2002 Wal-Mart FLW Tour year in review

2002 Wal-Mart FLW Tour year in review
2002 Wal-Mart FLW Tour year in review

The 2002 regular season of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour was marked by a flurry of surprises. Pros caught fish when it was predicted that they wouldn't, and they sometimes didn't catch them when they should have. An astonishing number of rookies took center stage this year, but the veterans also showed why they're called bass-fishing "legends." There were record catches, close finishes and a thrilling photo finish for Angler of the Year.

In 2002 the stakes increased with the FLW Tour's overall payout of $5.1 million - a half-million dollars more than in 2001. And, by most accounts, the pros' performances lived up to the money.

Here's the 2002 Wal-Mart FLW Tour year in review.

Tour stop #1: Rookie league in Florida

January. South Florida. Big southern bass on one of the nation's biggest bass factories. When the FLW Tour rolled into Clewiston for its customary opener at Roland Martin's Marina, the tournament seemed primed for an old-school Lake Okeechobee showdown. The water was up from the previous year, and the fish were biting again. The world's best bass anglers were in town - many of whom had made their mark in the sport at places like Okeechobee - and they were competing for a cool $110,000. It's a recipe for big bass action cooked up by the nation's biggest bass anglers, right?

Wrong, for the most part. Okeechobee stymied many FLW favorites throughout the week. Sure, catch limits were up significantly over the previous year, but this time it mostly wasn't the David Frittses and Kevin VanDams who were catching the bulk of them. The Big O in 2002 saw the emergence of several rookies who managed to fish with the big boys - and beat them - at the South's biggest bass fishery.

Connecticut's Jimmi Leuthner, fishing in his first FLW tournament after competing for just one year in the EverStart Series Northern Division, led the charge in the opening round with 32 pounds. Then J.T. Kenney, another FLW first-timer after just one year in the EverStart Eastern Division, took over. The Maryland pro dominated the semifinals with the day's only catch heavier than 20 pounds (21-10), then clinched victory in the finals with a nearly identical weight of 21-13. Leuthner finished in second place with another impressive weight of 20-4.

Not only did rookies take the top two spots at the Big O, Kenney wasn't even initially registered to fish the tournament.

"There are no words to describe how I feel," he said. "This is the first FLW event of my career, and I didn't get off the waiting list until Tuesday night. It's just incredible."

A few veterans did perform well. Texas' Jay Yelas, en route to his best year ever as a pro, began his triumphant return to the FLW Tour with a strong, third-place finish at Okeechobee. Another Texas veteran and past FLW champion, Gary Klein, finished fourth.

But it was another young pro, 20-year-old Texan Joe Don Setina, who caused jaws to drop when he weighed in a 9-pound, 3-ounce largemouth on day three. Unofficially, it was the biggest bass of the season to date caught by FLW pros.

Tour stop #2: The General's surprise attack

What Florida delivered in terms of sun and warmth in January, Alabama delivered in surprisingly cold weather as the FLW Tour made its way to Lake Wheeler in February. The subfreezing temps not only chilled the pros psychologically, it kept many of the bass from spawning that week and slowed down the bite.

While most of the leaders battled the Tennessee River current for 10 to 16 pounds of fish a day, Texas pro Alton Jones somehow opened a bass vein in Lake Wheeler and took top honors the first three days. He led the two-day opening round by almost 10 pounds with 35-10. Jones then made a push to become the first FLW pro to lead wire-to-wire when he again captured first in day three's semifinals with 12-9. All he needed was one more day atop the leaderboard for the historic win.

But then the General marched in. Conditions changed on day four. The cold, clear weather warmed up slightly Saturday, the wind picked up and the water level shifted on the Lake Wheeler impoundment. That's when Arkansas' Larry Nixon, who edged into the finals in 10th place, decided to make his move. Having fished smallmouth flats throughout the week, Nixon headed for deeper water as the conditions changed.

"I decided to change tactics because I knew my original strategy probably wasn't going to work," he said. "I put on a jig and started (targeting) steep, vertical banks."

The strategy shift worked. Nixon - who was only one tournament removed from his last FLW victory at Lake St. Clair in June 2001 - hauled in the day's only five-bass stringer, worth 16 pounds, 9 ounces, and trounced runner-up Aaron Martens of California by almost 8 pounds. He also ended Jones' hopes for a wire-to-wire victory. Jones finished third.

Said Jones: "Overall, I felt like I had the best grasp of the fish of anyone in the tournament. But we all know how this game can play out. ... I'm just really happy for Larry."

