April 29, 2007 by Rob Newell
CONCORD, N.C. - Considering Lake Norman is not known as a big-fish lake, folks who turned out for the Wal-Mart FLW Tour National Guard Open final weigh-in Sunday got to see an afternoon full of big-fish surprises.
Three of the biggest limits of the tournament were weighed in by the sport's biggest stars.
For starters, local angler Hank Cherry, beginning the day in 10th, brought the hometown crowd to a roar with a one-by-one display of a Lake Norman limit weighing 15 pounds, 11 ounces.
Then popular Yamaha pro Jay Yelas brought an astounding 16 pounds, 6 ounces to the stage.
And for a few tense moments, it looked like Larry Nixon's lead might be in serious jeopardy.
But when it was Nixon turn at the scales, the General saved his heaviest artillery for last, blasting back his competition's healthy charge with his biggest limit of the week weighing 14 pounds, 7 ounces to win the event with a two-day total of 27 pounds.
This marks Nixon's third FLW Tour victory.
"Every win out here gets sweeter," Nixon said. "And I'll tell you why: Every year these young anglers get better and better. And every now again, an old fox like myself can still outsmart them. And when it happens, it's something to savor."
In terms of having his best day today, Nixon said he changed the order of places he was fishing to match the sun angle.
"I did a much better job of timing my water today," Nixon explained. "A big key for me was to have sun shining on the banks so I could read my water from a distance - see the objects and targets I wanted to fish from a long way off. The last few days I've been getting to my key stretches when it was too early and still too shady to see good. Today I finally got the timing down perfect, where the shade was clearing off the water, and the sun was exposing what I needed to see as I fished throughout the day."
Nixon was targeting stumps and lay-downs in 2 to3 feet of water about three miles above the 150 Bridge.
"Boat position was critical," he added. "These fish here are smart. When a boat gets too close to them, they just giggle at you. When it was shady, by the time I visually located my target, it was too late; I was too close. But with that sun out, I could stay way back, read my target and drop it in their hut."
Nixon's key bait was a green-pumpkin Berkley Wacky Crawler rigged on a 1/16-ounce shaky head, fished on spinning gear.
Yelas posts huge comeback for second
Jay Yelas of Tyler, Texas, gave the crowd a rush today as he weighed in the biggest limit of the tournament, bringing his two-day total to 23 pounds, 7 ounces and moving from ninth to second, worth $75,000.
"What a day," Yelas said, still elated with his catch. "I went out this morning with nothing to lose. So I stuck a swimbait in my hand and fished it all day long. I only got five bites - that's it - and they weighed 16-6.
"I was fishing a 6-inch soft-plastic, shad-imitation swimbait, Texas-rigged," he said. "And the reason I was Texas-rigging it was to skip it up under boat docks. I was using Trilene XT 17-pound-test and a heavy-action rod. Surprisingly, that big swimbait skips pretty good."
In terms of the way the fish bit the swimbait, Yelas said, "They don't really blast it or smash it. I saw most of my bites, and they just kind of swim up to it and eat it very casually. It's weird. You would figure it would be an aggressive bite, but it's not - at least not here."
Vatalaro finishes third
Vic Vatalaro of Kent, Ohio, brought in 12 pounds, 3 ounces today to finish third with a two-day total of 23 pounds worth $50,000.
"I had a better today simply because I went and got my limit early," he said. "I didn't do that yesterday, and it kind of messed me up. So today I went to an area and got a limit by about 9:30, and that let me relax and start culling up."
Vatalaro's key bait this week was a Fluke fished around docks and lay-downs.
"I was weighting the Fluke and fishing it on 8-pound-test Gamma line," he noted. "I was trying to get it down there about 5 feet deep to get those bigger spots to come up on it."
Cherry jumps to fourth
Local pro Hank Cherry of Maiden, N.C., finally got revenge on his fish that treated him dirty yesterday and gave his hometown crowd a show in the process.
Cherry's 15-pound, 11-ounce limit vaulted him from 10th to fourth.
"It felt good to get even with my fish today," Cherry said. "That's what I should have weighed in yesterday as well. They cost me about $160,000, but I got $40,000 for a week of fishing, so that's not too bad."
So what was the difference between yesterday and today?
"Just getting them in the boat - it's that simple. Yesterday I had 18 bites and only landed four. Today I had 23 bites and landed 23 of them. The first seven bass I caught this morning weighed 12 pounds, and I caught them in a matter of minutes.
"I could tell by the way the first one hit, it was going to be `game on' today. Yesterday they were just stabbing at the bait with their mouth closed - I could see them. Today they would inhale that jig - it was incredible."
Cherry's key bait was a 1/2-ounce Jymsu jig and chunk fish on 20-pound-test fluorocarbon.
"The object is to skip it as far back under the dock as you can get it," he added. "The harder the cast is to make, the better."
Folgers pro Scott Suggs of Bryant, Ark., finished fifth with a two-day total of 20 pounds, 4 ounces worth $30,000.
Today Suggs stuck with his plan of fishing stumps and docks with a 1/4-ounce shaky head, teamed with a Zoom Trick Worm.
"Stumps were more of the deal for me than docks," Suggs said. "If I soaked that worm next to a stump long enough, one would finally eat it."
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros in the FLW Tour event on Lake Norman:
6th: Jim Moynagh of Carver, Minn., two-day total of 20-0, $29,000
7th: Michael Bennett of Roseville, Calif., 19-14, $28,000
8th: Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala., 19-6, $27,000
9th: Gabe Bolivar of Ramona, Calif., 17-8, $26,000
10th: Bryan Thrift of Shelby, N.C., 9-8, $25,000
Duracell pro Michael Bennett has moved into the lead for the Land O'Lakes Angler of the Year race with 563 points. He is followed by Bryan Thrift with 534 points.