Like every tournament season before it, 2015 provided no shortage of excitement. There were come-from-behind victories scored by veterans and near misses that involved FLW’s young stars. Top 10s were packed with angling talent at every multiple-day pro event, while college, high school and weekend anglers duked it out in qualifying tournaments all across the country.
Paring down the exciting moments into a list of the top 10 season highlights wasn’t easy, but we managed. Let’s review the highlights that made the cut.
10. College anglers set record at inaugural FLW College Fishing Open
Held in March on Kentucky Lake, the 2015 FLW College Fishing Open tournament established a benchmark for the largest college bass tournament of all time. The top prize of a new Ranger bass boat and early entry into the 2016 FLW College Fishing National Championship attracted 194 two-angler teams to the no-entry-fee event. University of Arkansas anglers Drew Porto and Zachary Pickle won first-place honors in the two-day tournament with 43 pounds, 12 ounces.
9. Hanselman gambles, wins with dramatic canyon run
Ray Hanselman busted out in a big way in 2015, beginning with a win in the FLW Series Texas Division opener on his home waters of Lake Amistad. To lock up the victory, Hanselman made a long, dangerous run up a narrow canyon to some freshwater springs. The run itself was a highlight of the season, but it got most of its attention because FLW captured the trip with an in-boat camera. To date, more than 13,000 people have watched the video on YouTube.
8. John Cox eschews depth finders, nearly wins AOY
Going into the final Walmart FLW Tour event of 2015 on the Potomac River, most folks thought John Cox was going to win the Angler of the Year title on a fishery that was a seemingly perfect fit for the Florida pro’s skill set. In the end, it wasn’t meant to be. Cox finished runner-up to Scott Martin. Yet, his story was nearly as compelling as the AOY champ’s. Cox fished the entire season out of an aluminum boat with no depth finder. He committed to fishing his strengths as a shallow-water specialist and registered three top-10 finishes while earning more than $76,000 in the process. Cox proved that pure angling skill, instinct and decision-making can trump high-end equipment most of the time.
7. MDJ becomes the next star of Circuit Breaker
If you haven’t watched season three of Circuit Breaker yet, you might be the only one. It’s become one of the most popular online-only fishing shows, with the first episode of 2015 being viewed by more than 220,000 people on YouTube. This year’s star is Mark Daniels Jr., the working-class Western pro who uprooted and moved his family from California to Alabama after winning the 2013 The Bass Federation National Championship. Daniels is now making a go at a full-time professional fishing career. Circuit Breaker documents all of his ups and downs along the 2015 Walmart FLW Tour trail.
6. Richardson takes home the All-American trophy
Curtis Richardson’s 2015 BFL All-American victory on Kentucky Lake is a fine example of bass fishing preparation and dedication. Richardson, the Canadian angler who’ll compete on the Walmart FLW Tour as a rookie in 2016, had no experience chucking a magnum spoon on the Tennessee River prior to this season. Yet, after qualifying for the All-American via The Bass Federation National Championship, Richardson knew the mega metal would be a factor at the BFL’s championship event. In order to prepare, Richardson set up camp on Pickwick Lake, the Tennessee River reservoir immediately upstream from Kentucky Lake, and self-taught himself how to fish the magnum spoon. Obviously, it worked. Richardson used the spoon to catch 46 pounds, 12 ounces in two days to make the final cut, then sealed the victory with the help of a drop-shot.
5. Uribe wins two out West
Joe Uribe Jr. darn near won all three FLW Series Western Division tournaments in 2015 en route to locking up the division’s Angler of the Year title. The Arizona pro dominated in his win at the opener on Lake Havasu with a margin of victory of nearly 15 pounds over second place. At the Cal Delta, Uribe was in first place going into the final day, but every angler in the top 10 was within 2 pounds of his lead. A slip-up on day four cost him, and he fell to sixth. Uribe rebounded with his most dramatic finish of the season at the finale on Clear Lake. With a slim 6-ounce lead going into the final day, there was speculation that “Little Joe” might come up just a bit shy once again. No stopping him this time, though. Uribe skated through to victory by a 1-ounce margin over Californian Jody Jordan. He secured the AOY title by a 40-point margin.