Tour stop #3: Heavy hitters succumb to "Sweets"

Arkansas' Lake Ouachita played host to one of the biggest final-round showdowns of the year. Competing in the top 10 that Saturday were three of the sport's most successful anglers - Rick Clunn, Kevin VanDam and Gary Klein - as well as a bevy of other historically strong pros like Paul Elias, Mark Rose and Craig Powers. But it was an up-and-coming pro from the back roads of East Tennessee who topped them all when it counted most.

Ouachita threw a curve ball at FLW pros in March. Not only did a minimum length requirement of 16 inches on bass curtail overall catch weights, anglers were greeted by a four-hour fog delay on day one of competition. Thus, Louisiana's Greg Hackney weighed in the only five-bass stringer Wednesday to take the lead. Then Powers took over the opening round Thursday and led by 1 ounce over Hackney. Ouachita remained stingy; the tournament field weighed in just nine five-bass limits over the first two days.

However, while bass numbers were down, sizes were often surprisingly large. Arkansas' Jim Nolan officially landed the biggest bass of the year when he caught a massive 8-pound, 9-ounce largemouth on day one. (Joe Don Setina's 9-pound, 3-ounce largemouth at Lake Okeechobee was caught in the semifinal round. The big-bass award is only contested officially in the two-day opening round of an FLW tournament.)

In Friday's semifinals it was the veteran Klein who emerged with the lead with 9 pounds, 1 ounce, just 1 ounce in front of first-time final-round qualifier Kenneth Strickland. But, with a number of top guns advancing in a tough fishing tournament, the stage was set for one big final round Saturday.

Wesley Strader, who answers to the nickname "Sweets" (a reference to his slightly higher pitched voice), entered his second FLW final round of the season with confidence to spare. The fifth-year pro out of Spring City, Tenn., had just finished ninth at Lake Wheeler the month prior and in the top 20 at the Ranger M1 two weeks before. Not only that, he took a gamble in the Ouachita semifinals and made a run upriver, away from the crowd, where he found some fish that could possibly clinch his first victory. Strader took off Saturday morning with focus.

"I knew I had to stay loose and confident because, if I had started focusing on the fact that I was fishing against Gary Klein, Rick Clunn and Kevin VanDam, I would have gotten too nervous," he said. "It was just me against the fish today."

As scripted, 2001 Angler of the Year VanDam set the mark to beat with a 13-pound, 5-ounce catch - a hearty total given the lake's conditions. Then Strader pulled out a huge 6-pound, 10-ounce largemouth to launch his total weight to 14-10 for the win. It was a definitive victory for the up-and-coming pro.

"I caught three fish upriver earlier in the day that weighed (a total of) about 7 pounds. It was about 12:15 p.m., and I knew I didn't have that much longer to fish," said Strader. "That's when I looked into the sky and said, `Lord, if you could just show me a 6-pound fish, I could win this thing.' I barely got the words out of my mouth when I saw it."

VanDam took his fourth second-place place finish in just over two years on tour. Said the Michigan pro: "I'm just glad to have finished second. It's a whole lot better than third, but it's still not first. You know, it's getting to the point where it's not about the money anymore; it's getting personal."

Tour stop #4: Moore with the most

The annual Wal-Mart Open at Arkansas' Beaver Lake turned out to be anything but routine in 2002. Unlike past April tourneys at Beaver, the sight-fishing was tough going, the weather was uncooperative, and Clark Wendlandt didn't win - but he came close.

On the other hand, a familiar pattern of rookie success began to emerge when a relatively unknown angler named Andre Moore came away with his first victory over a bevy of top-ranked pros in the final round.

Anglers arrived to find the water on mountain-clear Beaver Lake at much higher levels than they're used to in April - in places almost 10 feet or more. That slowed down the spawn and kept many bass out of range. The fishing was tough in the early rounds. Florida's Mark Rogers led 175 pros the first day with a mere 12 pounds, 8 ounces.

Day two proved to be just as frustrating, but it saw the return of Texas' Wendlandt to the top of the leaderboard with an opening-round weight of 20 pounds. Wendlandt, the tour's only two-time Angler of the Year (1998 and 2000), was making a bid to become the first pro to win three FLW tournaments at the same lake. He won previously at Beaver Lake in 1999 and 2001.

In the semifinals, the top catch weight still hovered around 10 pounds when Dean Rojas hauled in the leading stringer Friday at 10-15. It was his second appearance atop the semifinal-round leaderboard this year.

Then, for the finals, things changed.

