January 27, 2001 by Gary Mortenson
North Carolina native nets $100,000, records first FLW victory since 1997
CLEWISTON, Fla. - It was a long time coming for David Fritts.
Despite not landing in the FLW victory column since 1997, Fritts persevered through unseasonably cool weather, battled the frustrating conditions of Lake Okeechobee and outfoxed some of the nation's best anglers to capture the first Wal-Mart FLW Tour event of the year.
However, victory would not come easily. Clinging to a 4-pound lead over perennial powerhouse Kevin VanDam, Fritts watched in nervous anticipation as the Kalamazoo, Mich., native approached center stage with one fish left to weigh in. With no fish left in own his bag of tricks, Fritts could do nothing but watch VanDam thrust his fifth and final fish into the air and head to the scales.
But as it turned out, VanDam's fish was 15-ounces too small.
After a four-year drought, Fritts was crowned champion once again. Thrusting his own arms into the air, Fritts could hardly contain his joy.
"I really didn't think that I had enough to win," said the native of Lexington, N.C. "I don't know what to say. I haven't had this feeling since 1997."
Fritts, who had won three FLW tournaments in 1997 - including victories on Lake Eufaula and Kentucky Lake as well as the FLW Championship at Lake Ferguson - had not tasted victory in a long time. And it showed.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "Winning a championship never gets old."
Fritts recorded a final catch of 17 pounds primarily using crankbaits in the fickle but gracious waters of Lake Okeechobee.
"I knew the fish were out there," he said. "I threw a lot of crankbaits, but I also tried a little bit of everything over the last four days. I waited and I waited and it finally paid off."
VanDam, who fished strongly all tournament long, said that he did his best and was pleased with his performance even though it only netted him second place.
"I had the opportunities to do really well today, but as the water warmed up, the fish weren't hitting my baits as well as I would have liked," said VanDam, who netted a nice consolation prize in the amount of $35,000. "But that's the way it goes."
However, VanDam said that he did regret the few fish that got away.
"I was just losing too many fish today," said VanDam, who registered a final catch of 16 pounds, 1 ounce. "And against guys like this, you really have to make sure that you get your fish in the boat. Today, I didn't do that."
Kim Stricker of Howell, Mich., recorded a final catch of 12 pounds, 6 ounces - a mark good enough for third place and a check for $20,000.
"I just couldn't get that fifth bite today," he said. "But it's been a great tournament and Lake Okeechobee is a fantastic lake. I've had a lot of fun."
Mark Hardin of Canton, Ga., finished fourth with a final catch of 12 pounds, 6 ounces - losing a tiebreaker to Stricker based on the combined catch totals for days one and two.
"I'm really thrilled with how this week went," said Hardin, who scored a check for $16,000. "I was catching quality fish all week and I put every fish that bit today in my live well. I just couldn't get the big bites today."
Kelley Williamson, fishing in his first FLW tournament, finished in fifth place with a final catch of 4 pounds, 3 ounces.
"I'm just happy to be here," said Williamson, who won $14,000 for his efforts. "I just didn't have enough today. I had one spot that was working for me all week, but it just gave up on me today. I lost a lot of fish, but that's the way it goes."
The next stop on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour will be at D'Iberville, Miss., on the Pascagoula River Feb. 14-17.
Quick Bites: Day 4