CLEWISTON, Fla. – While many in the industry expected Casey Martin to thrive after moving to the front of the boat, few thought his success would come so quickly. Martin, the Canadian-born pro who now lives in New Market, Ala., whacked a 26-pound 12-ounce stringer Thursday to lead the 175-boat field at the 2013 Walmart FLW Tour opener on Lake Okeechobee.
While the bite certainly improved, as evidenced by 157 limits (including seven over 20 pounds), Okeechobee is still fishing “different.” Many of the sport’s best mat punchers struck out (Randall Tharp 81st, Scott Martin 93rd, JT Kenney 113th, Mike Surman 140th) while others found no discernible pattern. At this point, the best strategy might be to try a little bit of everything – which is exactly what the 32-year-old rookie did.
“On my first cast I caught a 6 1/2-pounder; the net wasn’t even out yet,” said Martin, who left a career in electrical engineering to pursue his dream of bass fishing. “The momentum just went from there. I had a 12-pound limit early, which I knew would keep me in check range and then I just went running all over the place. I checked spots I fished during the EverStart (event) and a bunch of other stuff that looked good. At noon I had about 20 pounds.”
Martin hit four or five different areas and burned almost two tanks of gas. He explained that with the improved bite he wanted to reexamine several areas that weren’t producing in practice. As he suspected, several of them turned on as the water clarity improved and the temperature rose. Interestingly, the pro leader said he would only receive one big bite from each area.
“I think some guys just hunker down in an area and just fish, where I just ran to the best spots in certain areas. I think that’s what made the biggest difference.”
Each of Martin’s three big fish weighed just over 6 pounds and each were caught on different baits. Those three baits were a green-pumpkin-colored Z-Man ChatterBait, a bluegill-colored Omega Custom Tackle swim jig and a flipping jig. The early limit Martin boxed came from flipping as well. In total, he said he managed around 12 to 15 keepers.
“I did a little bit of everything. I like to fish for five of the right bites and if I get them I get them. If I don’t I’ll have my tail between my legs, but I am OK with that. And Florida is just a matter of getting the right bites so that really suits me.”
Martin is fishing out of Bryan Thrift’s old Ranger and joked after weigh-in that the Chevy pro must have left his horseshoe in one of the compartments. But the reality of the situation is that Martin is no ordinary rookie. That was clear after he won three FLW Tour events as co-angler in just two years.
“Coming into my first event as a pro, I just didn’t want to bomb out. There is a lot of pressure coming into your first event, and I really didn’t want to let anybody down. Practice was really tough, and I didn’t want everyone thinking that I couldn’t make it as a pro. I knew that if I did well in this event it would set the pace for the rest of the year.”
Like Martin, the action was fast and furious for second-place pro Rick Cotten this morning, but for the wrong reasons.
“First thing my co-angler catches a pair of keepers and then his big fish, which was over 6 pounds,” explained the Guntersville, Ala., pro. “At that point I thought I was doing something wrong. Then at about 8:30 I moved areas and caught 10 keepers, which was all of my weight. Then as soon the wind got up the bite died, but I got what I got from that area and left.”
Cotten said he had no intention of hitting that spot, seeing that it only produced 2-pounders in practice. But he’s glad he did. His best five largemouths weighed 24 pounds even and his kicker registered 7-4.
“I think the females just moved in and I was fortunate. Everyone I caught came on a jig.”
Cotten went on to compliment his co-angler, Ron Shearer, who was a cool customer in a big spot.
“When I hooked that big one, there was a ChatterBait rod stuck in the net. Instead of panicking, my co-angler dove at the fish with the rod and reel pinned and we got her in. Ninety-nine percent of co-anglers would have panicked there and tried to get the rod and reel out first.”
“I like to sight-fish and I caught one off the bed this morning, but I did a lot of pitching and casting too,” said the Panama City, Fla., native. “When I came down here I was really expecting to sight-fish a whole lot more than I have. That’s really my strong suit down here. Every time I come down, I feel like I can compete when I can I catch them off the beds, but this year there hasn’t been that many move up.
“I caught them on four different baits today – most of your typical Florida stuff. At the end of the day I caught one on a spinnerbait on the outside.”
Benton was most excited about a fish he didn’t catch, but plans to in the near future.
“I saw a 9-pounder on a bed and I’m excited to cast to her first thing tomorrow. After that, I’m just going to fish. Today I probably covered 25 miles.”
Benton’s official weight sits at 23 pounds, 7 ounces, good enough for third place after day one.
After the EverStart Series event, Rich Dalbey decided to stick around for five days and learn the ins and outs of Lake Okeechobee. And while he’s not confident he’s identified anything concrete, the early results are impressive as Dalbey weighed 21-14 which has him in fourth place. Like the pro leader, Dalbey recently made the transition from co to pro.