Like at Ouachita, some big names found themselves in the hunt for the $210,000 prize Saturday. There was Wendlandt - seemingly unbeatable at FLW Beaver Lake - and a hot Rojas as well as past FLW winner Darrel Robertson and perennial finalist Bernie Schultz. Sunny and clear most of the week, the weather suddenly became a problem when fog - for the second tournament in a row - delayed fishing action for two hours Saturday morning. That had a compromising effect on the pros fishing in the big-money final round.

"I'm liking it," Rojas said during the fog delay. "It kind of puts the pressure on everybody."

Fellow finalist Tracy Adams admitted, "It's pretty much messing with my mind right now."

But another change occurred that Saturday. The fish moved up to spawn, it seemed, virtually overnight. Despite having a relatively short day of fishing, six out of 10 pro finalists weighed in a five-bass limit. In the end, it was Arizona's Moore who weighed in the heaviest - 10 pounds, 6 ounces - to take his first winner's trophy home after fishing in just five FLW tournaments. Second place went to Missouri's Randall Hutson with a weight of 9-13.

"A lot of the fish that I wound up catching today, I had been trying to catch all week," Moore said. "I'm ecstatic right now. I'm just blown away."

As for Wendlandt, in search of Beaver Lake immortality, he finished fourth with a weight of 8 pounds, 11 ounces. Not bad, but not what he wanted.

"I feel good about it," he said, "but without that fog delay, I definitely would have had 10 pounds or more. ... But that's just the way it goes."

Tour stop #5: Bacon smokes Hickory

In a strange sort of connection to the name of the FLW Tour's fifth lake destination of the season, Basil Bacon won his first big-money title at Old Hickory Lake in May. It was a long time coming for the venerable Missouri bass pro, who won his first competitive bass tournament in 1974.

"Nothing will ever replace the feeling I had after my first win," Bacon said, "but this is definitely one of the most gratifying experiences I've had."

Old Hickory was kind of a question mark heading into the tourney. The FLW had never been there before, and concerns about the pressure it receives from nearby Nashville pervaded anglers' thoughts before Wednesday.

Those concerns were quashed when Arkansas' Rob Kilby opened the tournament with a 23-pound, 1-ounce stringer to take the lead on day one. It turned out to be the heaviest five-bass catch weight of the entire regular season, surpassing even the big marks posted at Lake Okeechobee. In fact, Wednesday at Old Hickory was, at the time, the third heaviest day of the year for the pros, with an accumulated weight of 1,039-14, behind only two days at Okeechobee.

Some anglers struggled with the finicky post-spawn fish bite and dropping water levels on Old Hickory, but many continued to bring the big ones across the scale as the tournament wore on. Kansas pro Brent Chapman led the opening round Thursday with a two-day weight of 30 pounds, 3 ounces. Then Oklahoma's John Sappington took top honors in the 20-man semifinals Friday with a weight of 16-13.

One angler who "struggled" was Texas' Jay Yelas, a top contender for Angler of the Year. On day two he missed a slew of fish - fish that his partner, Danny Strand, caught to lead the Co-angler Division - and missed the cut for the third time this season, in 38th place. He assumed that it effectively removed him from contention in the yearly points race.

"It almost makes you want to go home and put everything up for sale on eBay," Yelas said.

When Bacon came to the scale in Saturday's finals with his last fish, he wasn't sure it would be enough.

"I knew I needed about 3 pounds to win. But when I reached into the boat and pulled out my last fish, I realized that I didn't save my biggest fish for last," he said. "My guess was that I had about 15 pounds, but when I saw that fish, I thought I was in real trouble."

The last, small bass pushed his total to 14 pounds, 2 ounces, and it turned out to be just 3 ounces enough. Georgia's Pat Fisher came in with a tight 13-15 to place second.

Notably, a familiar face finished third. Kevin VanDam caught 12 pounds, 9 ounces and finished behind Fisher to take home his second top-five finish of the year and third top-20. With that finish and Yelas' day-two breakdown, VanDam grabbed a seemingly insurmountable lead in the standings race and set up the most thrilling Angler-of-the-Year finish to date with just one tournament left.

Tour stop #6: Champlain dreams and Angler-of-the-Year wishes

New York's Lake Champlain in June was supposed to be a walk in the park for Kevin VanDam. One of the top bass fisheries in the country, Champlain is teeming with smallmouths, one of his favorite targets. Its water is mostly cool and northern clear, his favorite type of water to fish. And, leading the rest of the field by a hefty 28 points in the standings, VanDam was in the driver's seat to win Angler of the Year for an unprecedented second year in a row.

But the Forrest Wood Open at Lake Champlain had a few tricks up its sleeve for VanDam as well as eventual tournament winner Sam Newby and the rest of the field.

