March 15, 2003 by Gary Mortenson
FLW Tour rookie out-duels veterans to earn first title and $100,000 payday
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Competing against the likes of fishing legends Rick Clunn, Larry Nixon and Dan Morehead is never an easy task - especially in the pressure-packed environment of an FLW Tour final. Nor is it easy to go fishing in a driving rainstorm in 50-degree temperatures for seven straight hours with frozen hands, soaking wet equipment and virtually no experience fishing one of the toughest tournament trails in the nation. However, no one seemed to tell that to Chris Elliott.
Using a two-day catch of 30 pounds, 9 ounces, Elliott - a tour rookie who had exactly three FLW tournaments under his belt - defied the odds and took home the tournament title on Lake Murray in dramatic fashion. When all was said and done, Elliott bested fellow competitor and former Bassmaster Classic Champion Stanley Mitchell by a mere 1 pound, 6 ounces to cap an unbelievable finish to an unbelievable week.
Not surprisingly, Elliott was overcome with emotion shortly after hoisting the winner's check for $100,000 - the largest payday of his career by far.
"This has been a dream of mine since I was 12 years old," said Elliott, who was joined onstage by his wife and mother shortly after victory. "I can't believe it really happened. It hasn't sunk in yet. I have so many thoughts running through my head right now, it's hard to say how I feel. I'm just overwhelmed."
And to think, he did it all after only weighing in three fish in the finals.
"I thought I'd have to catch about 18 to 20 pounds of fish today to win this," said Elliott, who ultimately landed a catch of 14 pounds, 8 ounces in the finals. "I really figured I'd come in seventh or eighth place. I really didn't think I had a chance."
Whether by default or design, Elliott said that didn't place any pressure on himself during the finals. As it turned out, that might have been the best decision he made all week.
"I really had a no-lose attitude out there today," he said. "I really didn't put any pressure on myself, and that's the way you have to approach it. No matter what happened today, I was going to win either way."
Elliott should have had a clue that things were going his way when a humongous largemouth bass almost literally jumped into his boat.
"I was pulling my spinner bait back up to the boat when this 7-pounder jumped into the air and took my bait," he said. "I caught him by the lip with the trailer hook. The fish was just barely hanging on when I got him in the boat. I'm really glad I didn't lose that fish."
Although Elliott didn't get the 20-pound bag he'd hoped for in today's finals, he did manage to produce a healthy stringer by slow-rolling a Gambler Pro Series spinner bait near "scattered clumps" of milfoil. As it turned out, his strategy paid off - big time.
"I didn't expect to win an FLW tournament this quickly," said Elliott, who hails from Gloucester, N.C. "I thought it would at least take a couple of years. But it's nice to get this monkey off my back."
Although the record books were unclear on this point, Elliott just might have set the record for instigating the quickest exit by a monkey in the history of FLW competition.
Mitchell settles for second place
Although his total catch of 29 pounds, 3 ounces, came up a bit a short in today's finals, Stanley Mitchell of Fitzgerald, Ga., said he had few regrets with the way things ultimately turned out. After all, it's not often that you can rebound from a 126th-place finish on the first day of competition and end up finishing second.
"I felt pretty good today. This lake has always been good to me and this week was no different," said Mitchell, who netted a $35,000 payday to help ease some of the pain of fishing for seven straight hours in a driving rainstorm. "I went out there and fished as hard as I could. I just came up a little bit short. It's a wonder anybody caught anything at all out there today."
Mitchell, who won the "Energizer Keeps on Going" award for staging the biggest comeback in the history of FLW tournament competition, said he used a ¾-ounce Mann's spinner bait to land the majority of his catch in today's finals. However, it was ultimately Mitchell's inability to land a five-fish stringer that cost him.
"I knew I probably needed that fifth fish to win the tournament," said Mitchell. "But then again, catching all of those big fish (28 pounds and 1 ounce to be exact) on day two was worth the entire trip right there."
Crews cruises into third place
John Crews of Jetersville, Va., used a total catch of 27 pounds, 2 ounces to capture third place and a check for $20,000. Not bad for four days of work.
"What a sensational week," said Crews, who is in his second year of FLW Tour competition. "I lost three fish yesterday, so maybe I was on enough fish to win this. But to be in the finals is just awesome. I had a great time."
Best of the rest
Rick Clunn of Ava, Mo., bounced back from an eighth-place performance in the semifinals to finish in fourth place and win a check for $16,000. But to hear Clunn tell it, he had as much fun on Lake Murray this week as many of the wide-eyed rookies.
"I really had a great tournament and about as much fun as I've ever had," said Clunn, who netted a two-day total of 25 pounds, 14 ounces. "I didn't even want to go to bed at night. I just wanted to get back out there and go fishing."
In fifth place with a catch of 24 pounds, 10 ounces was Jody Cordell of Flowery Branch, Ga. Cordell, who slow-rolled a spinner bait to land the majority of his catch, said that the spirit of competition more than made up for the inclement weather.
"It was really tough out there today; I couldn't even keep the trolling motor in the water," said Cordell, who took home a check for $14,000. "But overall, I had a great tournament. It's just been an honor to fish with these guys."
Despite holding the lead heading into the finals and undertaking a Herculean effort to land a five-fish sack, Larry Nixon could only muster three fish for a disappointing total of 4 pounds, 11 ounces in the finals - giving him a grand total of 22 pounds, 10 ounces for the two days. However, unlike some of the younger finalists, the native of Bee Branch, Ark., said he wasn't exactly pleased with the results.
"I kept hunting and hunting, but I really couldn't find the fish today. You just can't believe how hard I tried out there," said Nixon, who took home a check for $12,000 after finishing in sixth place. "It was a great tournament, but I'm not like some of these younger guys. I'm not satisfied. I wanted to win."
Rounding out the top 10 finalists were Bud Pruitt (seventh) of Spring, Texas, with a two-day catch of 20 pounds, 11 ounces; Dan Morehead (eighth) of Paducah, Ky., with a catch of 20 pounds, 4 ounces; Darrel Robertson (ninth) of Jay, Okla., with a catch of 19 pounds, 3 ounces; and Wesley Strader (10th) of Spring City, Tenn., with a catch of 13 pounds, 10 ounces.
FLW Tour action resumes April 9-12 at the Wal-Mart Open on Beaver Lake in Rogers, Ark.
Quick Bites: Lake Murray, Day 4