High water on the Connecticut River allowed Randall Hutson to achieve the highlight of his tournament fishing career. A farmer from Washburn, Missouri, the 49-year-old Hutson held off defending champion Jim Moynagh of Hopkins, Minnesota, to win the $1 million Forrest Wood Open out of Hartford, Connecticut, and the $200,000 first prize.
The best previous payday for Hutson, who had never before made the top 10 of a Wal-Mart FLW Tour event, was $13,000 for winning a regional pro-am tournament. Over the past four to five years, he’d won a total of $50,000 to $60,000.
“I’m going to pay off some bills and put the rest into my savings,” an emotional Hutson said after the weigh-in at the East Windsor, Connecticut, Wal-Mart. “And I’m going to keep fishing.”
On the final day, Hutson caught a five-bass limit weighing 8 pounds, 6 ounces, to beat out Moynagh, winner of the 1997 Forrest Wood Open on Lake Minnetonka in Minneapolis. The top qualifier after the first two days on the Connecticut River, Moynagh was second with four fish weighing 7-4 to win $100,000.
Jerry Williams of Conway, Arkansas, had five fish but was an ounce behind Moynagh and won $50,000. Mike McClelland of Springdale, Arkansas, who got into the tournament off the waiting list nine days before it started, was fourth with four fish weighing 4-10 and won $35,000. Terry Bolton of Paducah, Kentucky, caught just one fish that weighed 2-5 to finish fifth and win $30,000.
A week of relentless rain had the Connecticut River some 12 feet higher than usual, which opened all kinds of new territory to the river’s resident smallmouths and largemouths. Instead of holding tight to the riverbanks, the bass were able to swim into the flooded timber and backyards along the river.
That made the fishing difficult for most anglers, especially those who had located plenty of fish before the rain in the many coves and creeks off the river, most all of which were now flooded. Hutson used the high water to his advantage by going into areas seldom visited by bass fishermen. Traditionally, the majority of tournament anglers fish south of Hartford rather than deal with the shifting sand bars and shallow, rocky stretches to the north.
The high water eliminated many of those obstacles, giving Hutson access to the mouths of two small creeks where the water poured into the rushing current of the muddy river. Those creeks provided all of Hutson’s fish for the tournament.
“That’s the only place I can catch them,” Hutson said after using a Luck E Strike french fry worm and 8-pound line to catch a limit weighing 11 pounds, 15 ounces, in his top spot the first day, second behind Moynagh’s limit weighing 15-4. “It’s a little creek that runs into the main river. It’s a spot where fish can get out of the current.”
Moynagh, who fished well downriver in a backwater crowded with other boats on Wednesday, had only six bites but all five of the fish he landed were keepers. Those fish, which ranged in size from just over 2 pounds to just under 4 pounds, all ate a plastic worm.
“I’m no river specialist by any means,” Moynagh said, adding that fellow Minnesotan Craig Wicklund helped him get on his pattern by offering tips on lure presentation and fish location. “I was happy to see the heavy rain. It kind of equalizes the playing field. Suddenly, the locals are scrambling like everyone else.”
Joel Richardson of Kernersville, North Carolina, was third at 11-2 and Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Missouri, who was battling Rick Clunn and Randy Howell for the Wal-Mart FLW Tour Angler-of-the-Year title, was fourth at 10-7. Non-boater leader Frank Free of Buford, Georgia, had two fish weighing 7-7.
“Fishing is extremely hard,” Brauer said. “The fish have been hammered real hard and they’ve moved, which has made them hard to locate. The fish are into stuff that boats can’t get into.”
The fishing was so hard that the 304 anglers, 152 pros paired with 152 non- boaters weighed in only 10 limits. Fifty-nine pros and 104 amateurs did not weigh a fish.
“It’s like shooting ducks with your eyes closed,” said Mark Davis of Mount Ida, Arkansas. “That’ll tell you how tough it is.”
“We never fish out here when the water gets this high,” said Terry Baksay of nearby Monroe, Connecticut. “We go to a lake.”
“The high water has eliminated about 99 percent of the water, leaving me only five spots to fish,” said Roland Martin of Clewiston, Florida, who was 19th with a limit of smallmouths weighing 6-4. “I had 100 spots before.”
Martin fished the same creek as Hutson on Wednesday, but at a different time. Thursday, both men showed up at the same time at the spot, which was just big enough for two boats to fish the swirling eddies that held the fish. “He kept saying he was there first, which he wasn’t,” Hutson said. “We talked it out, then we decided we better get to fishing.”
Fishing 30 yards from Martin with the french fry worm and a tube jig, Hutson had four keepers by 9 a.m. and left the spot. When Martin, who did not fare as well, departed, Hutson returned and caught his fifth keeper. The stringer weighed 8-13, giving Hutson a two-day weight of 20-12, second behind Moynagh. “I think there’s a lot of fish there,” Hutson said. “They go in and out. Out into the main river, then into the creek to feed. It’ll be my bread and butter spot. I’ll either do or die there.”
