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The “Okeechobee Special” – a great Big Bass bait from yesteryear still great today!

In the 1980’s and living in Pretoria, I joined Pretoria Bassmasters and, as part of the package, became a member of Bassmaster, USA. The great thing about this was receiving my regular copies of Bassmaster magazine directly from the USA! I could hardly wait for the magazine to arrive and scanned every article for information and tips I was convinced would make me a better Basser.

 

One article I remember particularly well was about spinnerbaits. The author came to the conclusion that the spinnerbait was the single most effective and versatile Bass lure or “bait” as they called it – for every season and every condition and circumstance. I was an instant “convert” to spinnerbaits and fished them almost exclusively for some years, putting into practice what I had read and experiencing first-hand how productive spinnerbaits were when fished correctly. Needless to say, some of my best Bass were taken on spinnerbaits!

 

(By the way, this is a good way to learn how to fish any lure – choose it and stick with it until you have mastered it …)

 

Some time later, I read about the “Okeechobee Special” in another issue of Bassmaster magazine …

 

The pages of Bassmaster revealed that the “Okeechobee Special” was at one time a “secret” bait originally used on the weedy and reedy waters of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee to mimic live shiners. Bassmaster was now revealing this “secret bait of the pros” to its readers …

 

The drift was that certain (by all accounts, very successful) pros would get hold of the old Hildebrandt “Slim Eli” Willowleaf spinners (in sizes 6, 7 and 8), cut the spinners up to harvest the big Willowleaf blades and put them on their regular spinnerbaits to produce a big, slow bait with lots of flash and vibration resembling a large shiner minnow (that No. 8 blade is really humungous!) and an easy meal for a big Bass. That was the “Okeechobee Special” – basically an ordinary spinnerbait, but fitted with an extra large Willowleaf blade.

 

Now I wanted an “Okeechobee Special” for myself as well, but all I found in local tackle shops were standard-sized Willowleaf spinnerbaits which I considered to be rather “wimpy”, especially after being charged up by the Bassmaster article! You could not really get any blades to purchase separately in the local shops at that time, so I resorted to some desperate measures and got me a few (a good few, I might add!) of the Hildebrandt No. 6 and 8 Willowleaf blades (imported from the USA – quite a “schlep” back then without the Internet and online ordering!) to fashion my own custom “Okeechobee Specials”.

 

I used my custom “Okeechobee Specials” with much success in the late 1980’s at Theewaterskloof from the shoreline while I was stationed in the Cape and only graduated to plastic worm fishing when my supply of spinnerbaits started running out … I specifically recall an occasion one early overcast February morning at the Draaiberg Bridge area of Theewaterskloof where I latched onto two magnificent Largemouths of close on 3kg each in short succession right under the noses of some experienced Western Province Bassers (who shall remain nameless!) who were fishing with Texas-rigged plastic worms … That experience served to reinforce my conviction that spinnerbaits, in general, and the “Okeechobee Special”, in particular, were a good idea for Bass!

 

Even today, I am convinced that the “Okeechobee Special” is a “must have” in any serious Bass fishing arsenal of lures. Two of my top five Bass, including my current personal best (a Mteri Bass of 4.6kg) have been taken on this bait.

 

Practising what I preach - a Bass of 4,6kg (10.12lb) taken on a custom “Okeechobee Special” type spinnerbait

 on 2 August 2006 at Mteri, Zimbabwe  The lure (clearly visible) has a chartreuse and white skirt dressed with a black Berkley PowerWorm trailer and a No. 6 gold Hildebrandt Willowleaf blade. A real “confidence” bait I’ll use anytime!

 

Not only productive in warm and weedy waters or the stained timbered waters of what was Theewaterskloof, but icy water as well such as to be found on a bluebird cloudless day one May in the Cape when a sluggish Bass came up from the depths of Theewaterskloof next to the rip-rap of a submerged roadbed in slow motion to nail my “Okeechobee Special” with a No. 6 nickel Willowleaf blade …

 

The big Willowleaf blade (at least a No. 6 right up to the max, a No. 8) is the key to the success of this bait. The blade is big and relatively heavy and puts up quite a lot of resistance on the retrieve, so it’s slow but makes up for this with lots of flash and vibration. It has a lot of lift and buoyancy, too, and comes through grass and obstructions rather easily. I throw it on a flipping stick or pitching stick with 17 – 20lb test mono or, currently, on 50lb braid (Berkley Whiplash) with a 20lb test mono or fluorocarbon leader. Lighter line and softer rods just don’t cut it with this bait. Also, you would want to use the traditional style round baitcaster reels (such as the ABU 5 000C or the Shimano Calcutta or Daiwa Luna in a similar size) and not the more modern low profile styles. You will get quality fish smacking this bait and you do not want to lose you next personal best!

