The 2001 regular season was another captivating year for the Wal-Mart FLW Tour. There were highlights ranging from Kevin VanDam’s domination of the standings race to David Fritts’ unprecedented fourth tournament title. There were also lowlights, such as Johnny McCombs’ infamous blunder with the clock that cost him a win. In 2001, we saw that Rick Clunn was indeed beatable, and we saw his admirers come all the way across the Pacific Ocean to beat him. We saw the return of Guido and the rise of Powers. And we saw an emotional Tommy Biffle finally earn his first victory. In 2001, a legend triumphed at Lake St. Clair and a soon-to-be legend won yet again at Beaver Lake.
Every tournament told a unique story about the risk and reward of competing on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour. This is the 2001 year in review.
Tour Stop #1: Fritts cranks out his fourth at the Big O
The year opened in January with a bang on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee despite some tricky fishing conditions. The Big O was low and the weather was cold and blustery, which left a lot of pros twisting in the wind. But more than a few anglers were still able to take advantage of Okeechobee’s oversized quarry during the week. On the first day, David Walker caught a massive 9-pound, 10-ounce largemouth that (barring some truly miraculous catch at Lake Champlain in September) will win the Pepsi Big Bass of the Year award.
For most of the week, conditions were just about ideal for crankbait fishing, and few people in the world are better with crankbaits than North Carolina’s David Fritts. He squared off in a thrilling final-round showdown with Michigan’s Kevin VanDam, who later became the 2001 Angler of the Year (and who’s also not too shabby with a crankbait himself). Fritts edged out VanDam by nearly a pound and took home his first FLW victory since 1997. He also set the mark as the tour’s first four-time winner.
Because of the conditions, the fishing was even tougher on the co-anglers. Kentuckian Andrew Arnold took home his first FLW victory despite catching only one bass weighing just over 5 pounds on Friday. The rest of the 10-person co-angler field had it even tougher in the finals, combining for just eight fish total.
Tour Stop #2: Biffle finally takes home the trophy
Where Okeechobee was relatively frustrating for anglers this year, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was downright demoralizing – in more ways than one. Inconsistent weather, delays and long runs on the Pascagoula, Biloxi and Tchoutacabouffa rivers beat up on competitors as they struggled just to catch a limit of keepers each day. Fewer five-fish limits were weighed in here than at any tournament all season.
But, as they say, things were rough all over. The trophy would go to the angler who was best able to adjust to the tough fishing conditions. As third-place finisher Rick Clunn put it, “(This tournament) is just as interesting to me as if we were going to go out there and catch huge stringers.”
In the end, it was Oklahoma’s Tommy Biffle who emerged with a hard-fought victory, finally shedding his dubious title as the FLW’s leader in runner-up finishes without a win.
“I really thought I was going to come in second,” an exhausted Biffle said afterward. “You know, it’s been a tough tournament. I think this was the toughest one we’ve ever had.”
Still, tough as the fishing was, the Pascagoula River tourney managed to provide some of the season’s highest drama. Young Johnny McCombs of Alabama actually had enough fish to win the tourney in the final round, but lost track of time and was disqualified for returning late to the weigh-in. The disheartening gaffe cost him $86,000.
Said McCombs at the time, “I really didn’t think I had enough to win. After I was disqualified, I kept hoping somebody would have enough fish to beat me so I could feel a little bit better. But it didn’t happen.”
The idea of this as a small-fish tournament particularly hit home when Arkansas’ Frank Divis Sr. won the Co-Angler Division with two little bass weighing a total of 1 pound, 14 ounces – the lightest winning weight on tour all year long. The entire field of 10 co-angler finalists only combined for a total of 5 pounds, 4 ounces of bass.
