CLEWISTON, Fla. – Due to its sugar industry, the hamlet on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee known as Clewiston, Fla., calls itself the “Sweetest Town in America.” It’s a fitting venue for an easygoing, down-to-earth Wal-Mart FLW Tour rookie like Ray Scheide to win $100,000 in his first tour-level fishing event.
But beneath his veneer of sweetness, Scheide possesses the competitive fire of a champion. In Saturday’s final day of the FLW season opener at Okeechobee, the 33-year-old pro from Russellville, Ark., muscled his way into a five-bass limit weighing an impressive 21 pounds, 9 ounces. That pushed his two-day, final-round total to a massive 36-1, overwhelming his closest competitor, Chris McCall, by exactly 13 pounds.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t wait to call my wife.”
How Scheide, who led Friday with a 14 ½-pound stringer, managed to hook into more than 20 pounds of bass Saturday when no one else could muster more than 12 ½ pounds is no secret. He just found the big ones, simply enough.
“I found an area the last day of practice where I caught an 11-pounder,” Scheide said. “It looked awesome. It had every type of grass that you need.”
The area he fished all week was a quarter-mile stretch of hyacinth mats along Pelican Bay, east of South Bay. The location played right into his strength, which is flipping. The cold front that blew down from the north the last two days pushed many big female bass in the area off the spawning beds, leaving them scrambling for cover and warmth beneath the thick mats. From there, it was easy pickings for Scheide.
“They were trying to spawn,” he explained, “but when a cold front comes in, they’re going to go to the nearest thick cover. The colder it got, the bigger the females were that came up in there. They were pre-spawn fish, full of eggs, fat.”
Scheide used the same technique Saturday that gave him the lead Friday. He flipped a Gambler cricket with a 1 ½-ounce tungsten weight to penetrate the wind-thickened hyacinth mats, let the bait drop, then pulled it back up to just beneath the hyacinths and twitched until he got a bite. His first bass was a 6-pounder, and his biggest weighed over 7 pounds. He caught all of his 21 pounds by 10:30 a.m.
Fishing in such heavy cover, Scheide used 65-pound braided line and only lost two fish all week. After he hooked them, he had to troll through some muck to go get them, but he rarely broke any off.
“That’s what’s fun about this. You’ve got to put it into four-wheel drive to go get her,” said Scheide, who obviously had some fun Saturday. “They aren’t getting away if I can get them up in that mat. I never let up; I just kept at it.”
The cool-headed Scheide, a Wal-Mart BFL Okie Division standout whose previous best pro finish was second place in a 2002 EverStart Series Central Division event, didn’t seem at all surprised by his hot start out of the FLW Tour chute. For him, it was all about preparation.
“I had a good practice and a perfect week,” he said. “This has been a dream of mine forever. I hope I can make a habit of this.”
The sentimental favorite at Okeechobee, McCall caught a limit weighing 9 pounds, 11 ounces Saturday, pushing his final-round total to 23-1 and second place. He collected $35,000 in prizes, but for the pro from Jasper, Texas, it was hard to put a value on his experience this week. His mother passed away while he was competing Wednesday, but McCall persevered.
“We want to thank everybody for all their thoughts and prayers,” he said, accompanied by his wife. “It’s the best week of fishing I’ve ever had. It’s a great start, especially after missing the championship last year by three places. You couldn’t ask for a better start as far as the fishing goes.”
McCall, a second-year FLW pro, caught two of his bass Saturday on a spinnerbait, and the other three he caught by sight-fishing with Gambler baits.
“Those three right at the end helped,” he said. “This really changes everything. I don’t really have to worry about making it from one tournament to the next anymore.”
Dudley cashes in again
Fishing Machine, Manteo Machine, Cash Machine – whatever you call him, David Dudley just keeps the hammer down. The richest pro bass angler in history collected yet another check Saturday, this time for $20,000, after weighing in a limit and finishing third at Okeechobee with a final-round weight of 22 pounds, 11 ounces.
The competitive Dudley, however, wasn’t exactly satisfied with his own performance – which probably belies his penchant for winning.
“I could have finished second, but I couldn’t have caught (Scheide’s) weight,” said Dudley, who admitted that he might have made a mistake on the locations he fished in the finals. “I was just sight-fishing and I caught what I could catch, but I didn’t even see enough good fish to catch him.”
Also sight-fishing for the bulk of the week was Shinichi Fukae, a Japanese angler of the year from Osaka. He finished in fourth place and collected $16,000 with a total weight of 20 pounds 7 ounces in the finals. This was also his first FLW tournament.
Dave Lefebre of Erie, Pa., finished in fifth place, worth $14,000, with a final-round total of 19 pounds, 7 ounces. He said he had trouble finding fish until later in the day throughout the tournament, but Saturday started fast for him.
“I got a big one right off the bat today, and I haven’t been able to get a morning bite all week,” said Lefebre, whose limit weighed 9 pounds, 2 ounces today. “But this is exciting. (Okeechobee) was a great start for me last year, too.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro finishers at FLW Lake Okeechobee are Billy Bowen Jr. of Ocala, Fla., with a final-round total weight of 13 pounds, 9 ounces (sixth place, $11,000); Dean Rojas of Grand Saline, Texas, with a weight of 13-7 (seventh, $10,000); James Parker of Fayetteville, N.C., with a weight of 9-6 (eighth, $9,000); day-one leader Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., with a weight of 8-2 (ninth, $8,000); and Rick Lillegard of Atkinson, N.H., with a weight of 4-1 (10th, $7,000).
The top seven pros all caught limits Saturday, and six of the 10 finalists caught limits both days of the final round.
Overall, Lake Okeechobee version 2004 was an FLW Tour record-breaker. The expanded field of 200 pros and 200 co-anglers weighed in a total of 3,209 bass weighing 6,429 pounds, 11 ounces, smashing the previous Okeechobee record of 2,568 bass weighing 4,862-7 set in 2002 by a field of 175 pros and 175 co-anglers.
The second FLW Tour stop of the season is scheduled for the Atchafalaya Basin near Morgan City, La., Feb. 11-14.