August 14, 2014 by David A. Brown
The knots are tied. The hooks are sharpened. Competitors are as ready as they’ll be. Yet, uncertainties linger as the Forrest Wood Cup presented by Walmart and hosted by Capital City/Lake Murray Country begins on South Carolina’s Lake Murray. Some questions would address the inconsistent fishing that many have reported from this week’s practice, while others regard the anglers and some potentially incredible story lines.
Looking first at the latter, speculation swirls over the newsworthy notion of the first repeat champion. This year’s pro field boasts five past Forrest Wood Cup winners: defending champ Randall Tharp, Jacob Wheeler (2012), Scott Martin (2011), Brent Ehrler (2006) and David Dudley (2003). Could one of these pros add a second Cup to his trophy case?
“Once the tournament starts, being the defending champion doesn’t mean a thing,” Tharp says. “The guys aren’t going to sit back and yield anything to me. They want to beat me, and I want to beat them. I want to defend my title and hopefully have a chance to win that trophy twice.”
Or how about Tennessee pro Andy Morgan, the ultra-consistent veteran with 57 top 10s and 17 Forrest Wood Cup appearances? Morgan notched his second consecutive Angler of the Year title this season, and he’d surely like to add a championship trophy to his collection.
And then there’s local favorite Anthony Gagliardi, whose very presence in this field represents a major achievement in itself. At this year’s Walmart FLW Tour opener on Lake Okeechobee, an inadvertent rules violation left Gagliardi disqualified, yet his incredible determination throughout the rest of the season earned him a Cup berth.
“Getting back here ranks right up there with some of my career accomplishments, like winning Angler of the Year,” Gagliardi says. “I don’t think I wanted anything as badly as making this Cup. Anytime you have a chance to fish for something as prestigious as this it’s great, but having it in your own backyard just amplifies that.”
Now, by indirect comparison, BFL All-American winner Marcus Sykora has surely pondered Wheeler’s record, which finds an All-American title (2011) preceding his Forrest Wood Cup win. Hailing from Osage Beach, Mo., Sykora’s diverse skill sets borne of his Ozark lakes pedigree could serve him well in Murray’s diverse habitat.
Getting back to that initial question of fishing opportunity, the general consensus is that the consistently dependable pattern will be an elusive gem. Find it and life is good; spend too much time digging for that one treasure and you can burn the clock with little to show for it.
Late summer brings a frustrating fracture of fish positioning. Many bass remain suspended offshore, while fall’s approach has already prompted some shallow migration. Add to this the recent rains that boosted current in the Saluda River – Murray’s primary inflow – and anglers could find competitive fish far upstream.
Most agree that the best game plan includes shallow and deep elements, but some are confident with more narrow definitions. Tharp and local pro Casey Ashley, for example, are locked on the shallow patterns they identified in practice. On the other end of the spectrum, Martin plans on devoting most of his time to offshore fish. Wheeler, while open-minded to both scenarios, is not ruling out another river run similar to that of his Cup win on Lake Lanier.
Gagliardi thinks the balanced approach is the way to go.
“The first part of the day, I’ll focus on fishing shallow for the first few hours, but as the sun gets up and that bite starts to die, I’ll start moving out and fishing a little deeper,” he says.
Stephen Johnston, who qualified through the Rayovac FLW Series Texas Division, agrees.
“I’m going to start out shallow, but I did get a few decent bites out deep in practice in 20 to 30 feet,” he says. “It’s going to be hard to even get a bite, but if you can catch a few, then you can move out deep and gamble. One 4- or 5-pounder is going to go a long way in this tournament.”
Complicating matters, a cold spell that snuck in just in time for the tournament’s beginning brought pleasantly cool air for the clear morning launch. However, cold fronts tend to fiddle with even the best of angling scenarios, so it will be interesting to hear how this impacts today’s productivity.
The other variable worth a mention is Murray’s blueback herring population – the lake’s primary forage. Nomadic in nature, the herring tend to rise in the morning and then head deep as sunlight intensifies. Bass often target these schools, but their appearance is, at best, unpredictable. A right place-right time scenario can mean big things for anglers quick enough to get a topwater or a spinnerbait into the fracas of bass blasting a blueback school, but chasing such moments is a fool’s errand.
“Don’t rely on it is the main thing,” Gagliardi says about the herring bite. “Just treat that like a bonus. If you really rely on that blueback bite, more times than not it can come back and bite you. It’s a good way to catch fish because a lot of the bigger fish in the lake key on the bluebacks, but they’re just hard to stay on top of.”
Those who fish offshore will likely employ a mix of drop-shots, shaky heads, football heads and crankbaits. Tennessee River standout Randy Haynes even had a Nichols Magnum Spoon on his deck. For shallow pursuits, jigs, Texas-rigged plastics, spinnerbaits, vibrating bladed jigs and topwaters should produce.
Regardless of angler preference, all agree that it’s time to swing for the fences. With $500,000 and massive prestige on the line, playing it safe won’t get the job done.
Morgan puts it this way: “This is what you work for all year. This is the tournament we all want to fish. There are no points involved, so there’s no pressure. That lets you just go out and fish to win.”
Japan’s Shin Fukae, a past Angler of the Year, summed it up with his stated game plan. An accomplished finesse fisherman, Fukae says he’s all about the power fishing this week.
“This is the Forrest Wood Cup, and I want to win that Cup,” Fukae says. “Finesse fishing is sometimes good, but I’m going power fishing for big fish.”
Sunrise: 6:47 a.m.
Temperature at takeoff: low 70s
Expected high temperature: 88 degrees
Water temperature: low 80s
Wind: NE at 6 mph
Day’s outlook: Sunny with a light breeze
Extended forecast: Sunny, calm and gradually warming through the weekend
In the Forrest Wood Cup, 45 pros and co-anglers from the Walmart FLW Tour, Rayovac FLW Series, Walmart Bass Fishing League, FLW College Fishing and The Bass Federation are randomly paired each day, with pros supplying the boat, controlling boat movement and competing against other pros. Co-anglers fish from the back deck against other co-anglers. The full field competes in the two-day opening round. After day two, a co-angler champion is crowned and the pro field is pared to the top 20. After Saturday's weigh-in, the pro field is cut to the top 10. A pro champ is crowned on Sunday, with a $500,000 prize paid to the winner.
For More Coverage
For those who can’t catch the weigh-in action in person, FLWOutdoors.com offers FLW Live, an online application that brings fans real-time weigh-in results, streaming video and audio.
In addition to FLW Live, FLWOutdoors.com and ForrestWoodCup.com offer real-time updates from the water.
Forrest Wood Cup event information
Location: Dreher Island State Park, 3677 State Park Road, Prosperity, S.C.
Time: 6:30 a.m. Takeoff Show; 7 a.m. takeoff
Time: 5 p.m.
Location: Colonial Life Arena, 801 Lincoln Street, Columbia, S.C.
Date: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 15-18
Location: Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, 1101 Lincoln Street, Columbia, S.C.
Time: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Check out all that FLW has in store at the FLW Expo, including a barbecue contest, free Rodney Atkins concert and a jam-packed tackle show at ForrestWoodCup.com.