OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (Jan. 9, 2004) – Local pro Justin Schwier of Okeechobee used his extensive knowledge of Lake Okeechobee to catch five bass weighing 18 pounds, 8 ounces and take a commanding lead going into the final round of the $256,825 EverStart Series Eastern Division season opener presented by Garmin. Schwier leads the nearest competitor by more than 4 pounds. The top 10 pros advanced to Saturday’s final round, where they will compete for a first-place award worth as much as $61,900. The top 10 co-anglers also advanced to fish for a grand prize worth as much as $35,000.

The big largemouths famous at Lake Okeechobee still haven’t been caught on a consistent basis. Warm temperatures and calm winds allowed anglers to make long runs to their favorite spots all around the Big O, but weights were similar to the two previous days. Stained water in many areas of the lake continues to prevent anglers from sight-fishing.

“The water is pretty milky right now,” Schwier said. “Sometimes I can see bedded fish, but I’m just casting in the general area where I know a lot of fish are bedding. I’ve been casting a 10-inch worm and throwing a spinnerbait around open grass. I saved my honeyhole until today and caught two big fish – one close to 8 pounds and one close to 5 pounds. I’m planning to go back to the same area tomorrow and see how things pan out.”

Rounding out the top five pros are Anthony Gagliardi of Prosperity, S.C. (five bass, 14 pounds, 7 ounces); J.T. Kenney of Frostburg, Md. (five bass, 13 pounds, 9 ounces); Larry Inman of Greensboro, N.C. (five bass, 13 pounds, 2 ounces); and Doug Vest of Okeechobee (five bass, 12 pounds, 6 ounces).

Edward Adams of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., also has a large lead in the Co-angler Division. Adams’ five bass weighed 14 pounds, 8 ounces and led second place by more than 3 pounds.

“I really didn’t do anything different today,” Adams said. “I just happened to get bigger bites today. I caught one today that was between 7 and 8 pounds, and I had a limit by about 9:30 a.m. My pro partner (Hank Cherry of Charlotte, N.C.) really had the fish figured out in two areas. I used a Senko and casted at all different types of vegetation. We weren’t sight-fishing because you can’t see the bottom, but I think the fish I caught, especially the big one, were on the beds when they hit.”

Rounding out the top five co-anglers are Rodney Marks of Apopka (five bass, 11 pounds, 1 ounce); last year’s EverStart Series Okeechobee co-angler winner Asa Godsey of Clewiston (five bass, 7 pounds, 5 ounces); Billy Cason of High Springs (five bass, 6 pounds, 8 ounces); and Ken Crumpler of Marianna (five bass, 6 pounds, 6 ounces).

The 40 anglers caught 145 bass, including 22 limits, that weighed 271 pounds, 3 ounces. All fish were released.

Anglers take off at 7 a.m. from Okee-Tantie Recreation Area in Okeechobee Saturday morning. Saturday’s weigh-in will be held at the Wal-Mart store located at 2101 S. Parrott Ave. in Okeechobee beginning at 4 p.m. The community is encouraged to attend the takeoff and weigh-in.

The top 10 pros and 10 co-anglers advance to Saturday’s final round based on Friday’s total weight. Weights carry over for Saturday’s competition, and the winners are determined by the heaviest two-day weights.

The winning pro will take home a guaranteed cash award of $10,000 plus a new Ranger 519 VS equipped with Garmin electronics and EverStart batteries and powered by an Evinrude or Yamaha outboard. If the winner is the original owner of a Ranger boat, he will receive an additional $10,000 cash bonus from Ranger for a total of $61,900 in cash and prizes. Ranger will also award an additional $3,000 to the winner if he is a Ranger Cup participant, and Garmin will award $1,000 to the winner if his boat is equipped with only Garmin electronics and at least one unit is a qualifying unit.

The winning co-angler is guaranteed $5,000 cash. If the winning co-angler is a registered Ranger owner, he will also receive a new Ranger 519 VS for a total of $35,000 in cash and prizes.

Four divisions – Eastern, Central, Northern and Western – comprise the 2004 EverStart Series. Each division stages four regular-season tournaments leading up to the no-entry-fee $335,975 EverStart Series Championship presented by Energizer, which will be held on Lake Cumberland near Somerset, Ky., Nov. 3-6.

In EverStart Series competition, pros supply the boats, control boat movement and fish from the front of each boat against other pros. Co-anglers fish from the back of each boat and compete against other co-anglers.

Named after the legendary founder of Ranger Boats, Forrest L. Wood, FLW Outdoors is the world’s leading marketer of competitive fishing. FLW Outdoors-sanctioned tournament trails are the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, EverStart Series, Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, Wal-Mart Texas Tournament Trail, Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour and Wal-Mart RCL Walleye League. EverStart Batteries, the best-selling batteries in the world, are marketed exclusively by Wal-Mart stores.

Wal-Mart and many of America’s most respected companies support FLW Outdoors and its six tournament trails. Wal-Mart has been the title sponsor of FLW Outdoors since 1997.