June 25, 2014 by Colin Moore
In times past, a tournament circuit rookie was a dilettante whose expectations were matched by his inexperience. He was likely to catch a few fish here and there, and hopefully learn something that might help him down the trail. In short, he paid his dues while the big boys fought it out for prominence and paychecks.
On the Walmart FLW Tour, however, it’s not safe to discount the talent or the drive of a rookie. This year, more than usual, rookie anglers are making their presence felt in the pro ranks, and three of them have a good shot at qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup. Shane Lehew of North Carolina is in 27th place heading into the Kentucky Lake event presented by Evinrude, while Richard Peek of Alabama is in 32nd and Jason Lambert of Tennessee is in 35th. Fellow rookies Michael Wooley of Tennessee, 38th, and Jeff Sprague of Texas, 46th, are within reach of the Cup, but by this stage of the season there are not many guys ahead of them who are going to falter badly enough to let them waltz in.
Elsewhere, there’s a tight race for Angler of the Year, with Andy Morgan only a few points ahead of Repel pro Cody Meyer. In the Co-Angler of the Year standings, Braxton Setzer of Alabama has a 23-point bulge over Bryan New of North Carolina. Kentucky Lake will settle all bets.
Before Pickwick, west Tennessee pro Keith Amerson was positioned, at 42nd place, to overcome Lehew. Amerson is expected to make a good showing at Kentucky Lake, but his 139th-place finish at Pickwick effectively took him out of the hunt for Rookie of the Year honors. He’s now in 67th place.
Lehew and Peek, in particular, seem destined for FLW stardom, and have gone about their entry into the world of high-stakes tournaments in a businesslike, deliberate manner backed by strategic planning. Ask either angler what his goal was for this, his first year, and the same words come out of their mouths: “Qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup, and win Rookie of the Year.”
Lehew is a lanky, quiet-spoken Tar Heel who is closing in on $75,000 in prize money won in various FLW circuits. He has reinvested his winnings, and is poised to gain more supporters for his sponsor portfolio if he reaches the Forrest Wood Cup.
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned this year is that fishing at this level is expensive,” Lehew says. “That puts something else on you to worry about. A bad year or two and you’re out unless you don’t have to depend on tournament checks.”
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Lehew had a stellar career as both a high school and college angler, and his work ethic has served him well in 2014. His tournament track record shows that in the 63 FLW events he’s fished, Lehew has placed in the top 50 in about 75 percent of them.
“I try to stay as confident as I can. I know there are better fishermen than me fishing the Tour, but I have my days just like they do,” says the 25-year-old. “One of the things I’m working on is my consistency: I do well on some lakes and then bomb on others. I’ve got to even it out.”
Consistency is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, and Lehew is a bit more critical of his 2014 track record than others might be. Although one of his bombs came at Lake Hartwell, where he placed 118th, he hasn’t finished worse than 40th place in the other four qualifiers this year. His best tournament came at Lake Okeechobee, where he managed a 24th-place showing.
“I feel good about Kentucky Lake. It should fish better than Pickwick, from what I’ve heard, and Pickwick was pretty good,” observes Lehew. “That doesn’t mean it will be better for me, by any means, but at least we’ll be able to spread out and possibly stay off each other’s spots.”
Peek seemingly came out of nowhere at Pickwick, jumping 20 places from 52nd to sit at Lehew’s doorstep. Credit a 13th-place effort at Pickwick for that. Peek has been meticulous in his approach to tournament fishing, exchanging a successful college career at Auburn University for a lucrative co-angler campaign that netted him more than $145,000 in three years of competition.
“Crafty” might be the best word to describe 27-year-old Peek, both in his career planning and tournament performances. In a real sense, his fishing style is an amalgamation of all the pros he’s shared a boat with or watched, combined with his own talent.
“I was a camera boat driver in 2011; I would help [Director of College Fishing] Kevin Hunt with the college tournaments,” Peek recalls. “The next year, [FLW Director of Tournament Operations] Bill Taylor asked me if I would run a camera boat for the Tour. I did the whole season of 2012 and then again in 2013 if I didn’t make the cut to Saturday. Every Sunday, though, I was out on one of the top 10 guys. I took running a camera boat as a chance to learn. I watched some of the best, and I did learn from them. I definitely learned how to graph and use my electronics better because I was able to fish with people like Mark Rose and JT Kenney. And Scott Canterbury really helped me break up my practice time and dissect a lake to be more efficient. There’s no way I could have stepped up to the front of the boat without being in the back of the boat for three years.”
Lambert has a trio of solid possibilities going for him at the Kentucky Lake finale: He could win the tournament, he could qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup and he could capture the Rookie of the Year crown. None seem too far out of reach for the 37-year-old Tennessean, who rates Kentucky Lake as his favorite lake of all.
It shows. A few weeks ago, Lambert finished second in the Rayovac FLW Series Central Division tournament at Kentucky Lake. He was sandwiched between two other of the best ledge fishermen on the Tennessee River chain, winner Randy Haynes and third-place finisher Mark Rose.
“I’m really looking forward to Kentucky Lake,” Lambert says. “I figure that finishing in the top 50 will get me in the Forrest Wood Cup, but I’m going there to win, and everything else will take care of itself. I’m focused on Kentucky Lake, but at the same time I know that’s the way to the championship, and I really want to be part of that. The fishermen that qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup are good, and any one of them is capable of winning the title. I want to put myself in a position to be the one to do that.”
If Lambert accomplishes his two most immediate goals – winning at Kentucky Lake and qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup – goal No. 3, claiming the Rookie of the Year title, will be a slam dunk.