Tour Stop #3: Konnichiwa, Alabama
Bass fishing fans saw cultural barriers fall in the heart of Alabama last March. Firstly, Lake Martin saw the breakthrough of one of the FLW Tour’s hottest young guns. Texas’ Takahiro Omori took home his first win in a thrilling showdown with some of the sport’s biggest legends. Omori, who moved to the U.S. in 1996 in search of a career on the FLW Tour, conquered the likes of Rick Clunn and Guido Hibdon in the final round to become the first-ever Japanese national to win a major bass fishing event. He weighed in 10 pounds, 14 ounces of bass and defeated runner-up Hibdon – who made a triumphant return to the FLW top-five finals after cancer sidelined him much of last year – by a scant 10 ounces.
“It took me a while,” an elated Omori said, “but I just did it. Like I said, I had Guido and Rick (who) made the top five, too … I can’t say much.”
Omori’s timing couldn’t have been better. As it happened, four of his countrymen from the Japanese pro circuit were participating in an angler exchange with the FLW Tour at Lake Martin. As they competed – and did well – on the co-angler side, an enthusiastic cadre of Japanese press and a nation of crazed bass fishing fans on the other side of the Pacific Ocean got their money’s worth in the Alabama tournament. Including Omori’s victory, two Japanese co-anglers finished in the top 30, including Seiji Kato, who placed a proud third.
Also helping to push the sport even farther across cultural lines was Georgia’s Willie White, who became the first African-American to win an Operation Bass tournament. He took the Co-Angler Division with 7 pounds, 13 ounces.
Tour Stop #4: Wendlandt repeats at the Wal-Mart Open
It’s no surprise that Texas pro Clark Wendlandt became the first-ever repeat winner of the Wal-Mart Open in the Arkansas highlands. After all, he is one of bass fishing’s hottest rising stars and one of the world’s best sight fishermen. The event was tailor-made for Wendlandt, the 2000 Angler of the Year, because almost all of Beaver Lake’s bass were spawning up on the beds during the late-April tournament.
What is remarkable about Wendlandt’s win was the caliber of competition he defeated to take home the $200,000 first-place check – and the way he won it. Going into the semifinals, he faced off against a cadre of fellow young guns that included Gerald Swindle, Randy Howell, Johnny McCombs and Wesley Strader. There was also the always-dangerous Gary Klein. So when Wendlandt decided to lay the whole tournament on the line in the finals by chasing a single 4-pound bass that had dogged him for days, you could actually see the disappointment on his face when he finally caught it – and it broke off.
“I don’t even know what just happened,” a dejected Wendlandt said.
Back at the final-round weigh-in in Rogers, it came down to a pressure-packed showdown between Wendlandt and Swindle. Everyone, especially Wendlandt, knew that Swindle was perfectly capable of taking the victory because he is also a former Wal-Mart Open winner.
“As I thought about what might happen, I almost started crying,” said Wendlandt, referring to the one that got away.
In the end, Swindle came up just 14 ounces short and Wendlandt took home his second Open trophy. With the check, he also became the second leading career money winner on tour behind only Rick Clunn.
On the co-angler side, Arkansas’ W.D. “Hoot” Gibson squared off against perennial top-10 qualifier Fred Hill of North Carolina. Gibson weighed in five fish at 5 pounds, 15 ounces and came away with his first FLW win.
Tour Stop #5: Craig’s rise to power on the Red River
What Beaver Lake delivered in clear, mountain stream-fed water and easy-access, shallow bass, Louisiana’s Red River offered in muddy, tree-clogged backwaters and snakes. Yes, snakes. Not only did FLW competitors have to do battle with the occasional lower motor unit dismantled by the river’s underwater jungle system, they had to fight off water moccasins all week long in the May event.
And it made for a great fishing tournament.
In a thrilling final round, Tennessee’s Craig Powers fended off a resurgent Kevin VanDam to take home his first-ever FLW win. Catching five bass weighing 14 pounds, 11 ounces, Powers managed to hold off VanDam’s fast-rising FLW star, if only briefly (see Tour Stop #6). VanDam weighed in with five bass at 13 pounds, 15 ounces, taking his third second-place finish in just six FLWs fished.
