California dreamin’ - Major League Fishing

California dreamin’

Riding the heels of a 2004 EverStart Series Championship win, West Coast pro Brent Ehrler is heading east to take the FLW Tour by storm
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EverStart Series Western Division wizard Brent Ehrler Photo by Yasutaka Ogasawara. Angler: Brent Ehrler.
January 4, 2005 • Jennifer Simmons • Archives

Flash back. It’s Monday, Nov. 1, 2004. In two days, Redlands, Calif., pro Brent Ehrler is slated to take part in arguably the most important tournament of his career – the 2004 EverStart Series Championship.

But with only one tournament east of Arizona under his belt, the West Coast phenom needs all the practice he can get on Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland, a deepwater impoundment populated with three distinct species of bass. But rather than charting strategy and watching the weather as he’s usually inclined to do before the start of a major tournament, Ehrler suddenly discovers that he’s feeling rather under the weather himself.

“I got the flu Monday afternoon, and I stayed in bed all day Tuesday,” Ehrler recalled.

Two days later, Ehrler drags his weak and aching body out of bed to the launch site, defying illness in search of a coveted top-10 spot that would help guarantee a shot at the tournament’s lucrative top prize. However, sickness trumps determination that day as Ehrler lands in the No. 68 spot heading into the second day of competition. With time running out, Ehrler knows he only has one day left to literally and figuratively right the ship.

“I was still weak and all my joints hurt – my elbows and my knees,” Ehrler said. “I’m the type of guy who doesn’t have a seat in the boat; I stand up there and run really hard and fish really fast. I was stumbling all over the boat.”

However, Ehrler’s impressive background suggests that the up-and-coming angler from California is far from done. After taking the first-ever Western points title in the division’s inaugural season in 2003, Ehrler headed into the 2004 EverStart Series Championship as the No. 3-ranked Western Division angler. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that in 10 career EverStart tournaments, Ehrler has cracked the top 10 six times and has never finished lower than 41st place.

Moving day

Western Division angler Brent Ehrler of Redlands, Calif., continued the West Coast domination of this week's EverStart Series Championship by hauling in a Pro Division-leading weight of four bass weighing 5 pounds, 13 ounces during Friday's semifinal round.On day two of the 2004 EverStart Championship, Ehrler catches the day’s second-heaviest weight, a limit of bass that totaled 10 pounds, 10 ounces, to squeak into the semifinal round in the final qualifying position. Though Ehrler entered day three in 10th place, he finds himself on equal footing with the tournament’s heavy hitters, as the field starts over again from zero on Friday.

But even though Ehrler has qualified for the semifinals, the road to victory is still paved with many obstacles. Up to that point, championship contenders had had their hands full with local pro H.C. Sumpter of Nancy, Ky., who was finding keeper bass when most other anglers were lucky to net anything at all. Cumberland was fishing tough, and it seemed for a good while that no one was going to be able to match Sumpter’s local charm.

But as any bass fan knows, luck can turn on a dime. Sumpter fell to fourth on day three while Ehrler moved from worst to first to enter the final day with a slim 11-ounce lead. The field was tight, though, with several anglers well within striking distance.

No doubt each final-round angler was hungry for a win. But could any of them possibly have been hungrier than Ehrler? Despite three third-place finishes and one runner-up title, Ehrler had yet to taste victory in the EverStart Series or any major tournament trail. And although the local crowds adored Sumpter, it was clear that it was Ehrler’s time to shine.

One by one on the final day, angler after angler fell by the wayside until there was only one left standing with a victory so sweet he still has trouble believing it today. Ultimately, Ehrler claimed the 2004 EverStart Series championship with a two-day total weight of 10 pounds, 10 ounces – a mere 7 ounces heavier than Sumpter’s two-day bag.

“It felt amazing; I still don’t believe it’s true,” Ehrler said. “I’ll be driving the car and every now and then I’ll go, `Wow, I can’t believe I won one.’ I relive it every day.”

So how did he pull off the championship win? To ask him, it’s all in his head.

Pro Brent Ehrler of Redlands, Calif., shows off his first-place check after winning the 2004 EverStart Championship on Lake Cumberland. “Fishing is very mental,” Ehrler said. “It’s not going out there and doing it; it’s completely mental and making the right decisions. (The first day) I was weak and tired, and I wasn’t really myself. That definitely hurt. The next day, I started feeling better and making the right decisions, and that helped a lot.”

“The fishing was really tough,” Ehrler continued. “I was fortunate to have a tiny bit more than everybody else. I didn’t do anything different than they were doing; it was just my time, I guess.”

‘Young gun’ in the making

Winning the championship was the highlight in a bass-fishing career that began when Ehrler was a young boy in California, fishing with his parents. At a bass-fishing seminar, Ehrler’s father bought him a guided trip with pro angler Rich Tauber, after which Ehrler began cultivating an interest in bass-fishing tours.

“I joined the Point Seekers bass club, which is a bass club out where I lived (in California),” Ehrler said. “They’d have one tournament a month and then a banquet at the end of the year. You’d have a certain number of tournaments and points and then angler of the year. I did that, and that made me want to fish some bigger tournaments, so I started fishing some WON Bass tournaments as an amateur. I moved up and started fishing Bassmasters and EverStarts.”

