CLEWISTON — We’re back on the Big O — in a Big Way! Weather concerns? This is south Florida, we know how to play that game. When the hammer goes down, there are more important things to be concerned with. Like big bass and big checks.
Yeah, we had wind. Yeah, there was rain. Didn’t seem to matter. A record 198 teams gathered outside the lock in Clewiston on the morning of May 7 waiting for safelight and the launch of the 2022 Roland Martin Marine Center Series presented by HUK on Lake Okeechobee.
As the teams returned and gathered around the tanks and stage starting at 3 p.m. at the Roland and Mary Ann Martins Marina & Resort, it was clear to see that the HUK tournament bags were bulging at the seams. And when the last bag hit the scales, the team of Kail Stevens and Bradley MacQueen returned to the winner’s circle as the champions.
“We knew the wind was going to blow all day,” MacQueen said. “We just put our heads down and went fishing. And we caught all our fish today on Scenko Stix heavy Custom Rods.”
“We ran a pretty good ways north and just bounced our way back south,” Stevens said. “We were on the outside edge, kind of bouncing in and out, with moving baits and caught the big ones flipping. We were fishing with Gambler Big Easy swimbaits and double weed guard jigs with Gambler Chunks.”
With a winning weight of 28.97 pounds, the team of Stevens and MacQueen lifted the big check for $8,000 as the champions of qualifier #1 of the 2022 season.
Coming in second with 26.83 pounds was the team of Nicholas Hoinig and Matt Wieteha that started off strong but finished a little over two pounds shy of the big check.
“We ran up north and started right off the bat with a good one, about six pounder,” Hoinig said. “Then we kind of struggled from there. We knew toward the end of the day that we had to keep grinding. We then hit one strategy and then caught them pretty good. In the morning, we were throwing a Gambler swim jig with Gambler Burner Craw and flipping a Gambler Burner Craw later in the afternoon.”
“We started early on the shad spawn and were fortunate to get the six pounder,” Wieteha said. “Usually a shad spawn you’re thinking you’re going to get a two pounder, maybe three. So we got a little lucky there but sometimes that’s what you need.”
A little luck turned into a $4,000 payday for the team. Rounding out the top three was the team of Joe Hobson and Tim Johnson with 26.57 pounds and the third place finish, netting them $2,000.
“We caught a lot of fish today,” Hobson said. “We had the winning fish on but, that’s Rat-l Trap fishing. That’s the way it goes. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
As the highest paying team tournament trail in Florida, the payouts continued deep into the record field of 198 boats for the first qualifier of the 2022 season.
The U.S. Sugar Big Bass of 8.76 pounds earned Donny Bass $500. The team of Crisafulli and Filippelli brought in the second Big Bass of 8.57 pounds and earned them $100 Gambler Bucks. The highest finishing anglers to cross the stage in HUK Gear rewarded the champions Stevens and MacQueen an additional $250 and another $250 as the highest finishing Mercury powered team. Angie Holley received $100 from Mary Ann Martin as the highest fishing Female Angler. The highest finishing Mercury Youth Angler earned Dalton McKinstry $100. Gilbert Chevrolet presented the team of Rick Wilhelm and Dell Hatfield $250 as the highest finishing Gilbert Chevrolet owner. And with five bass weighing just 5.78 pounds, the team of John Tavano and Ernie Johnson turned the smallest limit into $300 from AV Inspection.
That’s how the first qualifier of the 2022 season played out. A big start that’s shaping up to be the biggest season yet. Make sure you don’t miss out and register your team early for the next qualifier on June 11, 2022. Be safe and we’ll see you soon.