DECATUR, Ala. – It was decision time Wednesday for 200 pros chasing a top award of $100,000 and critical Land O’Lakes Angler of the Year points in the Wal-Mart FLW Tour’s fifth qualifier of 2005: Play it safe and stay on Wheeler Lake to earn points and a possible berth in the sport’s most lucrative championship, or roll the dice and make a 70-mile run to Guntersville hoping for a win?
When takeoff commenced at 6:30 a.m., the promise of 20-pound-plus limits from Guntersville Lake was too much for nearly two-thirds of the field to stand, as they raced to the productive fishery hoping to lock back through without a delay that could cost them the tournament and a trip to the Forrest L. Wood Championship. At weigh-in, it quickly became clear that the gamble paid off in the $900,000 tournament presented by Pedigree.
FLW Tour rookie Scott Suggs of Bryant, Ark., set the pace with five bass weighing 24 pounds, 7 ounces followed by Chevy pro Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., in second with five bass weighing 23 pounds, 1 ounce and Yamaha pro Kelly Jordon of Mineola, Texas, in third with five bass weighing 22 pounds, 15 ounces. All three men fished Guntersville. In fact, nine of the top 10 pros fished Guntersville. Only Jonathan Newton of Rogersville, currently in seventh place, fished Wheeler Lake.
“The morning bite is really on right now,” said Suggs, who started the season with two disappointing finishes below 100th on Lake Okeechobee and Lake Toho then rebounded with finishes of 32nd on the Ouachita River and 24th on Beaver Lake. “We are getting to the fish just when the bite is coming to an end. If we all launched in Guntersville, it would be ugly.”
Suggs caught post-spawn bass using a chartreuse and white spinnerbait and a green pumpkin trick worm. Four of his fish, including one of the two 7-pounders that filled out his limit, came from a single 200-yard stretch of water with key productive points. The second 7-pounder came on Suggs’ first cast after leaving the stretch for another spot he’d located in practice.
“I caught a 6 1/2-pounder to a 9-pounder every day of practice, and I have a 10-pounder guarding fry that I’m going after tomorrow,” Suggs said. “I may not perform the way I should and not catch them, but it won’t be because I’m not around fish.”
Nixon used a 10-inch Berkley Power Worm and a Berkley Sinking Minnow to catch a limit, including a 7-pounder, before 11 a.m.
“If I knew they would run water in [Wheeler] I wouldn’t even think about running back to Guntersville,” said Nixon, alluding to his day-two plans. “It’s a long rough ride, but I’ve got to go back and fish where the big ones are.”
Jordon keyed on bream beds using a Lake Fork Baby Creature to put a limit, including a 7-pounder, in the boat by 10:45 a.m. And like Nixon, he views the run to Guntersville as a definite stress factor.
“It makes for a very short day,” Jordon said. “If you make a few bad decisions, or miss a few key fish, you’ve got problems. Everything just rolled my way today.”
Poulan pro Ray Scheide of Russellville, Ark. (five bass, 21 pounds, 2 ounces) and Ken Wick of Star, Idaho (five bass, 19 pounds, 2 ounces) rounded out the top five pros.
Scheide earned the day’s Snickers Big Bass award of $750 in the Pro Division with an 8-pound, 10-ounce largemouth that he caught on a 10-inch worm while fishing isolated grass. The bass was his first fish of the day.
“I was telling my co-angler about a 9-pounder I caught in practice just around the corner from where we were, and as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I hooked that fish and it cleared the water three times. That just took me to my knees, because I knew it would come off. It was incredible.”
In the Co-angler Division, freelance writer Mark Hicks, a regular contributor to Field and Stream and FLW Outdoors Magazine, leads the field with five bass weighing 20 pounds, 6 ounces. He fished with Kellogg’s pro Sam Newby of Pocola, Okla., who caught five bass weighing 16 pounds, 4 ounces and is currently 19th on the pro side.
“I learned a lot about fishing post-spawn bass today,” said Hicks, who threw a Yum Dinger, 6-inch Berkley Tournament worm, Norman Baby N and a Lucky Craft Pointer 100. “I was basically dead sticking the Yum Dinger and the worm. I never would have fished that slow if it were not for Sam. I haven’t fished tournaments in several years, so it’s good to get out here and see how the pros fish under this kind of pressure.”
Rounding out the top five co-anglers are Greg Fleming of Holly Lake Ranch, Texas (five bass, 14 pounds, 12 ounces); Mark Phillips of Fayetteville, Ark. (five bass, 11 pounds, 13 ounces); Derek Jones of Chicago (four bass, 11 pounds, 12 ounces); and Troy Cox of Bono, Ark. (four bass, 10 pounds, 12 ounces).
Leroy Arnold of Little Rock, Ark., claimed the Snickers Big Bass award and $500 in the Co-angler Division with a 6-pound, 1-ounce bass that he caught while fishing with pro Mike Hawkes of Sabinal, Texas, who is currently in 50th with five bass weighing 12 pounds, 13 ounces.
There were 79 five-bass limits caught on opening day.
Anglers will take off from Riverwalk Marina at 6:30 a.m. Thursday and 7 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Thursday’s weigh-in will also be held at the marina beginning at 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday’s weigh-ins will be held at the Wal-Mart store located at 2800 Spring Avenue SW in Decatur beginning at 5 p.m. and 3 p.m., respectively.
The community is invited to join the worlds’ top bass anglers as they celebrate the FLW Tour’s 10th anniversary in the Family Fun Zone Friday and Saturday outside the weigh-in tent in the Wal-Mart parking lot. The free Family Fun Zone, which opens at 3 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday, features interactive displays, product samples and games for the entire family to enjoy.
Following Thursday’s competition, the field will be narrowed from 200 competitors per division to 10, and weights will be cleared for Friday’s competition. Co-angler competition concludes Friday based on the heaviest one-day weight, and pros continue competition Saturday with the winner determined by the heaviest two-day weight. The winning co-angler earns $20,000 while the winning pro earns $100,000. Pros finishing as low as 50th place earn $10,000.
Anglers are also competing this week for valuable points that determine Land O’ Lakes Angler of the Year standings and the field for the 2005 Forrest L. Wood Championship, set for July 13-16 in Hot Springs, Ark., on Lake Hamilton. The $1.5 million championship presented by Castrol awards the winning pro $500,000 cash, the sport’s largest payout, and features a world-class outdoor show.
Complete coverage of the FLW Tour stop on Wheeler Lake will be broadcast on FSN June 5 and June 12 as part of the “Wal-Mart FLW Outdoors” television program. “Wal-Mart FLW Outdoors” airs every Sunday at 11 a.m. Eastern time on FSN.
Named after the legendary founder of Ranger Boats, Forrest L. Wood, FLW Outdoors administers the Wal-Mart FLW Tour and seven other national tournament circuits offering a combined $30 million in awards through 214 events in 2005. The 27-year-old organization is the purveyor of America’s largest and most prestigious fishing tournaments, including the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, EverStart Series, Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, Wal-Mart Texas Tournament Trail, Wal-Mart FLW Walleye Tour, Wal-Mart FLW Walleye League, Wal-Mart FLW Kingfish Tour and Wal-Mart FLW Redfish Series.
Wal-Mart and many of America’s largest and most respected companies support FLW Outdoors and its tournament trails. Wal-Mart signed on as title sponsor of the FLW Tour in 1997 and today is the title sponsor of all FLW Outdoors events.