10 Tour Milestones - Major League Fishing

10 Tour Milestones

A look back at some of the Walmart FLW Tour's greatest moments
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In its two decades of existence, the Walmart FLW Tour has experienced many noteworthy milestones.
February 20, 2015 • Colin Moore • Archives

The Walmart FLW Tour celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2015, and while participants are looking forward to the new season, it’s also a good time to review some of the events that helped build the largest tournament organization in the world.

Here are some noteworthy happenings from two decades of Tour history that merit a second look.

Irwin Jacobs1. The Big Change: Soon after Irwin Jacobs acquired Operation Bass in the summer of 1996 and renamed the company FLW, the Tour’s trajectory started going almost straight up. Walmart and a host of the best-known brand names in the country came on as sponsors, and a television program and multi-media website were added. Along the way, several innovative steps were taken that resulted in a modern tournament organization that successfully integrated fishing, competition, media, fans and sponsors. Because of the influx of new backers, prize money rose exponentially and made a professional career in bass fishing more attainable for fishermen – whatever the circuit. Likewise, the Walmart FLW Tour had a restorative effect on competitive fishing in general, and the benefits of Jacobs’ handiwork rippled through the boating, tackle and electronics industries like a tonic.

Footnote: While winning is goal No. 1 to a tournament angler, “getting a check” in a Walmart FLW Tour event is a nice consolation prize for those who don’t win every time out of the gate. Not counting almost $3 million paid out in contingency awards and other special awards to Tour competitors since 1996, more than $118 million in prize money has gone to pros and co-anglers in this, the richest circuit of them all. Through the years, Tour prize money alone has made millionaires of 19 anglers. Even those who don’t compete have a stake in a Tour event’s outcome. Since 2008, when FLW Fantasy Fishing was introduced, more than $5.4 million in cash and prizes has been claimed by fans who predict who’s going to win and the top finishers in various tournaments.

Pro Mike Surman proudly displays two monster bass en route to a first-place finish.

2. Where It All Began: The company staged its inaugural FLW Tour event on Lake Okeechobee in January 1996 in Clewiston, Fla. The Tour’s pro-am format, which allowed pros to maintain control of the boat and fishing waters throughout tournament hours as they fished with co-angler partners, was an instant hit. At the Big O, 156 pros fished with an equal number of co-anglers. Mike Surman got $18,500 for first with 44 1/2 pounds of bass that he caught on the still-ubiquitous Okeechobee bait: a Gambler Crawdad. Doug Hampton of Barbourville, Ky., was the Tour’s first co-angler winner. As it turned out, 1996 was a great year for Clewiston guide Steve Daniel, who won the second tournament of the season, also on Lake Okeechobee, and went on to capture the Tour’s first championship title.

Footnote: In the Tour’s opening season, fishing legend Roland Martin came as close to winning an FLW tournament as he ever would, finishing runner-up to Daniel at that second Lake Okeechobee event.

Steve Daniel won the first Forrest Wood Cup in 1996. He also won a qualifier that same season.3. The First Championship: Forty-two pros and an equal number of co-anglers qualified for FLW’s first championship event, which took place in early November 1996 on Georgia’s Lake Sinclair. With a performance that mimicked the tortoise’s race with the hare, Steve Daniel’s consistency carried him from 21st place in the opening round to the title. Co-angler stalwart Todd Lee of Jasper, Ala., was the first co-angler champion and won $16,500. Daniel took home $18,500 in prize money. In a sign of things to come, a young Tennessee angler named Andy Morgan placed fifth. Morgan actually lead the field with 20 pounds, 1 ounce at the end of the second day, but at that time the top 10 started from scratch after the first two rounds, and Morgan was unable to maintain his pace in the two-day championship round. Today he has two Walmart FLW Tour Angler of the Year titles and is regarded as one of the best pros of all time.

Footnote: Some pros never earn $1 million in tournament prize money during their entire career. It only took four days in August 2007 for one Arkansas pro to become a millionaire. That year, Scott Suggs of Bryant won the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Ouachita and with it the grand prize of $1 million. His winning weight (based on the two-day final round; weights were cleared after the first two days) was almost 5 pounds heavier than that of Oklahoma’s Darrel Robertson, who took home $100,000 for finishing second.

Pro Jim Nolan shows off his monster 8-pound, 9-ounce largemouth - the largest bass caught on the FLW Tour all year. Nolan, who was in fourth place after today's events, used the fish to win the day's big bass award and a check for $750.

4. The Oldest Record: Though records are made to be broken, the one for heaviest Big Bass weighed in by a Tour pro has withstood the test of time. The fish hefted 11 pounds, 14 ounces and was caught by Arkansas pro Jim Nolan in March 1996 at Santee Cooper in South Carolina in the first round of the third tournament that year. Nolan was fishing down a grassy point when the big bass gulped down a 3/4-ounce Switchblade spinnerbait with silver and gold willow-leaf blades. Noland caught one more keeper from the area that day, but despite repeated efforts the following day, couldn’t repeat his success.

Footnote: Nolan’s wasn’t the only record set in the ’96 Santee Cooper tournament. Mark Mauldin’s five-fish limit of 27 pounds, 13 ounces still stands as the heaviest one-day stringer weighed in by a co-angler.

Kellogg's team member Steve Daniel (left) and his co-angler partner Lewis Southard check in with tournament officials before takeoff.

