UPCOMING EVENT: TACKLE WAREHOUSE PRO CIRCUIT - 2020 - Lake Erie

2004 Wal-Mart FLW Tour year in review

2004 Wal-Mart FLW Tour year in review
Shinichi Fukae (left) and Larry Caldwell fish around a rocky point on Beaver Lake.

It's become cliche to say that the Wal-Mart FLW Tour keeps pushing the boundaries of professional bass fishing, but the thing about cliches is that they're generally true. The 2004 season was no exception for the FLW, which once again set the pace for competitive bass fishing with increased payouts, tournament fields and a broader geo-cultural appeal than ever before.

But the crux of these tournaments really lies in the competition. On that front, the 2004 FLW season left no stone unturned either. From 10-pound largemouths caught in Florida to almost 4 1/2 tons of smallmouths hauled out of New York, the world's best anglers put on quite a show this season. We saw a lot of fresh, hungry pros make their marks, the first female angler win an FLW event and a tenacious "rookie" who doesn't speak English win Angler of the Year - on two continents.

This is the 2004 Wal-Mart FLW Tour year in review.

Lake Okeechobee: Bigger cash, bigger fields and even bigger bass

The FLW Tour rolled into its customary January opener at Florida's Lake Okeechobee with one prevailing theme: time to go bigger. With a bevy of new sponsors on board, the tournament fields were increased in size from 175 to 200 and the overall payout for the season was upped by over a million dollars from $5.7 million in 2003 to $6.8 million in 2004.

Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., used a catch of 28 pounjds, 6 ounces to finish in first place in the Pro Division.Following their cue, the pros went big themselves. Arkansas' Larry Nixon opened the season with 28 pounds, 6 ounces of fish to lead day one, nearly setting a tour record for a one-day catch weight in the process. And as usual, the biggest bass of the year came out of the first two days at the Big O. California's Steve Tosh caught a 9-11 big bass on day one. Then Texas' Dean Rojas - incidentally the world-record-holder for largest five-bass stringer ever caught in competition - weighed in a 10-pound monster on day two that stood as the biggest FLW fish all season.

The heavyweight battle continued on day two, as well as a heart-wrenching turn of events. Texas' Chris McCall turned in the third-heaviest two-day weight on FLW record - 46 pounds, 6 ounces - to take the lead. But he did it under the hardest of circumstances, having learned of his mother's passing away just the night before.

"I lost my mom yesterday, so I've been distracted," a somber McCall said that day. "But I caught a giant early this morning, and I began to realize that some things happen for a reason. I really believe that's what happened when I caught that fish."

The tournament's complexion changed for the final round. A cold front blew many of the top 10 pros off of their sight-fish, and Ray Scheide, an FLW rookie out of Oklahoma, took the lead Friday with a modest limit weighing 14 pounds, 8 ounces. Just a pound behind was McCall and four others within striking distance in what looked to be a close contest on the final day.

But Scheide had other ideas Saturday. Flipping a Gambler B.B. Cricket with a heavy, 1 1/2-ounce weight to penetrate dense hyacinth mats on South Bay, he hooked into a pair of largemouths weighing more than 6 pounds and eventually caught a dominating limit worth 21-9. By comparison, the next heaviest stringer weighed 12-8.

Pro Ray Scheide of Russellville, Ark., used a two-day catch of 36 pounds, 1 ounce to claim his first FLW tile in his very first FLW Tour event."I found an area the last day of practice where I caught an 11-pounder," Scheide said. "It looked awesome. It had every type of grass that you need."

With a final-round total of 36 pounds, 1 ounce, Scheide won by what would become the widest winning margin all season on tour, 13 pounds, and collected $100,000 in his first FLW tournament. Sentimental favorite McCall finished in a well-earned second place.

Also notable were the other pros to finish respectively in the top five. David Dudley came off a half-million-dollar win at the FLW Championship just months prior to take third at the Big O. Fourth place went to another "rookie," Shinichi Fukae, the reigning Japanese Angler of the Year who was positioning himself for a groundbreaking season. Dave Lefebre finished fifth in what was another portent of things to come later in the year.

