Patience pays off on Lake Okeechobee with largemouth bass and more

Just before noon on a hazy, windless Monday on the west side of Lake Okeechobee, captain Steve Daniel and I had just exhausted our supply of three dozen live shiners.

For our labors, we had caught maybe two or three largemouth bass to 1 ½ pounds suspending the baits from floats over hard bottom about six feet deep on the edge of a long hydrilla line.

The fishing day had begun auspiciously enough: releasing about a dozen small fish along a patch of Kissimmee grass in Harney Pond using various artificials. Then we decided to try for bigger ones by relocating to the hydrilla west of Bird Island and breaking out the live bait. But so far it wasn’t happening. Most of the shiners didn’t even get hit; instead, they died in the warm waters.

Things were looking grim.

Daniel, who has been guiding customers to big hawgs on Lake O since the 1980s, was undaunted.

“Let’s try another spot,” he said, pointing the boat toward another grass line.

But this one yielded even fewer fish, and now it was 1 p.m. with the sun glaring down like a branding iron.

“I think we should try that hydrilla line one last time,” Daniel insisted.

We returned to our shiner graveyard where the conditions had subtly changed. A refreshing 10-knot breeze from the east-southeast provided a little natural AC and rippled the tannin-stained waters.

At least not catching fish would feel more comfortable, I grumbled inwardly.

Daniel gave me a spinning rod with a gold Hildebrandt spinnerbait decorated with a D.O.A. C.A.L. trailer. For himself, he chose a baitcasting outfit sporting a chartreuse and silver Long A Bomber jerkbait.

“I always pick that jerkbait up when fish aren’t feeding well,” Daniel said.

I cast toward the hydrilla line and hooked something substantial, which turned out to be about a three-pound bass — the largest of the day.

Moments later, Daniel got one about 4 ½ pounds on his Bomber. Over the next hour, we totaled about a dozen smaller fish before heading back to the boat ramp.

“Well that was weird,” I said of the midday bite on a dog day in late summer.

Daniel shook his head.

“I knew we could catch them in the middle of the day because I’ve done it many times before,” he said. “It’s a myth that big fish quit biting in the middle of the day. They bite off and on throughout the day. Sometimes you get a little cloud cover and a breeze, and that will turn on the bite.”

The guide said he had fished the same spot with a client over the previous weekend and released two in the seven-pound and two in the six-pound class using live shiners. He said his jerkbait was successful because its wobble resembles wounded prey.

“It’s the nature of a predator to start cleaning up injured minnows even if they’re not hungry,” Daniel said. “It’s an easy meal.”

Daniel said the alternative strategy would have been to flip worms into the heavy hydrilla cover, but he said it’s not as much fun and “I like my odds better when fishing open water,” he added.

Daniel has won several big-money tournaments on his home lake using tactics that other competitors often overlook. But at more than 700 square miles, Lake Okeechobee is full of surprises.

“A fascinating lake,” he said.

“You never get tired of fishing it — all the things going on out there that we don’t understand. There are no set rules. You can take all that stuff in books and throw it out when you get to Okeechobee.”

Added Daniel: “This lake has more fish in it than any lake in the world right now, but you could swear there wasn’t anything out there when they’re not biting.”