OKEECHOBEE, Fla. – When your very first fish of a three-day tournament is 9-pounder, it could be fortune. When your very last fish of that three-day tournament is another 9-pounder, it could be fate. But when you win that same three-day tournament by a tiebreaker, someone from above is looking out for you.
That’s exactly how the week went for EverStart rookie pro Ben Todd of Pierson, Fla. His first fish of the tournament on Thursday was 9-pounder. Then late this afternoon, with a small limit in his box and just minutes left in the fishing day, Todd hooked and landed another 9-pounder and won the EverStart Series event on Lake Okeechobee by a tiebreaker.
Todd’s total weight – 59 pounds, 3 ounces – was the exact total weight of runner-up Trevor Fitzgerald who mounted a gallant charge for the title with an impressive 25-pound-10 ounce catch today. But since Todd was ahead of Fitzgerald going into the final day, Todd got the winning hardware and the $40,000 check to go with it.
“You see that right there,” Todd said, seconds after his weight stopped at 16-3, the exact weight he needed to win. “That was not me. The Lord did that…not me.”
Indeed it was a magical week for the 32-year old Todd who works on his family’s farm in Pierson. It started with a 31-7 limit on day one. Then waned to an 11-9 limit on day two. And then surged again with the magic digits 16-3 today, thanks to the tournament winning 9-pounder.
“I made one quick pass down through there, had 10 bites and shook them all off,” he said. “But I saw two of them as I was shaking them off and they were big. I did not return to the area until Thursday morning. My first fish of the day was 9-pounder and that kind of set the tone for the day as I kept catching big ones.”
Todd’s key stretch included a line of reeds “in the middle” around the J&S area, which was protected from the predominant east wind that occurred throughout the event.
“I was not fishing the very outside reeds,” Todd detailed. “And I was not fishing all the way inside near the bank, either. This area had a line of reeds going down through the middle. The whole area was maybe three acres in size. And it’s not like the fish were bunched up in a tiny spot. I caught them all the way down this line of reeds that ran north and south.”
Todd’s key lures were a Gambler Fat Ace and a Tightlines UV UVenko. The Fat Ace was in a river bug color and the UVenko was in black and blue. He rigged the lures Texas-style with a 5/0 Gamakatsu flipping hook and topped them with 3/8-tungsten weights on 50-pound test PowerPro braid.
“The fish were spawning around the reeds,” he explained. “I couldn’t see the beds and I couldn’t see the fish, but I could just tell by how they were set up, they had made beds around those reeds. I’d pitch the bait in-between and around the reeds and just let it fall into where I thought a bed would be. I’d start the day with the Gambler Fat Ace and then when things got slow or I was re-fishing some of my stretches, I’d switch to the UVenko to give them a different look. I think that UV technology really gives the lure a different appearance in the water – something they’ve never seen before.”
“Today it was all the UVenko,” he added. “I caught small fish early, but late in the day all the boats disappeared and things got calm and quiet and I got that indescribable feeling that maybe another big female or two was moving up. I kept looking at my watch…30 minutes left…20 minutes left…10 minutes left and then that big one bit. When I got her in the boat I knew I had a shot at winning.”
Fitzgerald charges hard, finishes second
Trevor Fitzgerald of Belleview, Fla., treated the EverStart crowd to a special show at the final weigh-in, wowing them with an eye-popping 25-pound, 10 ounce limit of Big O bass.
Fitzgerald’s massive bag of bass allowed him to challenge Todd for the win, rocketing him from 7th to within a breath of victory. But in the end he had to accept the runner-up spot after Todd won by a tie-breaker, pocketing $15,000.
“It’s tough to swallow,” Fitzgerald said graciously. “And even tougher, considering I had 4-ounce dead fish penalty yesterday that cost me the win. I hook a fish in the tongue and usually when that happens, they expire. It was still a good week and hats off to Ben. He’s a good guy and he earned it.”
Fitzgerald spent most of his week running the south end of the lake pitching main lake reed clumps with a big jig in search of a wave of females that had just moved in to spawn.
