle Head spinnerbait. Then he eventually switched to flipping a Rattle Head football-head jig tipped with a Reactions Innovations Beaver. Early in the week pitching the jig to pencil reeds and then shaking the rod proved especially effective. For finishing in second place with a total weight of 78 pounds, 3 ounces, he earned $35,000. "Randall really deserves this and I'm pretty darn happy with second. It was definitely worth it to go up north today - that kept me where I am. My other area was just trashed by the wind." York rises to third Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the windy weather during the final round was Monroe, Ga., pro Jeremy York, who caught a 13-pound, 5-ounce stringer Sunday from Uncle Joe's Cut. York, who took 12th last year on Okeechobee, finished this year's event third with a total weight of 74 pounds, 2 York misses one and re-rigs his bait while wondering if it was a big one.ounces, earning $30,000. "The fish down in southern Florida are just so much different," he said. "I don't want this to sound arrogant, but I understand what they're thinking and how they behave." York spent the entire week in Uncle Joe's, flipping a 4-inch Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog along a 5-mile stretch of canal. He made approximately a 1 1/2 passes per day, methodically picking apart gator grass in 2 or 3 feet of water. "They were just not eating it as good today," York said. "It was more of a reaction bite, so they wouldn't get it as deep or hold onto it as long. I lost a 3-pounder right away this morning and two 5-pounders in the last hour of the day." York said execution when fishing gator grass is extremely difficult. "That gator grass was tough stuff. It's not like hydrilla or hyacinth; this stuff was connected. There are times when I couldn't get a 12-incher out of there." Ferguson climbs to fourth Art Ferguson III caught the second-heaviest stringer of the day and climbed from ninth to finish the tournament in fourth place. His day-four stringer weighed 18 pounds, 4 ounces, pushing his total Fourth-place pro Art Ferguson III shows off his kicker bass from day four on Lake Okeechobee.weight to 71 pounds, 5 ounces - earning $25,000. During the early part of the week, Ferguson capitalized on a school of bass he found blowing up shiners in practice. They stayed put and the St. Clair Shores, Mich., triggered them by making long casts and slowly reeling in plastic baits such as 10-inch worms, lizards and Senkos. After day two, he realized he pretty much milked the schooling area for all it was worth. So he made conscious decision to fish conservatively on day three so he would make the top-10 cutoff. "Craig Powers told me a few years ago that sometimes you have to make business decisions out there," said Ferguson, who used to guide on the Big O. "So that's what I did. I picked up a Senko with a split shot and made sure I got my limit." After squeaking in with only 6 pounds, Ferguson set the bar higher the final day knowing he couldn't do any worse than 10th. "When the wind blows like it did today on Okeechobee, you only have a few choices - one of which is a rim canal. So I picked up a Strike King Series 5 crankbait and I had a limit by 8:50 this morning." Ferguson's schooling fish were located near the Indian Prairie Canal and his crankbait area was the main rim ditch near Uncle Joe's Cut. McMillan fifth Six weeks after the tragic murder of his father Jimmy, the 28-year-old McMillan was able to Brandon McMillan looking for a good bite. successfully focus on fishing for a few days. He started off the week strong - catching a giant 33-pound stringer. But then the bite got tougher and McMillan thinks he got too impatient. "I just wanted to come in and compete," said the 2011 Okeechobee champion. "It's been a challenge the last month or so to think about fishing. But it's been good. I'm happy with what I did this week. The wind and weather just really hurt me." If he couldn't repeat, he was hoping Tharp would claim his first win. "He works harder than anyone out here, so he deserves it. I gave it all I have, but he beat me fair and square. That Tharp, he's a tough one to shake." Like Tharp, McMillan flipped mats in the North Shore and Monkey Box areas. He too used a 1 1/2-ounce weight, although he preferred a Gambler creature bait called Why Not. The local Clewiston, Fla., resident caught two bass worth 3 pounds, 4 ounces Sunday - by far his lightest sack of the week. McMillan's four-day cumulative weight registered 64 pounds, 6 ounces, good enough for fifth place and $20,000. Rest of the best Rounding out the top 10 pros at the FLW Tour event on Lake Okeechobee: 6th: Bryan Thrift of Shelby, N.C., 61-12, $17,000 7th: Roland Martin of Naples, Fla., 59-6, $16,000 8th: Scott Martin of Clewiston, Fla., 56-3, $15,000 9th: Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., 55-8, $14,000 10th: Nick Gainey of Charleston, S.C., 54-5, $13,000 The next FLW Tour event is slated for Lake Hartwell in Anderson, S.C., March 8-11, the first of six Majors.

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