CLEWISTON, Fla. – The wind picked up and the temperature dropped Friday on Lake Okeechobee, drastically cutting the near-record weights that the top 10 pros competing in the $6.8 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour season opener had become accustomed to catching in the opening round. Despite the change, FLW Tour rookie Ray Scheide of Russellville, Ark., set the pace for the final two days of competition in the tournament presented by EverStart Batteries with five bass weighing 14 pounds, 8 ounces. He caught the limit by flipping hydrilla mats in the south end of the lake with a black and blue Gambler Cricket paired with a 1 1/2-ounce tungsten weight.
“I had no idea that I would be leading right now,” said Scheide, who qualified for the finals as the No. 7 seed after landing 10 bass weighing 36 pounds, 5 ounces during the two-day opening round. “I thought that today’s catch would maybe keep me close. My whole goal this season is to prove to myself that I can do this for a living.”
With just 4 pounds, 6 ounces separating the top five anglers and the very real potential to hook a 10-pounder on any cast, it’s still anyone’s tournament, as Friday’s weights carry over to Saturday’s weigh-in. If the wind subsides and the sun shines, the tournament could become a real heavyweight showdown for the top award of $100,000 cash.
Second year pro Chris McCall of Jasper, Texas, whose mother passed away unexpectedly Wednesday, trails Scheide by just 1 pound, 2 ounces with five bass weighing 13 pounds, 6 ounces.
Rounding out the top five pros are Team Castrol’s David Dudley of Manteo, N.C. (five bass, 10 pounds, 12 ounces); Team Kellogg’s Dave Lefebre of Union City, Penn. (five bass, 10 pounds, 5 ounces); and Shinichi Fukae of Osaka, Japan (five bass, 10 pounds, 2 ounces).
Robert Kimbrough of Vero Beach, Fla., claimed the co-angler crown and $15,000 Friday with three bass weighing 7 pounds, 1 ounce that he caught while fishing behind McCall. Kimbrough also collected a $500 Wal-Mart gift card from Castrol and $500 worth of Castrol products for the win.
“I knew my big one (weighing approximately 4-5) would go a long way,” said Kimbrough, who was fishing his first FLW Tour event. “But I never thought that I had it won. This is just awesome.”
Kimbrough caught 10 bass weighing 28 pounds, 8 ounces during the opening round to advance to the finals as the No. 1 seed. He caught his bass Friday casting a Kinami Flash in clear water along the edge of a reed bed in the south end of the lake. Kimbrough fished his watermelon colored Flash rigged with a 1/16-ounce slip weight and 15-pound test P-Line.
Rounding out the top five co-anglers are Derek Yamamoto of Mesa, Ariz. (five bass, 6 pounds, 8 ounces, $6,000); Ken Keirsey of Owasso, Okla. (five bass, 5 pounds, 11 ounces, $4,000); Mark Martin of Vidor, Texas (three bass, 5 pounds, $3,000); and Jeff Baffa of Tinley Park, Ill. (three bass, 3 pounds, $2,500).
As a tribute to Lake Okeechobee’s world-class stature, more bass are being brought to the scale this year than in any previous FLW Tour stop on the massive lake. So far, 3,168 bass weighing a total of 6,339 pounds, 13 ounces have been weighed in, smashing the previous record of 2,568 bass weighing 4,862 pounds, 7 ounces set in 2002 by a field of 175 pros and 175 co-anglers. More than 99 percent of the bass have been released alive, thanks in part to an all-new, state-of-the-art Crestliner release boat that will be used at every FLW Tour stop in 2004. If the tour maintains a 98 percent live-release rate throughout the season, Energizer will donate $25,000 to the Children’s Miracle Network.
The biggest bass of the tournament thus far belongs to Team Yamaha angler Dean Rojas of Grand Saline, Texas, who landed a 10-pound behemoth Thursday to win $750 and the day’s Snickers Big-Bass Award in the Pro Division. Rojas earned another $1,000 from Snickers for catching the heaviest bass in either division over the first two days of competition, and he stands to win an additional $5,000 in August if the fish holds up as the heaviest bass of the regular season.
Rojas also earned the Energizer Keeps on Going Award and a $500 Wal-Mart gift card for advancing to the final round as the No. 8 seed after finishing 33rd on opening day.
McCall earned the Shop-Vac Clean Sweep Award and a selection of four Shop-Vac products for advancing to the finals as the No. 1 seed with 10 bass weighing 46 pounds, 6 ounces – the third heaviest opening-round total in FLW Tour history. His impressive catch trails only Darrel Robertson’s 10-bass, 49-pound, 8-ounce catch on Lake Murray last season and Pete Thilveros’ 10-bass, 47-pound, 5-ounce catch on Kentucky Lake in 1998.
The four-day, $500,000 tournament is the first of seven FLW Tour events that will culminate with the record-setting $1.5 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship and Outdoor Show in Birmingham, Ala., Aug. 11-14, where the winning pro earns the sport’s largest cash award, $500,000, and fishing fans are treated to hundreds of displays featuring special offers on everything from crankbaits to bass boats.
Coverage of the Lake Okeechobee tournament will be broadcast to 65 million Outdoor Life Network subscribers on the “FLW Outdoors” television program. A tournament preview show featuring bass-fishing legend Hank Parker will air Feb. 8 at 1 p.m. Eastern time and Feb. 12 at 5 p.m. Eastern time, and fishing fans can watch the tournament weigh-in with hosts Carlton Wing, Taylor Carr and Charlie Evans Feb. 15 and Feb. 19. Tournament veteran Larry Nixon will host a tournament wrap-up show Feb. 22 and Feb. 26.
Roland Martin’s Marina in Clewiston will host the final takeoff at 7 a.m. Saturday, and the final weigh-in will be held at the Wal-Mart store located at 1005 W. Sugarland Highway in Clewiston at 3 p.m. The FLW Tour’s Family Fun Zone featuring product giveaways, interactive displays and games for fishing fans of all ages opens in the Wal-Mart parking lot at 11 a.m.
The FLW Tour field was expanded to 200 pros and 200 co-anglers for 2004. Pros and co-anglers are randomly paired each day, with pros supplying the boat, controlling boat movement and competing against other pros. Co-anglers fish from the back deck against other co-anglers. Anglers in both divisions competed for two days to determine the top 10 who advanced to Friday’s competition. Weights were cleared Friday, and the remaining co-anglers competed for one day to determine the winner. The top 10 pros continue competition Saturday, with the winner determined by the heaviest two-day weight.
Named after the legendary founder of Ranger Boats, Forrest L. Wood, the Wal-Mart FLW Tour is administered by FLW Outdoors, the world’s leading marketer of competitive fishing. Other FLW Outdoors-sanctioned tournament trails are the EverStart Series, the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour, the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye League and the Wal-Mart Texas Tournament Trail.
Wal-Mart and many of America’s most respected companies support FLW Outdoors and its six tournament trails. WalMart has been the title sponsor of FLW Outdoors since 1997.