Atchafalaya Basin: Swett keeps cool on the bayou

The FLW Tour returned to the Louisiana bayou around Mardi Gras time for the second year in a row. There, anglers were promptly greeted by some of the most miserable fishing weather of the season, but despite the February bluster, a local pro with a Cajun drawl took home his first FLW win in a spicy showdown with a red-hot Northern pro.

FLW anglers plod through rainy conditions on the bayou Wednesday.At tournament's start, the anglers met with rain and cold as they plied the expansive maze of bayous and backwaters, which kept the water dirty and the limit count low throughout the week. South Carolina's Anthony Gagliardi led day one with a good sack of fish weighing 17 pounds, 1 ounce. Just behind him in second place was Wisconsin's Tom Monsoor, who fished his homemade jig into a limit worth 16-6.

By day two, Gagliardi succumbed to the adverse conditions and fell off the leaderboard. Monsoor, however, kept on swimming his jig and led the opening round by a solid 3 pounds with a two-day total of 32-11.

While North Carolina's Chris Baumgardner led day three with 13 pounds, 4 ounces, Monsoor stayed consistent and placed third with a weight of 12-6. Sandwiched in between, however, was Louisiana's own Sam Swett, a local favorite who riled up the home crowd with a contending limit worth 12-14. That set the stage for a close finish among the three, with a decided fan favorite among the contenders.

Sam Swett of Covington, La., edged out La Crosse, Wisconsin's Tom Monsoor by 10 ounces Saturday to win the Pro Division of the second stop of the 2004 Wal-Mart FLW Tour at the Atchafalaya Basin.Saturday, Swett didn't disappoint. Baumgardner dropped out of the race after failing to catch a limit. Monsoor, on the other hand, maintained his consistency and caught his fourth limit of the week, weighing 10 pounds, 9 ounces, to take the lead. But when Swett edged past him with a limit of his own at 10-11, he secured his first FLW victory, $100,000 and a rousing roar of approval from the hometown crowd.

"I love you, Louisiana," Swett told the packed house at weigh-in. "I'm proud to call you home."

Unlike many pros who flipped crawfish-imitating baits, Swett took his cue from the cloudy, rainy conditions and won by throwing shad-imitating baits on the bayou.

"In the tournament, I caught all of my fish on a Booyah Blade spinnerbait," he said. "I would slow-roll the bait with the current, down the vertical walls of hydrilla that were 7 to 8 feet deep. Fish were using irregularities in the grass wall, like protruding clumps or `shelves' in the grass that would block current and create ambush points."

Old Hickory Lake: Hack attacks and Lefebre slams the door

In an effort to combat a historically stingy bass bite on a heavily pressured waterway, FLW anglers broke out the crankbaits and their flipping sticks when they returned to the Nashville area and Old Hickory Lake in March. In the end, the prespawn bite would be as tough as predicted, but that didn't stop one rising star from Pennsylvania from running away with his first FLW win.

With a limit weighing 23 pounds, 9 ounces Wednesday, Michigan's Marcel Veenstra opened with one of only two stringers over 20 pounds to take the lead.

After that, the 20-pound sacks dried up - almost. Florida's Glenn Browne ended up leading the opening round with a two-day weight of 33-2, but it was Louisiana's Greg Hackney who really turned heads Thursday. After posting a dismal weight of just 3-3 on day one, Hackney rebounded with a hefty 26-8 limit on day two to make the cut into the finals. It would be the third and final limit weighing more than 20 pounds for the entire week.

After posting just 3 pounds, 3 ounces of fish for 122nd place Wednesday, pro Greg Hackney came in with a limit weighing a jaw-dropping 26-8 Thursday and leapt into the cut in sixth place with an opening-round weight of 29-11."This was the day of a lifetime for me," Hackney said. "And to do it here on a lake that isn't exactly known for big fish makes it even more special. This is my biggest comeback by far. ... I was flipping a jig, and I just changed colors and lightened the weight today. That made all of the difference in the world."

