DEL RIO, Tex. – As Brent Ehrler – a soft-spoken, highly competitive pro angler from California – advanced round to round in the Jack Link’s Major League Fishing Challenge Cup presented by Busch Beer, one question hung over the heads of all 24 competing anglers.
Could the lone FLW angler beat 23 B.A.S.S. Bassmaster Elite Series anglers?
The anglers rarely discussed that question openly, partly because Ehrler has proven to be two things: A resourceful angler who knows how to perform under pressure. And, he’s a genuinely nice guy. Those two attributes tended to calm smack talk about whether the FLW guy belonged in the field.
Ehrler answered the hardly-spoken question in the final round, capturing the Challenge Cup crown in decisive fashion. Ehrler soundly defeated Kevin VanDam, Kelly Jordon and Mike McClelland in the Championship round.
Most bets, going into the Championship round, were on VanDam, in part because he’s considered the best angler the world, but also because he was coming off a Sudden Death round performance – a clinic – in which he reached the 40-pound qualifying cutline in roughly two hours and 30 minutes. That time frame was about three hours, 30 minutes quicker than the other three Championship round qualifiers.
Just before launching his boat into Championship round competition, Mike McClelland was asked if he felt he would be competing against the field or against VanDam.
“As much as I hate to say it, I’m trying to beat Kevin,” said McClelland. “He’s won everything for so long, I don’t want him to win this.”
McClelland got part of his wish. Only it was Ehrler who delivered on the final day.
None of the anglers competing or watching the Championship round action from the on-site studio saw Ehrler’s dominance coming. He had fished consistently well during his first two rounds, but some luck often plays a role in athletic events, and Ehrler had a touch of it in the Elimination round. A last minute catch allowed him to sneak into fourth place, a mere quarter of a pound ahead of a clearly discouraged Aaron Martens.
In the Sudden Death round, Ehrler fished against five other anglers, which included VanDam. Ehrler monitored VanDam’s stunning performance as he essentially lapped the field. But Ehrler basically put it out of his mind. He took a sizeable lead over the rest of the field, but trouble began to loom as he had a difficult time catching the last bass needed to stake his claim in the last of only two qualifying spots available that day.
“I remember thinking; I never thought I was going to win (the round). So I had to just divorce myself from thinking about what Kevin was doing,” said Ehrler. “My problem was different. I got a big lead over the rest of the guys, but it took me a long time to get that last one. I knew they were catching them behind me and getting close. So I just had to keep moving and keep grinding.”
Ehrler, after reflecting for several days on his Challenge Cup title, circled back around to the B.A.S.S.-FLW question, saying he didn’t want to “make a big deal out of it,” but he did feel he was fighting on behalf of the FLW.
“To me, winning the first Major League Fishing event meant a lot. Being from the FLW side, it meant a great deal to finish strong. A lot of that pressure was self-induced, but I’d never really had a chance to compete against those guys, so to win was good,” said the California pro.
Ehrler said he never heard “smack talk” or anything close to it from other Major League Fishing competitors.
“Well, there were a couple of jokes about me being the lone guy, but there was nothing serious about that. Those guys are all pros, and they acted like pros,” he said.
One reason that Major League Fishing is heavy on Elite Series anglers is that the format and concept of the league were created by Elite Series anglers. As the partnership with Outdoor Channel evolved and Major League Fishing became reality, the focus remained on anglers that fish the Elite Series as first priority, although many of the Major League Fishing anglers compete sporadically in FLW events.
Gary Klein admits that he thinks first of Elite Series anglers, but said Ehrler was too good to ignore.
“We will probably move in that direction (inviting more FLW anglers) in the future,” said Klein. “We’ve talked with FLW anglers about the possibility as slots open up. We’re looking for great anglers that have influence in our sport, and you just couldn’t put together a group like this without Brent.
“And he certainly proved his belonged, didn’t he?”