February 10, 2013 by Brett Carlson
CLEWISTON, Fla. - The uglier side of Lake Okeechobee reared its head on day three of the 2013 Walmart FLW Tour opener. It wasn't a true Florida cold front, but persistent 20 mph winds made sight- and topwater fishing difficult, if not impossible. But a handful of big fish were caught as the leaderboard underwent some major shuffling. Rookie pro Drew Benton emerged as the new leader after adjusting to the changing conditions. Each of the last two days, Benton has been working a two-tier program. He chucks and winds a buzzing bait on the south end of the lake and he sight-fishes spawning bass on the shoal. But today's north winds trashed his water in South Bay - forcing him to scramble. "We drove all the way down there (to South Bay), but I knew almost right away it washed out," said the 24-year-old rookie. "So we called an audible and ran 25 or 30 miles up north." At 9:30 a.m., Benton coaxed a 5-pounder off a bed. From there, he caught plenty of keepers (roughly 25), but no real big fish - ending the day with 15 pounds, 3 ounces. "The wind never really laid down so I spent most of the day covering water with that bladed jig and Bass Assassin Die Dapper as a trailer. I did weigh two on a Vapor Shad that I would throw around in the open areas." Benton knew the blustery conditions would make for tougher fishing, but he had no clue he would be leading his first tour-level event heading into the final day. "I felt like I had enough weight to keep me close, but I never expected to be in the lead." While Benton's prespawn water in South Bay was unfishable today, that's exactly where he'll start tomorrow. After that, he still plans to allocate plenty of time for sight-fishing. "The water is already stained down in South Bay, so it doesn't have to be clear for me to catch them. I really like tomorrow's wind forecast. And I just love this time of year, when fish are prespawn and starting to move up and make beds." Cotton slips to second Day-two leader Rick Cotten felt the rollercoaster ride that is Lake Okeechobee today. After catching a 30-pound stringer Friday, Cotten caught only three keepers Saturday weighing 7 pounds even. Despite being disappointed with his performance, Cotten sits only a pound out of first with a cumulative weight of 61-3. "I caught a 4-pounder almost first thing this morning and then everything basically shut down," said the Guntersville, Ala., pro. "In that wind, it was almost impossible to present the bait stealthily. I think I just stayed there too long." With two hours left in the day, Cotten retreated to a different area and managed two small keepers. He started the day with the big jig and his last two fish were caught on a spinnerbait and a Fluke. "I haven't been fishing these tournaments for all that long, but that was my first time not weighing in a limit." Cotten plans to go back to the big jig tomorrow. "I missed four keepers today. Hopefully I can get them tomorrow." Ehrler rallies to third Despite being one of the best anglers on the planet, Brent Ehrler has always had an Achilles heel of Florida. In six years of Florida tournament fishing, Ehrler has never cashed a single check. That changed big time this week. After bringing in a 20-pound, 2-ounce limit, Ehrler moved from tenth to third with a total weight 56 pounds, 3 ounces. And with two relatively inexperienced tour pros ahead of him, yet another win is within reach. After day two Ehrler was pleased his performance, but didn't think he was around tournament-winning fish. Now he thinks he potentially is. "I lost a giant yesterday that pulled the hook straight and today I caught a giant, so you never know," said the Keystone Light pro. "The big bites are still few and far between. What's scary is that there are no 2- to 4-pound fish; it's either a giant or it's a peanut." Ehrler said he doesn't think the fish are transitioning to or from his area; they are simply resident fish. He bounces between four little key spots in one big area. His pattern consists of winding a vibrating jig around mixes of grass and flipping isolated reed clumps. "Every day is different. Today I caught a bunch on a spinnerbait and I hadn't caught them that way all week." While Okeechobee not being dominated by mat punching helps, Ehrler said he really hasn't learned anything new this week about Florida fishing. "I just think if you come down here enough, you're bound to finally catch them. It's about time I caught them." Hendricks up to fourth Using his Power Poles in the stiff wind, Wade Hendricks stuck to both his game plan and his area Saturday. It wasn't easy, but thanks to a 7-pound kicker he was able to bring 16 pounds, 7 ounces to the scale. Hendricks sits fourth with a three-day total of 54 pounds, 11 ounces. Hendricks has been catching fish via topwaters and from pitching a big jig. "I actually tried to force feed them some topwater this morning and they did come up on it, but they wouldn't commit," said the Thompsons Station, Tenn., pro. "I ended up catching most of my fish on a 1-ounce jig with a Paca Chunk trailer. I did catch one on a Swimming Fluke." Hendricks has stayed in the same prespawn area pretty much all week. He has it down to a zone about 100 yards by 50 yards. "It was such a mental challenge to stay put and grind it out. But I know the fish are still there. So I'm going back tomorrow. I have to. I know there are 10-pounders there and those are game changers." Neal rises to fifth Dayton, Tenn., pro Michael Neal cracked the top five Saturday after catching a limit worth 16 pounds, 8 ounces. After three days on the Big O, his total weight stands at 54 pounds, 11 ounces. Neal has a unique program where he targets areas that are adjacent to deep water. On Okeechobee, deep water is considered 5 feet or more. While he was working the outside earlier in the week, today he moved inside from time to time. "I'm strictly throwing moving baits - a swim jig and swimbaits. I'm fishing a 1-mile stretch of water on the north end of the lake by the Kissimmee River." Neal described it as a go-between area as the fish are either prespawn or postspawn. He said the swim jig has accounted for most of his big fish. He learned to work moving baits through the grass from Brett Hite, who he drew as a co-angler at the 2008 FLW Tour opener on Lake Toho. "That was a crash course in grass fishing. I've taken that lesson and I'm applying it here this week." Rest of the best Rounding out the top 10 pros who made the cutoff after day three: 6th: Casey Martin of New Market, Ala., 53-9 7th: Bryan Thrift of Shelby, N.C., 51-6 8th: Chad Grigsby of Maple Grove, Minn., 49-0 9th: Adrian Avena of Vineland, N.J., 48-10 10th: Philip Jarabeck of Lynchburg, Va., 45-13 Day four of the FLW Tour event on Lake Okeechobee will begin Sunday at 7:30 a.m. from the Clewiston Boat Basin.