The final round was tough fishing for everyone, it seemed, except one pro. Pennsylvania's Dave Lefebre, a past winner in the EverStart Series Northern Division, threw a crankbait all day Friday and landed the only limit of the day. His 15 pounds, 2 ounces set him more than 6 pounds in front of - and oceans apart from - his closest challenger, Browne, heading into Saturday's action.

"It's not the (fishing) spot. It's just that I have a ton of confidence here. I feel like I have something figured out about this lake right now. It's kind of similar to what I fish back home. It's just shallow, cold-water, prespawning fish," Lefebre said Friday, adding that he wasn't counting his $100,000 quite yet. "These are the best (anglers) in the world up here. Greg Hackney proved that there are 26- to 30-pound bags out there. So I've still got to catch them tomorrow."

Dave Lefebre caught a two-day total of 10 bass weighing 27 pounds, 7 ounces despite facing tough conditions on the Tennessee fishery.But there would not be anymore Hackneyesque miracle comebacks. Already with a 6-pound cushion, Lefebre caught another limit Saturday and won by almost 9 pounds, the second-largest margin of victory for the year. His final-round total of 27-7 outclassed a limit-light field where the second-best weight was 18-8 caught by Missouri's Dion Hibdon.

"People label me as a jig-fisherman, but I like to do it all," said Lefebre, who threw a crankbait on Saturday, as well, to catch his limit. "But I am really nervous about catching them on treble hooks in a tournament. The weird thing was the area that I ended up winning the tournament in was not the creek that I thought I'd do well in. ... I feel like I can almost call my shots where I'm going to get bit. It's like I've been fishing here all my life."

Lefebre's first $100,000 winner's check and trophy marked the third time in as many tournaments that a first-time champion was crowned in the 2004 season, a trend that would continue until the last event of the year.

Beaver Lake: More rookie reckoning

The big purse at the annual Wal-Mart Open at Beaver Lake in April is quite a draw for anglers everywhere. With a $200,000 top prize, they come calling from all parts to compete - even from Sin City.

This year's open actually began the last day of March, earlier than it has ever been held. That, combined with an unusually cold spring, meant the sight-fishing festival that is normally the Wal-Mart Open would not materialize this season. Instead, anglers would have to scramble about looking for tougher-to-reach prespawn bass.

It also meant that this particular tournament's most successful pro, two-time winner Clark Wendlandt, would have to adjust his well-known sight-fishing strategy, as well.

The tournament opened with a show from Japan's Shinichi Fukae, who led Wednesday with variety-pack limit of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass weighing 16 pounds, 7 ounces.

"It was very, very perfect," Fukae said, through an interpreter, about his first day of competition at Beaver. "I caught fish all day long."

Stratos pro Craig Powers of Rockwood, Tenn., put himself in good position to claim the $1.25 million Wal-Mart Open's top prize of $200,000 cash thanks to a five-bass catch Thursday that weighed 13 pounds. His two-day total of 10 bass weighing 27 pounds, 9 ounces leads the 10 pros who will compete Friday and Saturday for one of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour's most lucrative awardsAfter a short fog delay on Thursday, self-professed "junk-fisherman" and past FLW winner Craig Powers of Tennessee led the opening round with a two-day weight of 27 pounds, 9 ounces. Also making noise the first two days was a relatively unknown rookie out of Boulder City, Nev., on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Tim Klinger quietly caught 27-3 for second place and made his first cut on the FLW Tour.

Notably, Fukae had a tougher day Thursday and dropped to third place, and Tom Monsoor put together another strong opening round and made the cut in fourth. Of particular note to the finalists, Texas' Wendlandt squeaked into 10th place and made his fourth final-round cut in five years at Beaver Lake.

Pro Clark Wendlandt of Cedar Park, Texas, carefully eyeballs the competition during semifinal weigh-in.Friday, Wendlandt showed why he is widely known as "Mr. Beaver Lake." He came in with a good limit weighing 11 pounds, 8 ounces and looked poised to push for an unprecedented third Wal-Mart Open title. However, it was Monsoor who posted the best limit of the day, 12-8, and led the field.

Fukae also caught another limit - worth 10 pounds, 7 ounces - and Klinger hung in there, too, with a limit weighing 10-1. In all, seven pros caught limits, including Powers, and all had a reasonably good shot at the title heading into Saturday.

