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Beat the Snow-Try Big O


KP3 used his heavy Ardent combo, with braid line and thick
plastics to catch this “last-light” beauty.

By Ken Penrod

It’s not cheating when a northern-guy takes a sabbatical in January and February, especially since “global-warming” has cast her ugly net over ungrateful citizens that crave hook-setting and wrist casts. Shop early enough and airline tickets prices actually beat or are cheaper than the cost of driving a thousand miles. Use credit cards wisely all year and the air is free. Then of course, some may wish to tow their own boat and that’s cool—or should I say “warm”

Lake Okeechobee is 730 square miles of shallow water (average less than nine feet) and the second largest lake within the USA boundaries, second only to Lake Michigan, yet it is only 15 feet above sea level. It’s said to contain one trillion gallons of water and is the headwaters of the Everglades. When you try to understand our national debt, think of it as 18 times as voluminous as the Big O.

Okeechobee is Hitchiti for Big Water, the floor of which is limestone, somewhat “murky” from farm land runoff and enclosed by 30-foot high dike constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers after a hurricane in 1928 breached the older dyke killing 2500. It is fed by several rivers, the Kissimmee being the largest. Sugar cane refining is a major polluter and the “fog” is anger-management fodder.

Famously mentioned in Hank Williams Jr.’s hit song, “Dixie on my Mind: Hank sings: I’ve always heard lots about the big apple/ so I thought I’d come up here and see.  But all I’ve seen so far is one big hassle, wish I was camped out on the Okeechobee.

I’ve fished here two years in a row, both in January, and both with fellow guide Captain Rick Nietkiewicz, an FLW pro and LOU guide. The first year I brought with me a major cold front where the temperature was just about freezing and the fishing was ugly. The next, 2015, I met Rick and my son Kenny on the north end after driving cross-state from Sister Joyce’s home in Bradenton. The weather was much better—and so was the fishing.

A newcomer can be intimidated by the vastness, shallowness and vegetative wealth of the lake. Portions of the lake are not hard on boaters if you respect your own ability and the potential for wind.

 We stayed in a little motel called the Plaza Travel Inn (www.plazatravelinn.com) in the town of Clewiston. It’s a very convenient location, a long walk from Roland Martin’s complex. There are a few restaurants within walking distance including our favorite, the Dixie Chicken & Seafood where the owner has hundreds and hundreds of Elvis Presley mementos—and mighty fine fried chicken I should say. The motel isn’t laid out to hold many boats but call ahead and tell the nice lady you are bringing a boat she will/may assign you a room with easy boat/trailer convenience—with electric handy for charging your batteries.

We dined more often at Roland Martin’s complex where decent food and a well-stocked tackle store fits right in to our plans most evenings. Don’t be looking to meet Roland though because Mary Ann Martin owns this complex, thanks to a divorce settlement. I refer to Roland as “my friend” because we are that way. We did four movies together on the Potomac plus many days fishing there in preparation for upcoming tournaments. Maggi and I even went to his wedding in Tulsa when he married the charming Judy. Scott Martin, Roland’s son, is the face of the guide operation now and he has done so well in his own fishing career. That apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and Mary Ann Martin is the day to day manager of the many money-making ventures on site—and she does a very good job of it.


Roland Martin’s marina store is well stocked with the
baits and colors best for luring a mighty bass from
Big O’s massive vegetation
.

I never go to a strange lake/river/ocean without first hiring a guide and I think it’s silly not to. I can highly recommend the guide operation at the Martin Marina (800-473-6766). Scott would be a good choice if you book early enough but I also like Tom Mann. Their fee for a full day (8-hrs) is $400 which includes one other angler and you must decide whether to fish with artificial lures or live bait. My advice—“do as the guide recommends.” Live shiners are expensive and 5 dozen isn’t that many of a good-bite day, which can add-up quickly at about $1.50 each.My company, Ken Penrod’s Life Outdoors Unlimited, will be offering guide service on Big O from December through February through our guide, Captain Rick Nietkiewicz, and his knowledge of this lake and the techniques required to catch those Okee pigs is impressive and proven and I’m not easy to impress. Florida fishing license is required no matter. Our fees will be $400 for 8 hrs; $350 for 6 hrs. and $300 for 4 hrs. Live bait, lost lures and broken equipment is extra. Bring your own lunch and drinks plus personals such as sun screen and rain gear. Only a dangerous situation can cancel or postpone this trip and we decide what that means. A nonrefundable deposit of $300 is required. Late bookings require PAY PAL for full amount and you must sign or “waiver of claims.” This is KP Approved.