The opening round was a blockbuster. The pros accumulated an FLW Tour record 2,349 pounds of bass Wednesday, including 170 five-bass limits caught by the field of 178 anglers. Thursday became the second heaviest day on record with 164 limits for a weight of 2,199-4. Champlain quickly cemented itself as a favorite lake among the world's top bass anglers.

"There is not a better place to fish anywhere," Clark Wendlandt said. "I've never seen a place like this. It's just phenomenal. It's unreal how much baitfish there is here. With the unlimited bait, that's how the fish get so fat. They're short, but fat. This is my favorite lake by far."

Michigan rookie Chad Grigsby emerged from the limit frenzy Wednesday with the leading weight of 19 pounds, 14 ounces. But he had a lot of company. The difference between his weight and the 100th-place weight was a mere 6-13, an extremely tight bunch - especially at the top.

VanDam raised some eyebrows when he came in with a day-one weight of 15 pounds, 13 ounces. It was a good stringer on any other day at any other lake. But with so many limits coming across the scale, 15-13 was only good enough for 30th place. Perhaps more importantly as far as the Angler-of-the-Year race was concerned, Jay Yelas placed 19th to open the tourney. VanDam, 28 points in front of Yelas, suddenly seemed to have competition for the coveted AOY title.

Grigsby maintained control on Thursday's day two, notching a division-leading weight of 35-4 for the opening round.

VanDam, on the other hand, lost control of his destiny in the points race when he finished day two in 44th place and missed the cut despite catching another limit. He would have clinched Angler of the Year if he had made the cut; instead, he notched the worst FLW finish of his career (his previous worst was 39th place) and was forced to watch passively as Yelas made the cut and threatened to steal the title away. All Yelas needed was to place 16th or better in the semifinals to undercut VanDam for the points title.

"I didn't fish as well as I would have liked to today," said VanDam, who admitted that he had precious little practice time at Champlain before the tourney. "I think I may have left the door open."

Jay Yelas of Tyler, Texas, advanced to the final round in 10th place Friday with five bass weighing 12 pounds, 5 ounces. He also won the coveted Land OIn Friday's semifinals, Yelas didn't place 16th. He placed 10th and walked into the 2002 Angler-of-the-Year title - his first - wresting it from VanDam in a rousing come-from-behind performance. It was a feat that Yelas thought was nearly impossible after he turned in that dismal day-two performance at Old Hickory Lake in May.

"Talk about perseverance, I had the worst day of my career at that last tournament," he said. "But I've never won angler of the year on a national circuit before, so this is a big thrill."

South Carolina's Todd Auten made it the third day in a row that an FLW rookie led at Champlain when he topped the division in the semifinals with a weight of 16-13. But his fellow final-round qualifiers were, by no means, rookies. There was Yelas, Rick Clunn, Tommy Biffle, Scott Martin, David Dudley, Dean Rojas and a little-known pro named Sam Newby, among others, all fishing for the biggest cash prize of the year - $210,000.

It was going to be a big-time Saturday.

The final round didn't disappoint. In the closest finish possible in FLW Tour competition, Newby won the Forrest Wood Open by 1 ounce over Rojas on a Saturday where nine out of 10 pros caught a five-bass limit. Newby caught 16 pounds, 1 ounce while Rojas landed 16-0.

"Coming back in, I knew I had a decent chance to win the tournament. But then again, on this lake, you never know what's going to happen," said first-year FLW pro Newby, whose win made it a rookie-dominated tourney wire to wire. "Any of these guys could have hauled in a couple of 5-pounders; I just didn't know what to expect. ... I don't know what to say. This is the biggest win of my career by far."

As for the ever-smiling Rojas, what could he say?

"In the end, I came up 1 ounce short. And you know what? It's probably going to happen again. I've beaten guys by 1 ounce before, and that's just the way it goes. I'm hardly disappointed," he said. "I'm going to leave with a check for $105,000. That's not too bad."

Now for the big show

While it might seem difficult to top the drama of the regular-season finale at Lake Champlain, the 2002 Wal-Mart FLW Championship at Louisiana's Cross Lake in September will certainly add a new wrinkle to the average four-day pro bass tournament. The year-end tournament's head-to-head competition among the season's 48 top-ranked pros should prove as compelling a bass tournament as fans could hope for.

The field is set, the pairings are up and the pros are getting ready. All aboard for the last stop of 2002: Shreveport.

See how the FLW co-anglers fared in 2002


Complete 2002 FLW Championship brackets
FLW Championship presents some compelling matchups
A new challenge: the revamped FLW Championship format
2002 FLW Championship pairings an exercise in bracketology
FLW Tour anglers prepped for Super Bowl of bass fishing

Tags: jeff-schroeder  article 

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