July 16, 2005 by Jeff Schroeder
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Everyone said the locals had an advantage at tough-fishing Lake Hamilton this week, and they were right. George Cochran, the Hot Springs pro who has lived on the lake for more than 15 years, took home $500,000 as the 2005 Wal-Mart FLW Tour Forrest L. Wood Championship winner after catching a five-bass limit weighing 10 pounds, 3 ounces Saturday.
And he won it, literally, right in his own backyard.
"My first fish, I caught it on a buzzbait about 300 yards from my house," he said. "That's what I've been doing most of the week. I've been fishing shallow, which is what I love to do. When you're in big tournaments like this, you've got to fish to your strengths. If I was going to win, it was going to be shallow."
Cochran - who beat Sandy Melvin and Brent Chapman in the first two bracket rounds to advance to the finals - attacked the shallows of his home lake this week with a trio of topwater baits. Under the heat and dealing with a light bass bite, he said that he caught fish on a Spit-N-King popper as well as a 5-inch trick worm. But it was his red-and-white, ¼-ounce Strike King buzzbait that was his main weapon - that, and a secret stash of bass within sight of his house that he'd been saving for the final round.
"I stayed on top the whole tournament. If I made it this far, I saved some deep docks for the final round," he said. "There are very few times that everything goes just like you plan, but I had a bank where I knew I could catch some fish. I didn't touch it at all during practice or during the tournament until today. But I went in there this morning, missed one on the first cast and landed a keeper on the second cast. I had my limit in the boat by 9 o'clock."
He wasn't the only who knew it, either. Presumably thanks to the Internet and the real-time catches provided by Remote Knowledge at FLWOutdoors.com, Cochran fans knew that their man was catching some serious fish. Combine that with an already busy, hot weekend day on the lake, and people in boats started showing up in droves on Lake Hamilton to watch as their hometown hero prepared to win the richest tournament in competitive bass fishing. It provided a surreal, interactive twist to an already exciting day for Cochran.
"I had about five boats on me this morning, but by 8:30 there were probably 40 boats," he said. "By 10:30 there were probably 80 boats around me, but by then I knew that the good fishing was done, so I just kind of sat back and enjoyed it. When you're culling out ones that are almost 2-pounders, you know that you've got fish."
He had all he needed for his decisive victory early in the day. Cochran's 10-3 beat second-place Chad Grigsby by over 3 1/2 pounds. Despite seven limits coming to the scale, nobody else could muster more than 6 1/2 pounds Saturday.
"Today, I was completely focused. I never lost a fish, and I did everything that I wanted to do," said Cochran, who fished around line-busting docks for much of the day.
Cochran - who won the FLW tournament at Kentucky Lake in 1996 - has also won two championship tournaments before, claiming the Bassmaster Classic title in 1987 and 1996. He said, with his $500,000 at the FLW Championship this week in front of his hometown fans, he'll fish one more Classic this year and then hang it up from the BASS tour. The 55-year-old former railroad brakeman still has his eyes set on making another run at another half-million dollars at next year's FLW Championship, however, saying that he will continue to compete on the FLW Tour next year.
"It just tickles me to death, at 55, to win such a big tournament, especially with all my friends and family here," said Cochran, whose FLW Outdoors career earnings jumped to a total of $698,400 Saturday. "That first victory (at the 1987 Classic) changed my whole life. It got me started fishing for a living, and now I've been doing this for 25 years. It can't get any better than this. Any victory is sweet, but to win a tournament like this is incredible. I'm getting close to the end of my career, and I've always dreamed of winning the FLW Championship. I feel like Forrest Gump; now I don't have to worry about money for a while. I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
Grigsby second, not satisfied
The winner wasn't the only one who figured out the buzzbait bite on Hamilton this week. Grigsby also leaned heavily on the topwater bait to catch his fish most of the week. Saturday, his buzzbait ultimately landed provided him five bass that weighed 6 pounds, 7 ounces.
"I missed one that was about 3 pounds this morning, and I thought it was going to cost me, but it didn't since George won it by more than that," Grigsby said. "I fished all new water everyday. Today, I went way upriver and all I did was cover a bunch of water."
The pro from Colon, Mich., earned $50,000 for second place.
"I'm not that excited about second place," Grigsby said. "It's not that I'm disappointed at all - especially taking second with all the little scrawny ones that I caught today - but I'm just not satisfied. The first time I get excited about second place, I should quit."
Murray drop-shots into third
John Murray also used a topwater bait early Saturday to catch a few schooling bass, but he eventually switched to a drop-shot and filled out his limit catching fish off of deep brush piles.
"I caught two early, and then it was about one every hour and a half," said Murray, who added that his drop-shot came armed with a Senko. "It was the toughest day I've ever had drop-shotting on any lake."
The pro from Phoenix weighed in five bass worth 5 pounds, 4 ounces and collected $40,000 for third place.
"I'm ecstatic," he said. "I went for broke and stayed deep. I was either going to come in first or last doing what I was doing, so I can't complain."
Dean Rojas of Grand Saline, Texas, actually tied Murray in total weight Saturday but finished in fourth place by virtue of the tiebreaker. He also caught a limit weighing 5 pounds, 4 ounces and earned $35,000.
"I caught my first fish by 9:30 this morning, and I thought I was going to whack them," Rojas said. "Then the boat traffic came."
Rojas caught two of his better bass on a topwater frog that he designed, the same bait that provided him one of the heaviest limits on day three. But his frog couldn't provide enough fish on day four to help Rojas finally make the leap into the winner's circle.
"I just didn't get any big bites today," he said.
Gagliardi fifth, Jones sixth
Anthony Gagliardi of Prosperity, S.C., caught a limit weighing 5 pounds even and finished in the fifth slot. He earned $30,000.
"I feel really fortunate to be here," he said. "I lost focus yesterday and didn't catch my first fish until 11 o'clock. I think that really threw me off my game."
Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, caught five bass weighing 4 pounds, 14 ounces and collected $24,000 for sixth place.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 12 finishers at the 2005 FLW Championship at Lake Hamilton:
7th: J.T. Kenney of Frostburg, Md., five bass, 4-13, $23,000
8th: Wesley Strader of Spring City, Tenn., four bass, 4-12, $22,000
9th: Robert Karbas Jr. of Wake Forest, N.C., three bass, 4-3, $21,000
10th: Takahiro Omori of Emory, Texas, four bass, 3-2, $20,000
11th: Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., three bass, 3-2, $19,000
12th: Chip Harrison of Bremen, Ind., two bass, 2-1, $18,000
Catch all the action
Coverage of the Forrest L. Wood Championship will be broadcast on Fox Sports Net on the "FLW Outdoors" television program. Part 1 of the championship will air Sunday, Aug. 7, at 11 a.m. Eastern time, and Part 2 will air the following Sunday, Aug. 14, also at 11 a.m. Eastern.