The clock reads 4:45 a.m.; the thermometer 87 degrees. By noon it will break 100, which is why we're meeting Bobby Sutton at the docks long before sunrise. Sutton is a fishing guide at the Roland Martin Marina in Clewiston, Florida, a hot spot for Lake Okeechobee bassin'. In 13 years of guiding, Sutton has yet to be skunked. He's a good man to have along.
After leaving Scott Hamilton the day before, we'd fished our way north to the St. Lucie Inlet, pointed the Polar 2110 west and headed inland through the St. Lucie Canal. As we negotiated the two locks along the 39 miles to Okeechobee, the water changed from salt to brackish to fresh. The sea breeze disappeared so we hammered the throttle to cool down, and not to outrun the 9-foot alligator we saw at one of the locks.
Sutton fills the baitwell with live shiners. "They're slipperier 'n snot," he drawls, "but bass don't grow big eating plastic." We head out bleary-eyed to one of Sutton's secret spots, wearing sunglasses in the dark to keep the bugs out of our eyes.
The bay boat has one disadvantage to a bass boat-about 30 fewer mph on top end. But it can get into tight quarters, fishes from back to front, and has space to mount a foot-controlled trolling motor on the bow.
Sutton eases us into position along a shoreline cut dotted with lily pads. "Toss your shiner there, Cuz," he says to Stefan. "I call you that 'cuz I can't remember your name." We set our baits and wait. And wait.
The Central Florida sun rises and the boat suddenly feels like a convection oven. Sutton runs us through his repertories of honey holes, dodging insect bombers along the way. "The dragon flies will knock your damn head off," he says.
We set up again in a slew along the south end of the lake, so far inside that the vast shimmering mirror that is Okeechobee is not visible. We wait some more. Sutton's telling us about a new crossbow he bought to hunt gators when Stefan leaps to his feet. He clicks the bail on his baitcaster and yanks back. The seven-foot rod bends sharply at the tip. The water along the lily pads explodes. A dark-green apparition leaps from the surface, its flared gill plates exposing vibrant red gills, and crashes back like a cinder block.
"He's a hawg," Stefan shouts as he cranks the big bass to the boat. Sutton reaches down with the net and hauls in a seven-pound Florida strain bucketmouth, keeping his 13-year streak intact. "Thank you Cuz," he says to Stefan, "for saving my ass."