4. Scott Martin wins AOY with comeback at the Potomac
First it was Wesley Strader. Then it was John Cox. Finally, Bryan Thrift threw his hat in the ring. Each of those pros was the “favorite” to win the 2015 Walmart FLW Tour Angler of the Year title at some point in the season. In the end, none did. It was Florida veteran Scott Martin who claimed his first-ever AOY trophy on the final weekend of the season at the Potomac River. At no point during the year did Martin ever really dominate. In fact, he never led the race until the very end. Yet, that’s sort of the moral of his AOY story: Consistency pays off. Martin is known as a tournament winner – the type of pro who takes chances that can reward him with major titles or burn him with disappointment. He made a change in his tactical approach this season, with more focus on making cuts than winning tournaments. The strategy worked: Martin made the top 20 at five consecutive tournaments, including the finale.
3. Wendlandt gets a helping hand from Shin, returns to winning form
A lot of things have to go a pro’s way in order to win a Walmart FLW Tour event. In the case of Clark Wendlandt’s win on the Potomac River, victory was made possible thanks to the generosity of fellow pro Shinichi Fukae. After Wendlandt suffered a mechanical issue on the third day that threatened to knock him out of contention, Fukae offered up his boat to the Texas veteran to finish out the day. In the process, Fukae basically surrendered any possibility of making it to the top-10 round. Wendlandt went on to win the tournament, while Fukae was honored for his actions with the Forrest L. Wood Sportsmanship and Community Leadership Award prior to the Forrest Wood Cup in August. For FLW fans, it was a demonstration of sportsmanship that might never be matched, and it was proof that Wendlandt was back to fishing at 100 percent in the wake of a medical issue that forced the three-time AOY champ to withdraw from the Tour in 2014.
2. Drama ensues on day four at the Forrest Wood Cup
No Forrest Wood Cup is without its dose of bass-fishing drama, but the 2015 title bout on Lake Ouachita was ripe with interesting story lines that came to a head on the final day. Jacob Wheeler was running a combo pattern of targeting schooling fish and bream-eating bass – and he’s one of the best in the world at figuring out the late-summer bream pattern. He held the lead after three days and was threatening to become the first two-time winner of the Forrest Wood Cup. Easier said than done – behind him in the top 10 were veterans Ramie Colson Jr., Bryan Thrift, Larry Nixon, former Cup champ Scott Martin and Chris Baumgardner, plus up-and-comers Brad Knight, Brandon Cobb, Mark Daniels Jr. and Zack Birge.
Meanwhile, Knight had uncovered a unique shallow pattern in a particular creek far upstream on Lake Ouachita. No one really thought the area could produce bass for four days in the August heat, especially since Cobb and Daniels had found the area and fished there all week too. Going into day four, Wheeler was the favorite to win, but Knight couldn’t be written off. Most thought that if he could have his area to himself, Knight could win. Daniels, knowing the potential of the spot to produce a giant bag, decided to stay and swing for the fences alongside Knight.
The two competitors were respectful of each other, but in the end, Daniels never connected, and it was Knight who stole the show with a final-day bait changeup – switching from his “shallow-shot” rig to a crankbait. Wheeler struggled all day when a thunderstorm rolled across Ouachita and wiped out his dreams of a repeat win, and the final headline told it all: “Knight Slays Ouachita.” The Tennessee pro won the Forrest Wood Cup and its $500,000 top prize.
1. Hanselmania captivates the fishing world
No one will forget Brad Knight’s dramatic Forrest Wood Cup victory, but no one will forget a single one of Ray Hanselman’s 2015 victories either. Hanselman won all three regular-season FLW Series Texas Division events and followed them up by winning the FLW Series Championship on the Ohio River in October. So much has already been written about Hanselman’s season and the excitement that FLW’s media team dubbed “Hanselmania,” but to summarize: Hanselman was never lower than seventh place at any point in the season. He took over the lead on the second day at every tournament that he won and never relinquished the top spot. His smallest winning margin was 5 pounds, 8 ounces; 12 pounds was the largest. He won with a variety of techniques on a variety of fisheries throughout the season, and proved that he can win outside his home state at the Championship.
The fishing and hunting guide had come close to major victory in the past, but he blamed mental breakdowns for his shortcomings. In 2015, Hanselman overcame the barriers and experienced an unprecedented breakout season in terms of national exposure. Of course, most folks in Texas already knew he was a force in the Lone Star State. Now that he’s qualified for the 2016 Forrest Wood Cup, we’ll have to wait and see if Hanselman’s streak will continue and how he’ll fare against FLW’s best on the sport’s biggest stage at Wheeler Lake come August.