LOU guide, Captain Rick Nitkiewicz knows Big O like the
back of his hand and can/will lead you to the best and biggest bass.

By the way, there is some awesome crappie fishing available here also.

The close-by boat launch is a good place to start because the rim canal is marked and rather hazard free although nothing is guaranteed. There are more boats here on a winter day than there is in the entire state of Maryland. You just don’t get crowded unless you are on a bent-pole pattern. A good Lowrance depth finder is a bonus but a great Lowrance GPS/Sonar such as the HDS models is a day-saver. The “Trail” feature is, will-be, your best friend.

It’s hard to predict the spawn on this lake and there will be several. It’s about water temperature, moon stage and barometric pressure. A cold front in these parts is a major turn-off and it’s a smart northern man that realizes that the sun can ruin your entire trip if you disrespect it.

The lake is shallow enough and “vegetated” enough to allow for sight-fishing but don’t count on it. You can count on dirty water as a bad-thing though so your search for clear water is as important and your eye for the various grasses the fish prefer.

This is no place for sissy equipment so I’ll recommend medium-heavy to heavy, 7-foot or longer, Ardent baitcasting rods and reel with 40-60 pound Sunline braid. There is some open water patterns, some days, where 20 pound test Sunline Fluorocarbon will do the job.

For the most part, this is a vegetation pattern not unlike the tidal Potomac—but much thicker, with heavier, even denser types, where often various types intermingle. The submersed grasses allow for cast and retrieve but the emergent growths are brutal on equipment, tough as bamboo shoots and requires pitching or flipping skills. A 36-volt Minn Kota trolling motor is a major asset. Power Poles are, well, invaluable.

Swimbaits such as ‘Skinny Dippers” on a 4/0 or 5/0 hook with a HookSetter Bobber Stopper ahead of an appropriate bullet weight--and Big Mouth swim jigs with swim-baits attached are always tied on a rod—and in a “ready” position. Pitch or flip jigs (1/2 to one ounce) dressed with big-profile trailers and large critter baits are common offerings but remember—clear water is the difference—most days. There are times and habitats when rattling lures and spinnerbaits do the deed so don’t allow yourself to get into a rut. I’ve caught bass in scattered grass on Death Shimmer spinnerbaits and Rattlin Rapalas. Do not become so focused that you forget your purpose—catching bass.

Now, I’m not a fan of live bait angling, but when the boys at the dock are talking about numbers and size that you cannot even fathom—shut-off your ego-machine and jump on the wagon. “When in Rome”, comes to mind?


The marshes, hey fields and other submersed and emergent grasses
are dissected by many and various “trails” that can be “run” flat-out

 

My adventure to the Big O this year was one of the nicest trips I’ve ever allowed “me” to take. It began with a trip to Puerto Rico with Mag, and that tarpon story is coming next. It was sandwiched with a trip on salt flats with C. A. Richardson in the St. Petersburg area (story coming), a guy I absolutely love and respect.

The fact that I had about 7 days with my pal Rick and son Kenny is an irreplaceable segment in my life—and the way those two “front-ended” me would even make the IRS or Deflategate scandals go away. Can you believe that anyone in America could think that a football without 1.5 pounds of air could be a scandal? Hell-the Patriots could have won if the game was played with an anvil. See how easily I get side-tracked? Now, about this ice thing on the Susquehanna!

You must monitor our website, www.penrodsguides.com for our weekly fishing reports and information about my summer youth camp. Our sponsors are proven products and I’d never recommend anything that doesn’t do the job that I say they do. Rarely, we change guides and sponsors—and there are very good reasons why. See ya on the water, or better yet, book a trip with us. My cell is 240-447-2206 and email at kenpenrod@comcast.net. I have accounts at Twitter (@ken_penrod) face book, Instagram and IN.