Possibly the defining moment of the week came when Powers hooked a fish among a frustrating mess of trees and debris, battled it for nearly five minutes, and pulled free a 4-pound kicker largemouth.
“When that happens, you’re going to win,” he said. “I don’t care who you are or where you’re at, you’re going to win.”
Georgia’s Brandon Ledford, at just 20 years of age, won the Co-Angler Division with five bass weighing 9 pounds, 2 ounces. With the win he not only became one of the youngest champions ever on the FLW Tour, he defeated prior winners Hoot Gibson and Frank Divis Sr. in the finals.
Tour Stop #6: Nixon nails first win at Lake St. Clair
The FLW headed north to bustling Detroit and for the 2001 Forrest Wood Open. The smallmouth frenzy offered by big Lake St. Clair didn’t disappoint, either. As is generally the case, five-fish limits were a dime a dozen on St. Clair in June. In the full-field opening round, over half the pro field brought in limits on days one and two.
With everybody catching fish, it made for one of the tightest and most compelling final rounds of the year. All five pros returned to the weigh-in tent with a full sack of five fish. As TV producer Jerry McKinnis put it, “This is the first time all five cameramen came in and said their fisherman won the tournament.”
One by one they weighed their fish and it finally boiled down to a thrilling showdown that pitted youth against experience. David Dudley, a young gun from North Carolina familiar with the FLW final round, established a seemingly winning mark of 17 pounds. Only one man was left to beat: Arkansas legend Larry Nixon. When Nixon dropped his last fish on the scale and it read 18 pounds, 2 ounces, the Detroit fans went wild.
Nixon, who avenged a 1999 fifth-place finish on Lake St. Clair and earned his first-ever FLW victory and $200,000, said, “This is one of the most amazing days of fishing I’ve ever had. This has just been an awesome day.”
Nixon, who targeted a sunken chair – of all things – as fishing structure in the opening rounds, mined the St. Clair smallmouth fishery for a hefty total of 65 pounds, 1 ounce of fish during the tournament.
“Apparently, a chair is pretty good structure,” he said. “It’s pretty weird.”
Lake St. Clair also saw the crowning of a local fishing hero as Michigan’s Kevin VanDam earned the 2001 Land O’Lakes Angler of the Year award for topping the Pro Division standings with and amazing 1,105 points out of a possible 1,200 for the year. His closest competitor was Georgia’s Mickey Bruce, who finished 55 points back.
“It’s been a great year. It’s a real honor,” said VanDam. “A lot of these guys I competed against were the same guys I grew up watching as a kid. I’m really proud to be standing here right now.”
For the co-anglers, Arkansan Kelly Greer took home $40,000 for winning his first FLW tournament title in only his second event fished. Greer landed 11 pounds, 8 ounces of bass to take the win in the final round.
The third Arkansas angler on the winning end of things in Detroit was Wesley Burnett, who captured the 2001 Eagle Co-Angler of the Year award after a tight race with Florida’s Chris Rand throughout the year.
“I’ve had a blessed year,” said Burnett. “Since I was 9 years old, I’ve been dreaming of accomplishing something like this. It really feels good.”
On to the championship
The 100 anglers competing in the Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship this Sept. 12-15 will not likely have forgotten any of the events that played out in 2001. They will study them to try and figure out the best way a person armed only with a hook, line and some bait can eventually find himself holding a check for $250,000 and a whole lot of status in pro bass fishing. That’s what the FLW offers, and that’s what they’re after.
Who’s going to win the championship? VanDam? Clunn? Solid bets, sure, but keep in mind those two heavyweights combined accounted for exactly zero victories on tour this year. It’s not easy to take the brass ring on the FLW Tour. The championship field is comprised of the best of the best, all competing against each other. This is fishing, after all, where it’s often better to be lucky than good. And don’t forget, this year’s tournament is being held up north on New York’s Lake Champlain, which is a wildcard as far as bass-tournament lakes go.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be quite a story.