By Saturday morning, however, it was the newcomer from the West who best worked the plan on his first visit to the Ozark lake. All week, Klinger had burned very little gas running around the lake. He mined a fishing spot just around the corner from the takeoff spot at Prairie Creek Marina, using a jig, and quietly caught limits. His limit Saturday from the same spot with the same jig would earn the rookie $200,000.

Tim Klinger's two-day total of 10 bass weighing 24 pounds, 1 ounce edged him past runner-up Craig Powers of Rockwood, Tenn., by 13 ounces."In practice, they never bit on a jig. But on the first day, my co-angler got bit on a jig, so I switched. ... I caught a big fish every day of the tournament," said Klinger, who caught 14 pounds Saturday and finished with a winning weight of 24-1. "They were in those brush piles. It was awesome. It was ideal for largemouths moving up to spawn."

Powers also staged a comeback Saturday; he finished second, just under a pound behind Klinger, and collected $100,000. Monsoor took his second third-place finish of the year, and Wendlandt finished fourth at the Wal-Mart Open for the second year in a row. Fukae ended up in sixth place.

Kentucky Lake: Gagliardi shuts down the Fritts show

The tour returned to the Kentucky headquarters of FLW Outdoors for the fifth event of the year. While the water levels had dropped back down to normal after last year's high-water affair, conditions were far from ideal as heavy winds pounded competitors on big Kentucky and Barkley lakes.

The antidote for the wind came in the form of North Carolina's David Fritts and his patented crankbait technique. Fritts, the tour's all-time winningest pro who already earned an FLW win at Kentucky Lake in 1997, threw his crankbait and captured the day-one lead with a limit weighing 20 pounds, 12 ounces. Also making noise again was Greg Hackney, who posted more than 18 pounds for third place.

Crankbait king David Fritts of Lexington, N.C., held the lead for three days by fishing a Rapala DT-16 crankbait.While the overall catches were a little lighter than the previous year, it became apparent that Fritts' strength, crankbaiting, would ultimately decide this tournament. On day two, he posted another limit and held onto the lead with 34 pounds, 9 ounces.

Just behind Fritts in second place was the ever-present Shinichi Fukae with 33 pounds, who posted one of just three opening-round stringers over 20 pounds on day two. It became clear that Fukae, who pushed into first place in the yearly standings, was a serious force to be reckoned with on the FLW Tour.

Following Fritts and Fukae into the final round was Anthony Gagliardi, who posted 32 pounds, 6 ounces over the first two days and who was obviously on some good fish. Also making the cut were dangerous David Dudley, Texas' Alton Jones and Hackney, who was pushing Fukae for Angler of the Year.

But the week slowly evolved into the "David Fritts Show," as he and his crankbait led for the third day in a row Friday with a limit weighing 16 pounds, 8 ounces. One more day with a catch like that and he would make history in two ways: by winning a record fifth FLW title and winning after leading it wire-to-wire.

"I don't know. I just have a knack for catching fish here," he said. "As long as I can find some coves and some points, I can catch some fish."

But it would not be easy. Fritts' lead wasn't comfortable by any means. The rest of the top seven - including Dudley, Hackney, Fukae and Gagliardi - were within 2 pounds of the leader, an easy margin to make up with Kentucky's big bass.

Saturday, Fritts faltered indeed, catching just 10 1/2 pounds of bass and finishing in fourth place.

Pro Anthony Gagliardi hauled in a two-day catch of 10 bass that weighed 29 pounds, 8 ounces for the win on Kentucky Lake.That left the door open for Gagliardi, who also threw crankbaits all week. Fishing main-lake ledges, he produced two limits in the final round that each approached 15 pounds and won with a weight of 29-8. With his $100,000 win, Gagliardi became the fifth first-time winner in five events on the 2004 FLW Tour.

"It feels great. This is incredible," Gagliardi said. "It feels like it's been a long time coming. I haven't fished that long, but you wonder if it's ever going to happen, if you're ever even going to come close. This is my first top 10 in two years, and to win it is just amazing."

