March 16, 2002 by Gary Mortenson
Tennessee native captures first FLW title, upsets bevy of top-ranked pros in the process
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Fishing in the finals of an FLW tournament is difficult enough. However, the prospect of winning an FLW title against some of the greatest bass-fishing legends of all time is nearly an impossible task. Impossible, that is, unless your name happens to be Wesley Strader. Bolstered by a 14-pound, 10-ounce catch, Strader managed to pull off one of the greatest upsets of the year - out-fishing and outfoxing the likes of Kevin VanDam, Rick Clunn, Gary Klein and Paul Elias on route to a $110,000 payday, the largest of Strader's young career.
What made the feat even more impressive was the fact that, with only two anglers remaining in the weigh-in, Strader wound up going head to head with VanDam - arguably the world's number-one ranked angler - and still walked away with the victory. In the end, Strader had not only captured the very first FLW title of his career, but he also did so by beating the best in the business.
"I've always had confidence in myself," said Strader, who fought back tears as he accepted his trophy and congratulatory hugs from his peers. "I knew I had to stay loose and confident, because if I had started focusing on the fact that I was fishing against Gary Klein, Rick Clunn and Kevin VanDam, I would have gotten too nervous. It was just me against the fish today."
Strader, who has made significant strides over the past year - finishing in sixth place at the EverStart event at Lake Okeechobee in January, placing ninth at the FLW tour event on Lake Wheeler in February and coming in 17th place at the $3.6 million Ranger M1 earlier this month - clearly had been waiting for this moment for a long time.
"Man, I finally got that monkey off of my back," said Strader, a resident of Spring City, Tenn. "I really don't know what to say. It hasn't sunk in yet."
Adding to the remarkable nature of Strader's storybook ending was the fact that with less than 30 minutes to go in the tournament, the Tennessee native only had enough weight for a sixth-place finish.
"I caught three fish up river earlier in the day that weighed about 7 pounds. It was about 12:15 p.m. and I knew I didn't have that much longer to fish," said Strader, who was facing a 12:45 p.m. check-in time. "That's when I looked into the sky and said, `Lord, if you could just show me a 6-pound fish, I could win this thing.' I barely got the words out of my mouth when I saw it."
What Strader saw was a 6-pound, 10-ounce largemouth bass lurking in the shadows near a bank.
"I pitched a Lake Fork Tackle Mega jig with a pig claw trailer toward the bank and bang, the fish hit it," he said. "When I got that fish in the boat, I knew that I had 13 or 14 pounds. Gary Klein had said yesterday that he thought 12 pounds would be enough to win the tournament. So, I knew I had a good chance to come out on top."
Although Strader couldn't have known for sure at the time, at that very moment, the tournament was his for the taking.
VanDam comes up a few pounds short of the title ... again
With a 2001 FLW Angler of the Year title under his belt and three second-place finishes in nine FLW tour events coming into Lake Ouachita, Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., had only one goal in mind during today's weigh-in - to capture the first FLW title of his career. And for a few fleeting minutes during the finals, it looked as if VanDam was all but certain to accomplish that goal. However, like VanDam's four other trips to the top-10, it was not meant to be.
Despite a hearty 13-pound, 5-ounce catch, VanDam fell short by 1 pound, 5 ounces to claim the fourth, second-place FLW finish of his career. Although VanDam could have been excused for feeling somewhat bitter about the result, he showed once again why he is one of the most liked and well-respected anglers on the tour today.
"All you can do is to go out there and do your best," said VanDam. "One thing I've learned over the years is that you're going to lose a lot more times than you're going to win. Today, I just got beat by a better performance. If you beat yourself, that's a different story. Wesley is a good guy and he's worked really hard for this. He deserves it."
Overall, VanDam said he could live with the result.
"It's been a really neat tournament for me. And this is the best day I've had all week," said VanDam, who won $40,000 for this efforts. "I knew the final was going to be close. All I needed was one more good-sized largemouth. Overall though, I had a great tournament."
VanDam said that he used a red, shallow-running crankbait all week to mimic the crawfish hatch, targeting rocky banks and "transition" points.
"I was fishing bank changes in about 2 to 5 feet of water, usually on points where a bluff met a flat," he said. "The fish really liked the transition areas. And any time I could find two types of cover that met, I knew that it increased my chances of catching a fish. I also tried to fish as many spots as I could as fast as I could. Because with a 16-inch (minimum) size limit, you really have to weed through a lot of smaller fish to get that big bite."
Powers nabs third place
For Craig Powers of Rockwood, Tenn., the day couldn't have started off any better. With his first five-fish limit of the year in the boat by 10:30 a.m., Powers thought he had as good of a chance as anyone to take home the title. But in the end, Powers had to settle for a $24,500 payday.
"Unlike the other three days, I never got that big bite," said Powers, who used a combination of crankbaits and spinnerbaits to land his limit. "But I was really consistent all week, so I'm happy about that."
"I really can't complain," continued Powers. "I had a terrible practice, so I'm pretty happy to be where I am."
Powers, who never finished the day lower than third place all week, ultimately turned in a catch weighing 9 pounds, 5 ounces.
Execution, execution and execution
Shad Schenck of Waynetown, Ind., finished the day in fourth place, weighing in a catch of 8 pounds, 7 ounces and taking home a check for $20,000 in the process.
"I really had a great tournament," said Schenck, who fished a rattletrap near inside grass lines on secondary points. "I've never been to this lake before and it's just phenomenal to be here. It's been quite an experience."
Ultimately, Schenck said that it wasn't the competition that did him in, just his execution.
"When you're with this elite group of fishermen, you really have to concentrate," he said. "I was on fish. But my problem was that I wasn't able to convert the bites today. And you really have to execute if you're going to win a tournament like this."
Coming up roses
Mark Rose of Marion, Ark., grabbed fifth place and a check for $17,500 after landing a total catch weighing 8 pounds, 5 ounces.
"I've been really fortunate to make the last three (top-10) cuts," said Rose of his recent string of final-day appearances at Lake Wheeler, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (Ranger M1) and Ouachita. "I've been fishing really hard and I've really learned a lot. And as long as I'm doing that, I feel alright."
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 pro finishers were Curt Lytle (sixth) of Suffolk, Va., with a catch of 6 pounds, 12 ounces; Paul Elias (seventh) of Pachuta, Miss., with a catch of 6 pounds, 7 ounces; Rick Clunn (eighth) of Ava, Mo., with a catch of 5 pounds, 7 ounces; Ken Strickland (ninth) of Oak Ridge, N.C., with a catch of 2 pounds, 9 ounces; and Gary Klein (tenth) of Weatherford, Texas, with a catch of 0 pounds.
FLW action resumes April 17-20 at Beaver Lake in Rogers, Ark.
Quick Bites: FLW Lake Ouachita, Day 4