“I had a spot I’d stop on first everyday just to get a limit,” Fitzgerald said. “It was a rattle trap spot where I could catch 15 or 20 keepers pretty quick, get a limit in the box and then go hunting. I felt like if I stayed on the move and kept sampling different reed clumps, I’d eventually run into a little wad of big ones and that’s exactly what happened today. I stopped on a place where there had just been two-pounders all week and I caught four big females there that, in my opinion, had literally just moved in with the new moon last night.”
Fitzgerald’s heavy artillery was a 1-ounce Gambler Jigzilla trailed with a Gambler MegaDaddy and tied to 80-pound Sunline FX braid. His flipping stick was his namesake 7-foot, 10-inch Fitzgerald Rods custom Big Jig/Mat Flipping stick.
“One key, I think, was speed,” Fitzgerald detailed. “I wasn’t fishing slowly. I was making as many pitches and drops with the jig as possible, covering water. I’d drop it in once, shake it and then it was onto the next target. I was really in search mode. Once I got a big bite, then I would slow down.”
Brandon McMillan of Clewiston, Fla., ended the week in third place with a three-day total of 56 pounds, 3 ounces worth $10,000.
“The risk in committing to mat punching is that there is a lot of wasted time moving from one mat to another,” McMillan explained. “A lot of times I kick the trolling motor on high and have to troll 30 or 40 yards to the next mat without fishing and that’s a lot of down time. If the mat bite is really strong, I don’t mind that kind of down time. But if the mat bite is so-so, it adds up to a lot of lost fishing time.”
“So I purposely stayed in water that offered a mix of both punching mats and pitching a jig to reeds,” he continued. “That way, as I moved from one mat to another, I could pitch reed clumps in between with the jig. And I ended up catching a few bonus fish from the reeds, so it worked out well.”
McMillan’s lures of choice included a Gambler B.B. Cricket and a Zoom Z-Hog on a 1-1/2-ounce tungsten for punching and a ¾-ounce 4X4 jig for pitching to reeds.
Paul Malone of Pleasant Valley, Iowa, finished fourth with a three-day total of 55 pounds, 8 ounces worth $9,300.
Malone spent most of his week in the Monkey Box alternating between pitching reeds with a jig and punching mats.
“I did catch some key fish out of the mats, but each day most of my fish came from the reeds,” Malone said. “I feel like the fish were staging under the mats and spawning around the reeds and I’d kind of bounce back and forth depending on the time of day.”
His jig fishing was done with the 1-ounce Medlock’s Double-Guard jig trailed with a big chunk and his punching was done with a beaver on a 1-1/2-ounce tungsten with a Trokar hook. Both were tied to 70-pound Daiwa Samurai braid.
Chris Brill of Lehigh Acres, Fla., finished fifth with a three-day total of 48 pounds, 4 ounces for $8,000.
Brill spent the first two days of his week in Pelican Bay. On day one he casted a Gambler EZ Swimmer in McMillan’s Magic and a 3/8-ounce 4X4 swimjig (black/blue) also trailed with the same EZ Swimmer.
“I’d cover water casting the EZ Swimmer until I got a bite or two, then I would slow down and fish a little more thoroughly with the swimjig,” Brill explained. “On day two, a lot of fishing pressure came into the area, so I switched up to pitching a 1-ounce 4X4 jig into water lettuce mats.”
“Today I stayed up near J&S and went back to casting the EZ Swimmer and the swimjig,” he added.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top-10 pros in the EverStart Series event on Lake Okeechobee:
6th: Casey Martin of New Market, Ala., three-day total of 46-4, $7,000
7th: Kyle Monti of Okeechobee, Fla., three-day total of 46-2, $6,000
8th: Brandon Medlock of Lake Placid, Fla., three-day total of 45-9, $5,000
9th: Preston Clark of Eagle Lake, Fla., three-day total of 44-15, $4,000
10th: Keith Fels of Ocala, Fla., three-day total of 36-2, $3,000