ACC staffers set Okeechobee standard
By Greg McCain
While much of the country endures the vagaries of winter fishing, Florida continues to crank out big catches of crappie.
A week after Florida angler Nick Whitten and his partner sacked a megabag on the St. Johns River, said to be the biggest ever in the Sunshine State, two other ACC Crappie Stix pro staffers brought in another record catch on Feb. 3. Guides Brad Gibson and Calvin King combined to catch the biggest seven-fish limit of crappie ever weighed in a tournament on Lake Okeechobee.
Their 11.97 total bested any previously known record and continued a wave of giant catches of specks or black crappie on Okeechobee, the sprawling lake in south Florida.
“The fish have gotten big on Okeechobee, the biggest I’ve seen my whole life here,” said Brad, who operates G3 Outfitters on the lake. “There are a lot of two-pounders being caught here this year, which is typically a unicorn on this lake. I’ve caught a couple, and Calvin has caught one or two as well.
“I knew 11 pounds wasn’t going to win it. Actually 10 ½ pounds usually wins every tournament here. I was confident we could catch 10 ½ to 11 pounds single-poling and possibly more.”
Both Brad and Calvin had cracked the 12-lb. barrier while pre-fishing in recent weeks. That total seemed attainable for the duo after larger-than-average fish began to appear on Okeechobee last year. Crappie that were once considered a quality part of a seven-fish limit were now culls. Brad and Calvin’s weigh fish in the tournament ranged from about 1.60 to just above 1.80, not huge by standards of other lakes but bigger than normal for Okeechobee.
“In the past, if you could catch a limit of 1.5s, you could win every tournament here,” Brad said.
Both the anglers attribute the bigger fish to a burgeoning baitfish population on the lake.
“The last few years, we have had a tremendous shad spawn,” said Calvin, who runs Dying Breed Charters. “When I think back maybe 10 years ago, we would have had a good shad spawn, but it was about a two-month deal. Over the last few years, our shad population has been unbelievable. There’s just so much food for them to eat all the time.
“We’re starting to see the rewards from having a healthy shad population.”
Added Brad, “Last year, there were shad as far as you could see. Back in September and October, we were catching average-sized fish – 10 inches or 11 inches – that had really big shoulders on them.”
Brad and Calvin actually won two tournaments with the record catch. Concurrent events were held by the Sunshine State Crappie Trail and the Florida Crappie Club. Typical of tournament fish, some of their crappie had disappeared early in the competition. Both anglers had “found some really good places” pre-fishing, but the quality fish were not around their first stops for the most part.
“We caught a couple of good fish early, but most of what we caught came later,” Brad said. “At about 11 or 11:30, we still needed three or four more good fish to have a chance.”
They found those fish near one of their intended late-day stops. The crappie were not on their exact spot, but close by.
“Where we ended up doing most of our damage, without saying too much, it just made sense,” Calvin said. “With the way the wind was blowing and other things considered, it just made sense. We went to a mark and they weren’t there. So if they weren’t here, they had to be over there. We just went over there and looked, and there they were.”
The area was filled with vegetation, mainly cattails or bullrushes in water four- to seven-feet deep. They encountered fish in various stages of the spawn, some with bulging bellies that were dripping roe. Others had clearly spawned out.
While fish were caught on a variety of presentations in the tournaments, Brad and Calvin had committed to single-pole jigging the night before the tournament, removing all of their trolling rods and tackle from the boat. They put the long ACC Crappie Stix jigging rods to use around the cattails and proceeded to catch and to cull numerous fish in the last hours of fishing.
They were looking for a 1.70 crappie when the day ended.
“We were throwing back 1.3s and 1.4s, fish that any other year we would have considered weighing,” Calvin said.
They used ACC models ranging from 10 to 13 feet. A key for Brad was a new color of jig that Calvin had tied for him. Without providing the exact details, Brad said the color was something unorthodox – “off-the-wall” was his description of it – that seemed to appeal to the fish.
“When I was getting ready, I decided to tie it on,” Brad said. “I had asked Calvin to tie it, and he looked at me like I was crazy at the time.
“I think I caught two of our biggest fish on it and probably 50 or 60 crappie on it during the course of the day.”
Both Brad and Calvin hope the big catches continue on Okeechobee. They will fish against each other in a tournament Saturday. In the same event last year, Brad edged Calvin for the win by .01 of an ounce.
“The fish are here,” Brad said. “It’s just a matter of finding the right ones.”
For more information about guided trips or Lake Okeechobee fishing, contact Brad on either Facebook (G3 Outfitters Guide Brad Gibson) or Instagram (@g3_outfitters) or at www.okeechobeebassfishingguide.com. Contact Calvin on his personal Facebook page or on Instagram (cal_king863). They guide for various species, including crappie, bass, bluegills, and shellcracker.