More amazing was the fate of Hackney, who finished second by 5 ounces. If not for an 8-ounce deceased-fish penalty on the final day, Hackney would have clinched his first major victory.

"I won it, weight-wise, but that fish died," Hackney said. "But I was fishing perfectly, so I don't have any complaints."

Notably, Fukae finished fifth for his third top-10 of the season and established a 33-point lead over Hackney for the AOY title with one tournament left.

Lake Champlain: Weight records fall, Martin rolls and Fukae's the AOY

The tour's awaited return to bountiful, beautiful Lake Champlain for the Forrest Wood Open after a year-long hiatus left no one disappointed - at least those who are fans of catching tons of fish. In the end, it was an angler with some of the strongest lineage in the industry who would come out ahead on one of the world's most robust bass fisheries.

As predicted, day one was an absolute blockbuster in terms of limits. A total of 189 pros out of the field of 200 caught limits, and they smashed the one-day field weight record with a total of 2,650 pounds, 13 ounces.

Leading the limit frenzy Wednesday was David Walker, who made a long run south and caught all largemouths for a limit weighing 20 pounds, 3 ounces. But, of course, he had a lot of company.

A stiff south wind showed up Thursday and turned Lake Champlain into a boat-battering froth more suitable for hosting a sailing regatta than a pro bass tournament.Day two was more of the same except for the major detail of a strong south wind that turned the big lake into a boat-battering froth. Still, the pros mined the choppy waters for another 2,301 pounds, 1 ounce of smallmouth and largemouth bass.

Walker slipped into second place Thursday, and Arkansas' Rob Kilby took over first place with an opening-round weight of 35 pounds, 12 ounces.

Also making the cut were two anglers with similar names and very similar goals. California's Aaron Martens was the reigning $200,000 Forrest Wood Open champ, and Florida's Scott Martin, the son of TV's Roland Martin, was looking to win where his father last won a tournament, Lake Champlain. They qualified in third and fifth place, respectively.

The weather calmed down on day three, and Missouri's Randy Blaukat led the field with 16 pounds, 2 ounces. But it was a lead in name only. All 10 of the finalists caught limits and were within 5 pounds of each other. The top eight were within 2 pounds of the leader heading into the final day.

On a sight-fishing Saturday, Martin moved around the lake, targeting the biggest bedding smallmouth bass he'd saved in his GPS for the final day, and caught a limit weighing 17 pounds, 12 ounces. His final-round total of 32-8 boosted him to the $200,000 win, and he became the first champion of 2004 to have already been there before. His first FLW win was at the Pascagoula River in his 2000 rookie season.

Scott Martin carries his last bass to the scale for victory at the Forrest Wood Open."I'm so proud to win this one because Forrest (Wood) has been a part of my life since I was born," Martin said. "Clark Wendlandt once said, `You can never win these four-day tournaments if you fish in the same spot twice.' I wouldn't have been able to keep my weights up consistently if I fished the same areas each day."

Martens - who finished with 30 pounds, 4 ounces - failed in his bid to repeat victory at the year-end open, but collected $100,000 for second place.

In total, FLW anglers caught more than 4 1/2 tons of bass - largemouth and smallmouth - at Lake Champlain in June, which is also another record.

Also making a mark at Champlain was Shinichi Fukae, who wrapped up his amazing rookie season with a 24th-place finish and won the 2004 FLW Tour Angler of the Year title outright. He became the first Japanese national to win the FLW standings and the first pro bass angler to hold AOY titles on two continents.

"I still can't believe it," Fukae said. "I feel like I had a handicap all year. I couldn't speak English. I didn't know what weights were good enough to win. So I knew I had to practice very hard. I made sure that I got to the lakes earlier than anyone else. ... My experience on Lake Biwa (near Kyoto, Japan) helped. The lake is the largest in Japan and only about an hour away from my house. I was able to use a lot of the same techniques in America that I used on Lake Biwa. ... My goal is to stay in America and fish as long as I can or as long as I have enough money to fish. I would like to get some American sponsors, though. I'm going to try and save all the money I win so I can fish next year."

Tags: jeff-schroeder  pre-tournament  2004-08-11-flw-tour-championship 

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