Season opens on 'Big O'

Chris Lane has at least two reasons to love the "Big O."

A Florida native now living on Alabama's Lake Guntersville, the Bassmaster Elite Series pro has a good history on the "Big O," Florida's vast Lake Okeechobee. In 2004, he scored a fourth-place Bassmaster Open finish there, then returned in 2006 for a win in the Bassmaster Southern Open.

Lane is hoping the Jan. 14-16 Southern Open on Okeechobee will make it three reasons to love the lake. Fishing conditions are expected to be ideal, Lane said, for the event that will kick off the 2010 Bassmaster tournament season.

Launches will be at 7 a.m. ET Thursday-Saturday at C. Scott Driver Park, 2800 NE 20th Trail, Okeechobee, Fla. Weigh-ins are set for 3 p.m. ET at the park. All activities are free and open to the public.

BASS has conducted 18 previous pro-level events on Okeechobee. What's on the line at the 2010 Southern Open season opener is a first-place pro prize of $45,000 and valuable points. An angler amasses points throughout the season in an attempt to win one of seven invitations to join the 2011 Elite Series, and to land one of two berths in the 2011 Bassmaster Classic awarded through the circuit.

"The lake is really in good shape right now," said Lane, who won on Okeechobee in 2006 with 54 pounds, 12 ounces over three days on a frog pattern. His best guess on a 2010 winning weight was "right around 70 over three days," or about 23 pounds a day.

"Since the hurricanes (2004-2005), the vegetation has grown back a lot, the water has good clarity, the fish are strong, and there are lots of them," he said. "This cold front's going to knock them down a good notch, and the outcome of the tournament will depend on the weather."

The frigid air masses that have covered the South are expected to give way to warmer temperatures by tournament time.

"If the weather warms, we'll see some really big bags of fish come in," Lane said. "If it stays cold, it's going to be tough."

The nickname "Big O" stems from the way the fishery sprawls across southern Florida like a circular inland sea — albeit a very shallow one. Wind and water levels can quickly alter fishing and navigation conditions. Right now, the lake is about at full pool of 13 1/2 feet, Lane said, and one never can predict what the wind will do.

As the first of three tournaments of the Southern division of the Bassmaster Open circuit, the Okeechobee event has attracted extreme interest from competitors. The Big O can handle it, Lane said.

"In an Okeechobee tournament, you'll have sections where there will be 50 boats, then 50 in another area, and 50 in another, and the other boats scattered," Lane said. "But the lake's big, so I don't think it's going to be crowded at all. There's so much vegetation, you can get into areas where you'll be by yourself."

The local host is the Okeechobee County Tourist Development Council. Coverage can be found on Bassmaster.com during the tournament.