Through membership in an online B.A.S.S. forum, I met some great fishermen across the country, befriending one who lived close to me and planning a bass fishing trip on Lake Okeechobee with him. He wasn’t familiar with Big O, but I have fished it for 40 years, participating in many open and club tournaments. As such, my friend placed all of his confidence in my knowledge of where to go, what to throw, and not getting lost in over 700 square miles of water and swamp.
My friend brought two buddies, with the understanding that one would ride with me in my 15-foot Back Country flats boat, and he and the other friend would fish his 17-foot Nitro. We launched out of Clewiston, taking the Rim Canal to Bay Bottom, a long ride but calm and safe, and one not requiring formal navigation.
We fished through the morning, exploring deeper and deeper into small weedy trails. A few times we chewed through it with our outboards. At about 11:30 a.m., I noticed dark clouds to the south. But since they were moving east, we fished on, and I kept an eye on them. Suddenly, the clouds changed direction. There was a definitive squall line moving toward us. Fast.
“We have to go,” I stated.
We had two options. We could go back around the Rim, a 13-mile run along the shore, or cut across the open lake for about 6 miles. The second option seemed better to avoid getting wet. Now, I’ve never needed a compass or GPS to fish Big O and knew if I pointed my bow northwest we would eventually see “the Cylinder” — a large round weather station at the end of the Clewiston Channel leading us back to port.
We took off at wide-open throttle across the lake. The others had full confidence in my ability to lead them to safety. Then the squall caught up to us and, at the same time, I heard a piercing beeeeep, beeeeep — my outboard had started to overheat! Mud and weeds were in the cooling system, and I couldn’t clear it. Lightning was striking so close that the hair on our necks stood straight up.
We laid all the fishing rods down, and after reversing my engine several times, I was able to cool it and run again. The wind picked up, visibility went down, and since we were now halfway across the lake, land had disappeared. The swells were so big, I kept stuffing my bow. We finally made it to the channel and the docks after overheating a few more times. We were very lucky.
Looking back, we should have chosen the safer but longer route through the canal rather than heading for open water with a storm. It would have taken longer, and we would have driven through miles of rain, but we would have avoided mortal danger and had a shoreline available in which to ditch and find safe cover.
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