Moynagh, who caught four bass weighing 8 pounds for a total weight of 23-4, had the same commitment to his spot. “There’s really no reason why I should leave that area,” Moynagh said, who figured the cutting of the field to the top 10 boats would help. “There are a lot of fishermen in that area and they’re stirring up the bottom, making the fish spooky and edgy. Now the fish will have a chance to relax and settle. If five guys are in that area, it’ll be good, but there’s been like 25 boats in there.”
Brauer just failed to make the top 10, catching only a 3-pounder the second day to finish 12th at 13-7. But that enabled him to make history, as he won the Land O’Lakes Angler-of-the-Year title and a spot on a Wheaties cereal box, the first angler to ever be so honored.
The reduced fishing pressure on Day 3 helped Hutson, but not at his top spot. Although Hutson had the second round’s biggest stringer, a limit weighing 12-9, to lead the top five pros into the championship round, he had to fish his secondary spot.
“My best spot dried up,” said Hutson, who caught only one fish there on Friday, which featured sunny, blue skies with temperatures in the mid-80s.
Fortunately, with just 10 boats competing Friday, Hutson was able to get into his No. 2 spot, a creek just big enough for one boat. On Wednesday and Thursday, another boat was in the spot and Hutson couldn’t fish it. He caught four bass there Friday to fill out his limit, finessing the fish with his spinning outfit and french fry worm.
Hutson’s non-boater partner, first-day leader Frank Free, caught five smallmouth bass weighing 6-11 to win his division and the $40,000 first prize. T.R. Fuller of Auburn, Alabama, the top non-boater after the first two days of qualifying at 20-14, was second with one fish weighing 3-12 fishing with Moynagh. He won $20,000.
“This is the first time I’ve ever fished for smallmouths,” Free said. “We don’t have them back home.” Free caught his fish on a jig with a Zoom twin tail plastic grub. His first fish came on his third cast. The fishing slowed as the sun came up. When a couple of rain clouds moved in, Free caught three fish in succession, giving the recently retired utility company worker his biggest tournament title.
Moynagh was second in the pro division at 8-5, landing the only four bites he had on Friday. “I’m really concerned,” Moynagh said. “I’m running out of fish. My bites are going down. The fish were not cruising around or moving as much as before. I thought the other anglers [in the area the first two days] were hurting the fishing, but with all the boats, that might have got the bait moving.”
Hutson also was concerned heading into the final day. The nice weather had water levels dropping and he feared he might not be able to get across the rocks that guarded the entrances to his spots.
“Both spots are the same deal. I’m hitting rocks in the main river to get in there,” Hutson said. “The water fell like a foot and a half Friday. If it falls another three feet, I don’t think I can make it.”
As it turned out, the only falling water Hutson had to worry about were his tears at the final weigh-in. His fourth, and smallest, limit of the tournament was more than enough to give him his biggest, most meaningful victory.
“The water didn’t drop as much as I thought it was going to,” said Hutson, who went to his No. 1 spot and promptly caught three keeper bass on Saturday. “Then I had one come off and I broke one off. Then I started getting a little concerned. So I went to my other spot and limited out, but they were all 13-inch fish. They weren’t as big as [Friday]. I thought 10 pounds would win. I’m thinking I was second.”
Moynagh, who had only four bites all day, kept Hutson on edge until the very end. The FLW Tour has a unique final weigh-in, where the angler who qualified fifth weighs a fish first. Then the angler who qualified fourth must weigh enough fish to beat that weight, and so on.
Hutson had weighed his five fish to get to 8-6. Moynagh had weighed four to get to 7-4, and seemingly everyone in the packed weigh-in tent assumed Moynagh had a fifth fish. “I knew if he had another fish, he had me beat,” Hutson said.
When Moynagh’s turn came, he walked over to Hutson and shook his hand. “I didn’t really understand why he was coming over to congratulate me” until he raised my arm and said, `Here’s your champ,’ ” Hutson said.
“I knew I had a shot, and I knew it’d be real close,” Moynagh said. “Randall had been the most consistent through the first three days with steady limits. He was culling fish and it seemed like he was getting more bites. I really felt Randall had the best shot.”
Making the most of that opportunity was especially significant considering that 18 months earlier, Hutson was ready to quit fishing bass tournaments. He was pre-fishing for a tournament in Georgia when thieves stole his boat and all his tackle. Hutson, who wasn’t exactly tearing up the pro circuit, went home to his farm disgusted and disheartened.
Fortunately, friends Guido and Dion Hibdon and Stacey King gave him tackle and talked Hutson into sticking with tournament fishing. They were among the people he thanked shortly after receiving the Forrest Wood Open trophy and a briefcase filled with $200,000 cash.
He also was grateful to his wife, Pamela, and his son Ryan, who were back home on the farm swathing the tops off fescue grass in preparation for selling the seeds.
“I called my wife Friday night and asked her how the swathing was going,” Hutson said. “She said, `You don’t worry about that, you worry about fishing.'”