“I started on my best area from practice and couldn’t get bit,” said the Greenville, Texas, native. “Then I caught a couple pitching a Senko and then later I picked up a moving bait for the first time all week and filled out my limit. Then I went back to an earlier place and caught the 5-pounder, my second biggest of the day.”
With a decent stringer in the livewell, Dalbey ran up the lake to a numbers area so his co-angler could get a limit. Before heading in for the day, he wanted to check one last spot and at 3:30 in the afternoon that spot yielded his 7-pounder, which fell for a jig.
In total, Dalbey said he caught two of his five weigh fish on the jig and three on the moving bait – culling all the Senko fish out.
“It was a great first day but I don’t know if I’ve got anything figured out or not. I think having a little ripple on the surface helped those moving baits.”
New Jersey pro Adrian Avena bucked the run-and-gun trend and instead milked a single 150-yard stretch of water for a 21-pound, 2-ounce limit. But like the other leaders, he too varied his presentation.
“I caught one good one sight-fishing, one good one flipping and one good one on the outside edge,” Avena said. “My main pattern was flipping with my new Halo rods, a big weight and a Beaver.”
After a poor practice where he averaged only five to eight bites per day, Avena said he caught roughly 40 keepers Thursday.
“I just have one little area with a lot of 3- and 4-pounders. It was working so I pretty much stayed on the same stretch all day and just fished some on the way back.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros on Lake Okeechobee after day one:
6th: Jacob Powroznik of Prince George, Va., five bass, 20-7
7th: Dion Hibdon of Sunrise Beach, Mo., five bass, 20-2
8th: Brent Ehrler of Redlands, Calif., five bass, 19-7
9th: Shad Schenck of Waynetown, Ind., five bass, 18-8
10th: John Cox of Debary, Fla., five bass, 18-0
Hibdon claimed the 3M ScotchBlue Big Bass Award with a 9-pound, 10-ounce largemouth.
Jones tops co-anglers
Justin Jones led last year’s EverStart Series event on Lake Okeechobee after the first day, but then zeroed on day two and tumbled down the leaderboard. He has the ultimate chance at redemption tomorrow after catching a co-angler-best stringer today weighing 22 pounds, 11 ounces.
“I caught a 6-pounder within the first 20 minutes of the day,” said the Apex, N.C., angler. “Then I caught some small fish here and there. With 45 minutes left I caught my big fish, the 9-7.”
Jones said his pattern was simply flipping a Bruiser Intruder (Knockout color).
“My boater Charlie Ingram was one of the best boaters I have ever had. He’s a tremendous guy; I can’t say enough about him. Overall, I’m thrilled with the way today went and I definitely don’t want a replay of last year.”
The 9-pound, 7-ounce kicker was the 3M Peltor Big Bass Award among the co-anglers.
After a 15-year hiatus to raise his children, Bill Cowart is back on the tournament trail, competing in a 10-tournament schedule that includes the FLW Tour and the EverStart Series Southeast Division. And he’s back with a bang too, after catching a 16-pound, 9-ounce limit Thursday.
“I caught 12 keepers on a variety of baits – a Senko, some swimbaits and a ribbontail worm,” said the Kissimmee, Fla., native. “In the afternoon the bigger ones started to turn on.”
Scott, Surman, Goggins round out top five
Greg Scott of Dearborn, Mich., caught a 15-pound, 8-ounce limit for third place among the co-anglers. Scott is the practice partner of Chevy pro Larry Nixon. Today he caught 17 keepers on a mix of lures including a spinnerbait, a ChatterBait and a Senko.
“Larry is my best friend and I can promise you we haven’t caught that many keepers in three days of practice,” quipped Scott.
Matt Surman, son of Castrol pro Mike Surman, caught a 15-pound, 6-ounce limit for fourth. Surman coaxed an 8-10 by flipping a Gambler Crawdad under a mat.
“That was the biggest fish I’ve ever weighed in a tournament,” said the 24-year-old from Orlando, Fla.
Anthony Goggins of Auburn, Ala., rounds out the top five with 14 pounds, 13 ounces.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 co-anglers after day one:
6th: Mike Boyles of Kimberling City, Mo., five bass, 14-9
7th: Ron Shearer of Nicholasville, Ky., five bass, 14-7
8th: Brendon Delaney of Highland, Ill., five bass, 14-3
9th: Wataru Iwahori of Palestine, Texas, five bass, 12-14
10th: Ronnie Green of Tampa, Fla., five bass, 12-7
Day two of the FLW Tour on Lake Okeechobee will begin Friday at 7:30 a.m. from Roland & Mary Ann Martin’s Marina & Resort located at 920 East Del Monte Ave. in Clewiston.