New season starts in Florida

After a couple months of preparations the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series season is set to get underway this week on legendary Lake Okeechobee in Florida. As I’ve mentioned in recent columns, there is a lot of work to get ready before the first tournament every year. Work on the boat, organizing fishing tackle for the different waters that we’re visiting, booking places to stay and making travel plans. It’s all part of the job.

I’ve been down in Florida for about a week, spending time in the boat and getting back into fishing shape. It’s been nice to be back in the boat and the weather has been really nice. I’ve been coming to Florida for the past ten years in late January or early February because we almost always start our season in this state and it’s almost always cold for Florida, which makes the fishing tough. Cold is relative obviously, but you have to layer up with hoodies and jackets down here, the fishing is usually not going to be very good. When the weather is nice, the fishing is often excellent.

This past week it’s been beautiful, warm weather and the fishing has been good. I’ve fished a few different lakes and have seen a few big bass in the seven pound range. I feel like I’m ready to get to work this week. I fished one day with my friend Bill Godin, a long-time, successful tournament competitor in northwest Ontario and owner of Lake Despair Lodge. Bill and his wife Nell spend a good chunk of winter in Florida and have taken care of me many times over the years with a place to stay and some top notch dinners.

Bill Godin and Jeff Gustafson with a big bass that Bill caught last week in Florida. 

Bill ended up catching the biggest bass that I saw this week, a largemouth nearing eight pounds, so that was nice to see. We had a good time in the boat together.

The fishing should be exciting to follow this week on Okeechobee. It is one of the largest inland lakes in the United States and has a long history of kicking out big bass. I have fished five tournaments there in the past but not since 2018 so I’m expecting a different fishery than I have seen in the past. It is a shallow, grass-filled lake and it looks noticeably different every time I’ve been there. When hurricanes hit Florida they can cause the lake to flood or a lot of the vegetation can get torn up, which changes the lake quite a bit from year to year.

The keys on Okeechobee seem to be finding areas with clear water and healthy vegetation. As far as fishing techniques go, it’s a shallow lake so most of the fishing is done in five feet of water or less. Casting Chatterbaits, swim jigs and topwater baits to cover water are effective techniques. If you find an area with fish, slowing down and fishing with a worm or flipping heavy vegetation can be a good plan as well.

It’s always fun fishing water where you have a chance at ten pound fish or 30 pound plus limits, so I’m excited to get out there this week. We get three days of practice this week before the tournament starts on Thursday and runs through Sunday. Following the tournament this weekend we head up to Georgia for another event next week at Lake Seminole, a body of water on the Florida/Georgia line that I’ve never fished before. It has a good reputation for big bass so it should be a fun place to launch the boat as well.

Hopefully I can survive these first couple of events down south. I’ve had mixed results in Florida over the years with a few good finishes and a few bad ones. My first pro tournament ever was actually at Lake Okeechobee back in 2012 and it was a good one so it’s a place that I’m always happy to come to.