Along the way, Ehrler began picking up sponsorships, including a deal with Ranger Boats, an alignment he considers defining in his career.

“It was a tough decision, but now I can’t believe it was a tough decision,” he said. “I’ve always been really loyal to my sponsors, and I didn’t want to be one of those guys who bounced around. It was the best decision I ever made. I felt like I was part of a good group.”

Luke Clausen, 26, of Spokane, Wash., completed a four-day sweep of the $1.5 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship to win $500,000 Saturday. Also pictured is Forrest L. Wood, the founder of Ranger Boats and the FLW Tour's namesake.Ehrler also counts himself among the group of successful Western anglers who have only just begun to scratch the surface of tournament fishing back East. Their performance in FLW Outdoors events in 2004 is a testament to their versatility – Ehrler joins fellow West Coast hotshots Luke Clausen of Spokane, Wash., Stephen Tosh Jr. of Modesto, Calif., and Gary Collins of Paradise, Calif., as anglers who have either won championships or points’ titles along FLW Outdoors tournament trails in 2004.

“The guys are tough out here,” Ehrler said. “I’ve been really fortunate to stay up there and be consistent. That was my goal from day one as an amateur – be consistent. You see guys who will win the tournament one day and be last in the next tournament. I never really wanted to do that. Aaron Martens, that guy was so consistent out West. I really looked up to him, and that was kind of where I based my (philosophy) of hoping I could do well each tournament instead of going for broke.”

Despite his obvious success, Ehrler admits it’s been a tough road getting to where he is.

“It’s been tough, but it’s all a learning curve,” he said. “I think it’s good for everybody to go through that. I’ve had some bad tournaments, and it’s made me a better fisherman.”

After earning angler-of-the-year honors and notching a championship win in the EverStart Series, Ehrler is poised to make his mark on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour in 2005. Ehrler said his long-term goal for the FLW Tour is to try to accomplish what he has done in the EverStart Series.

East meets West

Though Ehrler has proven his adroitness on lakes all over the West Coast, the fact remains that he is still relatively unproven back East despite his championship victory. To wit, Ehrler declined to fish the 2004 FLW Tour despite qualifying for it via the EverStart Series, citing financial reasons.

“It’s difficult for a Western (angler) – or anybody – to go back there to fish coming out of their own pocket,” Ehrler said. “Entry fees are $15,000 to $16,000 for the year, and expenses for us (Western pros) are $30,000 a year just to fish. If I’m not at home working, then I’m not making money. If I’m out there and don’t cash a check, I’m not making money.”

Sponsor support has enabled Ehrler to fish the so-called big leagues in 2005, and Ehrler is keeping his goals reasonable for the season.

“My goal is to finish in the top 50 three times and qualify for the championship,” he said. “That’s really my ultimate goal. I’m going to work hard at it and try to make it there. I don’t know any of the lakes, and it could be overwhelming.”

Ehrler’s competitive drive first led him to motocross racing, then on to snow skiing after he broke his arm. He considered skiing professionally but wound up trading in his ski poles for fishing poles. He counts Martens, Kevin VanDam and fellow Redlands pro Dave Nollar as his fishing heroes. And it is Ehrler’s ultimate dream to be counted among such respected names.

“(I look forward to) being able to compete at that level,” he said. “I’m a very competitive person. I’d love to fish against the guy I always read about and looked up to. I’d love to be in the same group as those guys and be considered one of those guys.

“I always told myself that I’m not going to put any expectations on myself – just go out there and have fun – but it’s hard for me to do that. I usually take it too seriously and put pressure on myself. I’m always trying to be respectable and get out there and try to be consistent. It’s tough.”

In addition to the FLW Tour, Ehrler plans to continue fishing the EverStart Series Western Division, or at least part of it. He will also fish the Bassmaster Opens out West, leaving the FLW Tour’s heavily Southeastern schedule his only forays to the East.

Ehrler cited Eastern weather patters as the most obvious difference between West Coast and East Coast fishing.

“Obviously I have not been in a situation where a major cold front comes in or it rains and the water comes up 3 feet,” he said. “We get rain and cold fronts, but I hear back East the stories where a guy will catch fish and then it will rain, and the lake is 3 feet higher. That stuff never happens out West.”

But according to Ehrler, a fish is still a fish, whether it’s caught in the mountainous lakes of California or in the grassy weeds of Florida.

Brent Ehrler catches a keeper Saturday en route to championship victory.“It’s not a major adjustment, it’s just different,” Ehrler said. “Anywhere you go, you’ve got to be able to find out some sort of pattern. Once you get on that, it’s just like fishing at home. The fish kind of react the same.”

Time will tell whether Ehrler will dominate the FLW Tour the way he has the EverStart Series Western Division. Odds seem stacked in his favor, though, not just on the strength of his results but also on the strength of his attitude.

“My dad told me when I was younger, `Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance,'” Ehrler said. “I like the competitive aspect of it. If you’re into something, you want to move it up to the next level – just test your skills and try to be No. 1.”

Ehrler, a bona fide champion, knows how it feels to be No. 1, and a champion never rests until he finds himself there once again.