Saturday, February 11, 2012

Walmart FLW Lake Okeechobee Open Day 3: Wind Whips but Tharp Tops

EverStart pro survives blustery weather, retains nearly 9-pound lead      
by Brett Carlson

CLEWISTON, Fla. – It appears not even a vicious Florida cold front can stop Randall Tharp. In relentless 25 to 30 mph winds, Tharp buckled down and caught a workmanlike 14-pound, 13-ounce bag to retain a sizeable lead in the Walmart FLW Tour season opener on Lake Okeechobee.
Randall Tharp is still in command but the lead struck.
(Photo: Brett Carlson FLW)
Tharp didn’t come close to the 30-pound stringers he caught on days one and two, but he still received four quality bites. The major difference between the opening round and today was that he failed to capitalize on half those bites. While he left an opportunity to shut the door slip away, he’ll still start the final day with an 8-pound, 13-ounce lead.
“It was a struggle today,” said Tharp, who claimed the runner-up spot at last year’s FLW Tour event on Lake Okeechobee. “Really, I had the bites to put the tournament out of reach, but I had a bad day and I left the door open. I broke a couple off today, and I think one was in the 10-pound class.”
Tharp said he’s sticking with the technique that’s brought him this far – flipping a bait with a 1 1/2-ounce weight into thick, matted vegetation. He’s fishing for big bites, not numbers, and that could make for an interesting final day where the forecast calls for cold temperatures and more wind. Florida-strain largemouths are notorious for being finicky during a cold front.
“I can’t worry about the other guys, because I can’t control what they do. I have to go out there and do my job. I’m going to have a couple of flipping sticks out and fish for one at a time, and hopefully I’ll get five bites.”

After the day-two weigh-in Tharp stated that he felt he needed one more heavy-duty bag to seal the deal. He thinks that big bag is still possible despite tomorrow’s weather.
“I’m still around big fish. I know the weather they’re forecasting, but I’m doing the right things for those conditions.”
Cox second
Cox might be able to catch the lead. It all depends on the wind.
(Photo: Brett Carlson FLW)
John Cox trimmed Tharp’s lead after catching 16 pounds, 15 ounces, but not substantially. He’s still got a hill to climb, but he knows firsthand how big leads can evaporate on Okeechobee. In 2010, Cox had nearly an 11-pound lead heading into the final day. But after catching only a 7-pound limit, Scott Martin rallied from behind with a 20-pound stringer to steal the win.
Cox got his first FLW Tour win last year on the Red River, but he wouldn’t mind reversing the Okeechobee roles tomorrow. But to do so, he’ll have to change water completely.
“Everyday I’ve been fishing right outside the off-limits, just past the marina (Roland’s),” he said. “But the wind is supposed to come straight out of the north tomorrow so I’m going to flip mats somewhere where it’s nice and calm. The wind was out of the northwest today and it was still brutal trying to control the boat.”
Cox has one particular area in mind for tomorrow. It’s a place he checks every year when comes to Okeechobee. He says it has always looked good, but it’s never produced until this year. While he hasn’t touched it during the tournament, he has no way of knowing if others have already fished it.
Each of the past three days, Cox has started his morning with a Rattle Head spinnerbait. Then he eventually switches to flipping either a Rattle Head football-head jig or a Beaver. He usually starts with the jig and goes to the Beaver if the fish aren’t being aggressive.
“I feel good because everything is going so well. I think my chances of catching five 5-pounders is good. But you just never know on this lake.”
With one day remaining, Cox’s total weight sits at 69 pounds, 13 ounces.
McMillan retains third
Brandon McMillan caught only four bass weighing 13 pounds, 6 ounces, but he still maintained his third-place position on the leaderboard. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he’s more than 17 pounds away from catching his friend Tharp and defending his title. His total weight now stands at 61-2.
The local pro said the blustery weather made the mats he was flipping too compact.
“You have to present the bait nice and clean,” he explained. “But you also have to get it through the mats to get a bite, so it’s tough. I think I’m going to upgrade from a 1 1/2-ounce weight to a 2-ounce weight tomorrow.”
The 28-year-old McMillan has put all of his eggs into the flipping basket and doesn’t plan to change.
“I’m around them, but I just struggled to get the bait in front of them. I think it being cold is going to help out tomorrow.”
York fourth
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the windy weather was Georgia pro Jeremy York, who caught a 17-pound, 8-ounce stringer from a canal.
“It was windy in there, but I’m sure it was better than on the main lake,” said York, who has a total weight of 60 pounds, 13 ounces.”
York’s entire 8-hour day consists of flipping a Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog along a 5-mile stretch of canal. He makes approximately a 1 1/2 passes per day, methodically picking apart gator grass.
“The canal is probably 6 feet deep and I’m catching them in 2 or 3 feet. But this gator grass is tough stuff. It’s not like hydrilla or hyacinth; this stuff is connected. There are times when I can’t get a 12-incher out of there.”
York thinks the bass live in the middle of the canal and when they want to feed they go up to the edge.
“I don’t believe I can win in there, but it’s been fun.”
Thrift rises to fifth
Chevy pro Bryan Thrift of Shelby, N.C., cracked the top five Saturday after catching a limit worth 18 pounds, 2 ounces. After three days on the Big O, his total weight stands at 58 pounds even.
“I’m pretty sure I was one of the only boats fishing down south this week,” Thrift said. “But today’s wind pretty much trashed that, so I’ll have to scramble tomorrow.”
Thrift started his day on a schooling bite – throwing rattlebaits and spinnerbaits. As the water clarity got worse and worse, he had to abort and start flipping a 1-ounce jig. Two of his fish today came flipping, including a random 5-pounder.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros who made the cutoff after day three:
6th: Roland Martin of Naples, Fla., 55-10
7th: Scott Martin of Clewiston, Fla., 55-3
8th: Nick Gainey of Charleston, S.C., 54-5
9th: Art Ferguson III of St. Clair Shores, Mich., 53-1
10th: Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., 52-9
Day four of the FLW Tour event on Lake Okeechobee will begin Sunday at 7:30 a.m. from the Clewiston Boat Basin.

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