OKEECHOBEE, Fla. – For an entire year Keith Fels of Ocala, Fla., has had to live with the nightmare that occurred last year at the Rayovac FLW Series on Lake Okeechobee.
In that event, Fels entered the final day of the event in fifth place. Everything was going according to plan on the last day, including the 20-plus pounds that was swimming in his livewell. Then his cranking battery died. He was able to jump it off and made a fateful decision to keep the outboard running in neutral while he fished from the front deck without his kill switch attached.
The grievous error constituted a rules infraction that requires the kill switch to be attached to the pro anytime the motor is running. As result, Fels catch for the day was disqualified, costing him his first Rayovac Series win.
Today, Fels redeemed himself from the mistake, holding a Rayovac FLW Series trophy in his hands.
“Redemption,” sighed an exasperated Fels, who is a driver for Fed Ex in Ocala. “This helps make up for last year for sure. That’s 40 grand I can use to pay off my truck and boat.”
Fels took a healthy 12-pound lead into the final day, but his four-bass bag weighing in at only 7 pounds, 15 ounces today left the door open. Jared McMillan tried to take advantage of the opportunity to rain on Fels’ wire-to-wire parade, but Fels had built up too much of a lead overcome with his previous days’ bags of 20 pounds, 9 ounces and 26 pounds, 7 ounces, respectively. In the end, Fels held on to victory with a three-day total of 54 pounds, 15 ounces, winning by 2 pounds, 4 ounces.
And Fels might forever remember the 10-pound, 9-ounce monster he caught on day 2 – that he had to hand-line in after his line broke – which pushed him over the top.
Fels’ week centered on pitching a Gambler 1-1/4-ounce Jigzilla, trailed with a Gambler Megadaddy trailer (both black/blue), into holes in hydrilla in several feet of water. He fished the big jig on 65-pound braid with Fitzgerald’s Rods in lengths of 7-foot, 6-inches and 7-foot, 10 inches.
Fels could not confirm whether the fish were bedding in the holes saying, “the water was too dingy to see down that far.”
As to why his catch fell off so dramatically today, Fels said that the wind wreaked havoc on his boat control in the matted hydrilla.
“The last couple of days I could ease down the little trails nice and quietly, but today the wind would blow me into big mats and my trolling motor would bog down and I’d pull up 500 pounds of hydrilla every time.”
Little Mac second
Jared McMillan of Belle Glade, Fla., finished runner-up with a three-day total of 52 pounds, 11 ounces worth $15,500.
McMillan, sometimes called “Little Mac” since his brother (Brandon) is known as “Big Mac,” proved he is ready to run with big boys today when he brought in the day’s heaviest catch at 19 pounds, 1 ounce, forcing Fels to earn his victory.
All week McMillan stuck to his game plan of casting Gambler Big EZ swimbaits (copperfield and gold rush) across shallow vegetation to tease bass into biting. If the fish missed the swimmer, McMillan would quickly pitch a Gambler Why Not right back to where the fish blew up. On several occasions his one-two punch was rewarded with big bass.
“I caught fish on the Big EZ, but I also used it as a search bait to get the fish to show themselves,” McMillan said. “I would fan cast that Big EZ around until one blew up on it, then I knew right where to put the Why Not to get the bite.”
McMillan’s Big EZ was rigged with a Paycheck Screwed-up weight and a 6/0 Gamakatsu hook while his Why Not was rigged with a ½-ounce weight. Both were tied to 65-pound test Suffix braid.
Randy Haynes of Counce, Tenn., finished third with a three-day total of 49 pounds, 2 ounces worth $12,000.
Third place in the shallow weed bowl of Okeechobee is actually a personal victory for Haynes who is better known for his savvy with electronics on TVA ledges in the summer.
“It’s taken me some time to learn what’s what down here, but this week it clicked a little better for me on that flipping bite,” Haynes said. “It’s hard to stay with that flipping bite when you can see guys out there in that open water catching them. But the better quality bite was in that flipping. It tried me mentally but I stuck with it and it paid off.”
Haynes punching set-ups for the week included Missile D-Bombs and Strike King Rodents fished under Reins 1-1/2 and 2-ounce tungsten weights. He tied the punch baits to 66-pound test Toray braided line on a 7-foot, 11-inch Kistler rods with Lew’s reels.
Val Osinski of Pompano Beach, Fla., finished fourth with a three-day total of 46 pounds, 7 ounces worth $10,000.
As the owner of Gambler Lures, Osinski was running his newest flipping creation, the Why Not, up the flagpole this week and apparently Okeechobee bass gave it the thumbs up.
Osinski targeted primarily pennywort mats with the Why Not, punching it through with a Reins 1.2-ounce sinker.
“We designed the Why Not to be compact for punching,” Osinski said. “Yet the body is thick enough to hold the bigger hooks in place so the hook point is not constantly poking out and hanging up. The ones I’m using are the first run and they will available for purchase next week.”
Keith Pace of Monticello, Ark., rounds out the top five with a three-day total of 45 pounds, 3 ounces worth $9,000.
During the week Pace primarily relied on a big 7-inch Yamamoto Senko (junebug) paired with a 11/0 Owner hook – that’s correct, an 11/0 worm hook – as well as a Zoom Horny Toad in green pumpkin.
Both were tied to 60-pound test Spiderwire.
“Sometimes they would blow up on the Horny Toad and I would throw that big Senko back over there where they blew up and they would inhale it,” Pace said. “This morning I caught a 7-pounder on it on about my 15th cast and that got my heart going.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top-10 pros in the Rayovac FLW Series event on Okeechobee:
6th: Brandon McMillan of Clewiston, Fla., three-day total: 44-8, $8,000
7th: Joseph Kremer of Osteen, Fla., three-day total: 44-4, $7,000
8th: Miles Burghoff of Guntersville, Ala., three-day total: 43-1, $6000
9th: Thomas Helton of Charleston, Tenn., three-day total: 42-3, $5000
10th: Kent Ware of Wadmalaw Island, S.C., three-day total: 40-6, $4,000