 

What this bait represents to the Bass is anyone’s guess. The original theory behind the bait apparently was to “match the hatch” with the wild shiners so much loved by the Lake Okeechobee Bass. The standard big Bass bait at the time on Lake Okeechobee was a live shiner (and probably still is, today too!). The profile of that big Willowleaf blade coming through the water represents a shiner (or in SA a yellowfish, scaly, trout or any other slim-profiled, but substantial, baitfish) which makes a great, easy to swallow and nutritious meal for a hungry big momma Bass.

 

Hildebrandt now also sells their own branded version of the “Okeechobee Special”, but you may find it difficult to get the size 6, 7 or 8 Willowleaf blades in the commercially made-up version.

 

 

Hildebrandt’s “Okeechobee Special” with the standard (in my opinion, too small) Willowleaf blade (probably a No. 4 or 5). You could, however, transform this into a real “Okeechobee Special” if you upgrade to a No. 6, 7 or 8 Willowleaf blade.

 

In a recent online search I could only find this bait/ lure with No. 4 or 5 Willowleaf blades. This is actually missing the point, because to qualify as an “Okeechobee Special” you need a Willowleaf blade in at least size No. 6. Anything less, in my opinion, is just a plain old Willowleaf spinnerbait – nothing really “special” about it … Go big or go home!

 

The real deal, a custom “Okeechobee Special” with a big Hildebrandt No. 8 Willowleaf blade. Now that’s quite a mouthful …

 

What remains then, is to buy the bigger blades separately (easy to find the No. 6 and 7’s online), or do as the old-timers did and buy the size 6, 7 or 8 double blade Hildebrandt “Slim Eli” spinners and cut them up to get at the blades to put on your spinnerbaits – a bit expensive this way, but you gotta do what you gotta do … By the way, Hildebrandt also makes excellent premium quality Colorado style blades, a must for any spinnerbait aficionado who insists on only the best blades.

 

A selection of Hildebrandt Willowleaf blades in sizes No. 6 and 8, gold (top) and nickel (bottom).

 

Ensure you get the best possible basic spinnerbait to work with to use as your basis for customising your own “Okeechobee Special”. In the past, I was partial to Fleck “Weed Waders”, currently I like the Stanley range of spinnerbaits …

 

Through the years, I have narrowed the styles and colours of spinnerbait down to what works best for me. I get rather dogmatic about certain spinnerbait components – this is a “confidence” thing for me when it comes to spinnerbaits.

Weight: Generally, 3/8 oz or ½ oz. I would not recommend a lighter head with the bigger blades – you can go heavier if required.

Head colour: Black or white, gold or silver, head colour is not too critical.

Skirt colours: A mix of white and chartreuse for daytime (with the white head); black at night (with the black head).

Trailer: I almost always add a black trailer worm (or large grub) to dress my spinnerbait day or night (my current favourite is a 7” black Berkley PowerWorm with about an inch pinched off the head to shorten it slightly). I never use a trailer hook or stinger hook – the way I fish spinnerbaits with big blades – slowly – it’s just not necessary.

Blades: My favourites: A single No. 5 or 6 Colorado style blade (gold or nickel colour) for general daytime and night-time fishing; a small Colorado style blade teamed with a large No. 6, 7 or even 8 Willowleaf style blade in gold or nickel colour – the “Okeechobee Special” for big Bass. The Hildebrandt premium blades are probably the best you can buy – heavy, shiny and durable for excellent flash, vibration and “thump”. I almost always replace the blades on any spinnerbait I use with Hildebrandt blades. Only when you try them will you know why. Also, I generally like bigger blades than normally found on stock spinnerbaits, so that necessitates replacement of the blades.

Swivels: I always use a ball bearing type swivel to connect the blade to allow the big blades to turn easily. Also ensure the split rings on the swivel are of good quality. Those big blades generate quite a lot of torque and pressure (enough to deform the split ring connections on some cheaper spinnerbaits) and big Bass can smack a spinnerbait hard – hard enough to dislodge the blades! It’s a shame to lose a Hildebrandt blade!

 

You may get some strange looks (and comments) about the big blade (not to mention the big trailer worm) … Don’t let this put you off. It really works and it won’t be long before you, too, are a ”believer” …

 

A last word to leave you with: you will generally do better – have more success – with bigger Bass if you slow down your presentation (with any lure, including spinnerbaits), but to get the most from a spinnerbait you must actually feel that blade turning – working, slowly and steadily …

 

Now, “THERE SHE IS!

  

Jacques Wolmarans

www.BigBass.co.za

 

 

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