5. That’s a Wrap: Ranger has always been the official boat of FLW, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that wrapped boats emulating NASCAR racers joined the fleet. Wrapped boats grew out of a marketing effort to give sponsors more visibility at Tour stops. Bright colors and logos of such companies as Land O’ Lakes and Fuji Film characterized the first wrapped boats, which actually weren’t wrapped. Ranger Boats in Flippin, Ark., manufactured those first boats with special gel-coat colors to match the company colors. Then, decals were added. The procedure was a stopgap measure, and authentic wrappings were soon developed to match FLW’s growing family of sponsors. The Walmart FLW Tour’s innovation soon became an industry standard.

Footnote: Though some of those first “wrapped” Rangers wore “loud” colors, the company sold all of them in the U.S. and Japan. Most of the boats were put to good use, but at least a few were purchased by buyers who realized their value as collectibles. If you own one, congratulations.

The 2001 Forrest Wood Cup, which was scheduled to begin on Sept. 12, was cancelled in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies.

6. The Championship that Wasn’t: The world stopped turning for a few days in September 2001 after Islamic terrorists flew commercial airliners into New York’s World Trade Center, killing thousands in the opening salvo of a new type of war. The horror of Sept. 11 sent shockwaves rippling across the country and affected people and commerce in ways nobody could have imagined beforehand. Among other things, it caused the cancellation of the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Champlain, which was set to begin on Sept. 12. In Plattsburgh, N.Y., FLW staff and fishermen had already gathered, and all preparations had been made. Instead of fishing, anglers mourned for the dead with their fellow citizens and made their ways home as best they could.

Footnote: Though the winner of the 2001 Forrest Wood Cup would have collected $250,000, it was decided that each of the 50 pros who qualified would split up the prize money equally. Thus, each received $7,700. Each co-angler got $1,300.

The 2003 Cup was the first to have its weigh-ins held indoors.

7. The First Indoor Championship: Prior to 2003, Forrest Wood Cup weigh-ins typically were staged lakeside in a large air-conditioned tent. Over time, however, the event’s burgeoning popularity with fans also resulted in it outgrowing its accommodations. In 2003, FLW decided it was time to take the Cup indoors. The Greater Richmond Convention Center hosted the first indoor championship. As is the case now, weigh-ins took center stage, and there was a huge Expo with more than 150,000 square feet of exhibits. Also as now, the event included a free country music concert.

Footnote: The Richmond Cup holds special memories for Virginia native son David Dudley. He won the title there on the James River and collected the first $500,000 championship payout in Tour history.

FLW Live broadcasts from tournament weigh-ins were a huge hit and soon became the industry standard.

8. Live-Streaming Pioneer: People take it for granted nowadays, but it wasn’t so long ago that live-streaming tournament weigh-ins was just an idea in the minds of a few farsighted techies. That changed for FLW in May 2003 when the weigh-in of the Walmart FLW Tour event on Kentucky Lake was streamed live over the flwoutdoors.com website for the first time. The results were an immediate success with fans. From then on, live-streaming weigh-ins was part of the program.

Footnote: Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., was a struggling newcomer when he signed up for the Kentucky Lake event, as he was still looking for his first tournament win. He got it at Kentucky Lake, winning $100,000 and coincidentally becoming the first FLW Tour winner to have a starring role in the live-streaming show on the website.

Sixth-place pro Brandon McMillan holds up two 8-pounders from day one on Okeechobee.

9. Welcome to the Century Club: No matter the fishery, it’s difficult for an angler to maintain consistency over four days of a Walmart FLW Tour event. It’s even harder to bring in five-bass limits that weigh more than 20 pounds every day. But not only did Brandon McMillan accomplish that feat in 2011 at Lake Okeechobee, he accomplished it in record-setting fashion. McMillan’s tournament-winning total was 106 pounds, 10 ounces, or a bit more than 26 1/2 pounds per day. It was no easy victory for the Clewiston angler, however. Runner-up Randall Tharp also joined the Century Club with 102-02, and Chad Prough had 100-15. McMillan’s catch still ranks as the heaviest four-day stringer in the annals of Walmart FLW Tour events.

Footnote: Casey Martin’s magical tournament on Lake Chickamauga in 2013 helped him vault to second place for all-time heaviest winning stringer in a Tour event. Using the now-outlawed (in Tour competition) umbrella rig and swimbaits, Martin boated a 103-pound, 3-ounce stringer. The event turned into a cakewalk for Martin, as he finished more than 20 pounds ahead of second-place finisher Wes Strader (80-08).

Jacob Wheeler holds the distinction of being the youngest angler to win the BFL All-American and the youngest to win the Forrest Wood Cup. He's also the only angler to have won both championships.10. Fast Out of the Gate: In 2012, when he was 21, Jacob Wheeler of Indiana won the Forrest Wood Cup. His victory came a year after he claimed the Walmart Bass Fishing League All-American crown. In either event, Wheeler was the youngest angler to have ever won, and, in fact, he’s the only pro to have captured both titles. These days Wheeler comes closer to being a mere mortal, but he’s nearing $1 million in career winnings and hasn’t finished lower than 12th in the four Cups for which he has qualified.

Footnote: Wheeler triumphed over nine other members of what arguably was the strongest top 10 in Cup history based on tournament track records. The star-studded field included Scott Canterbury (runner-up), Bryan Thrift, Scott Martin, David Dudley, Jay Yelas, Andy Morgan, Dion Hibdon, Luke Clausen and 2010 All-American champion Troy Morrow.

What Hasn’t Happened Again … Yet:

  • There has never been a repeat winner in the Forrest Wood Cup.
  • No competitor has won more than three Angler of the Year titles (David Dudley of Virginia and Clark Wendlandt of Texas have won three each).
  • No competitor other than Luke Clausen has won the Forrest Wood Cup in his rookie season (2004). Likewise, in 2004, Shinichi Fukae became the first rookie to earn Angler of the Year status.

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Walmart FLW Tour Celebrates 20th Anniversary