BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – As if taking his cue from fellow Western pro Luke Clausen, Brent Ehrler took to the balmy waters of Alabama’s Logan Martin Lake like a surfer to a wave. The 29-year-old pro out of Redlands, Calif., caught a five-bass limit weighing 15 pounds, 1 ounce Saturday to win the $500,000 top prize at the 2006 Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship.
“It’s pretty crazy. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Ehrler said. “I haven’t even thought about what I’m going to do with the money or anything like that yet. I’ve just been really fortunate. This is the second tournament that I’ve won, and they’ve both been championships. I think we should just fish championships from here on out.”
If that were the case, Ehrler would be hard to beat. Of the three FLW Outdoors championships that he has fished, Ehrler has won two of them: the 2004 Stren Series Championship and the 2006 FLW Tour Championship. Add to that the 2003 Stren Series Western Division Angler of the Year title, which Ehrler also won, and it has the makings of a seriously enviable fishing career – all before the age of 30.
He had to earn it Saturday. Facing a final-round field comprised of some of the heaviest hitters in the sport – not counting Ehrler, there were seven prior FLW Tour winners, four former and current FLW Tour Anglers of the Year and two former FLW Tour Championship winners in the field – the young pro calmly went out and prevailed over the competition in the heat of a day where 11 out of 12 pros caught limits.
And hot it was. Ehrler caught all but one of his bass Saturday fishing a Net Bait finesse worm on 1/16-ounce and 1/8-ounce tungsten jigheads. Like Clausen did two years ago when he won the championship at Logan Martin, Ehrler fished docks. Nothing fancy. Nothing extreme. But very effective.
“Today, I was concentrated on one little area and fished about 10 docks. It was in the central part of the lake, just north of Lakeside (Park, the takeoff point in Pell City, Ala.) I knew the potential of the area because I had caught a few big ones there. I just fished really slow and really methodically on those docks,” Ehrler said, adding that he couldn’t explain the success that Western pros have had fishing docks at Logan Martin. “I don’t know, we’re just fortunate, I guess. I mean, this lake doesn’t even fish like California. At home, if the water’s 90 degrees like it is here, I’d be fishing 30 feet deep. Here, I caught everything in 2 to 10 feet of water.”
Ehrler worked his dock pattern to a tee all week long. He caught 20 pounds, 11 ounces over the first two days – a top-15 weight – and ousted his bracket competition, Clifford Pirch, out of the opening round. On day three he caught the second-heaviest limit of the day, 13-4, to beat Ramie Colson Jr. On day four Ehrler’s limit of 15-1 edged out Ray Scheide, Clark Wendlandt, Shinichi Fukae and Jay Yelas, each of whom also caught more than 13 pounds.
And despite fishing around gnarly boat docks most of the time with nerve-rackingly light 8-pound fluorocarbon line, Ehrler broke off just one fish the entire week.
“The weird thing about it was that I’d skip the bait right past a (dock) pole and wouldn’t get anything. Then I’d fish around the dock and get a bite on the other side throwing at the same pole. It was like they just wanted it a certain way,” he said.
While his limit contained all solid 2- and 3-pound spotted bass, the winner caught his fifth fish, a 3 1/2-pound kicker, on a Lucky Craft RC 1.5 crankbait around a brush pile. So he’s no one-trick pony.
But he is a half-million dollars richer. The 12 finalists were given a ride from Logan Martin Lake to the weigh-in arena at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center Saturday in a National Guard Chinook helicopter. As he enjoyed the coolest taxi ride of his life over the hills of central Alabama, Ehrler knew he had a good bag of fish, but he never allowed himself to consider the prospect of hoisting that big blue check.
“It was never a for-sure thing,” he said. “I mean, look at Ray. He was only a half-pound behind me.”
Scheide wowed the capacity Birmingham crowd when he hoisted a kicker fish to the scale that weighed just short of 6 pounds, but when all was weighed and said, his limit topped out at 14 pounds, 6 ounces, leaving him 11 ounces short of Ehrler.
“I knew I needed 15 pounds,” the pro from Russellville, Ark., said. “I put myself in a position to win it, I got the right bites, and I feel really good about how I fished. This will just be a really strong confidence-builder for next year when we’re fishing for a million dollars (which is the winner’s payout at the 2007 Forrest Wood Championship.)”
Scheide fished a shallow-deep pattern in the back of a creek, throwing a Lucky Craft crankbait and Berkley Power worm in the shallows when the current was low and a Norman Deep Little N crankbait and a Reaction Innovations Shaky Head on a Terminator football jig in deeper water when the current came up.
“This morning I ran about 20 miles and, when I set the boat down, I caught the big one on my second cast,” he said. “I was rocking and rolling; I thought I was going to win.”
Scheide earned $50,000 for second place.
Clark Wendlandt of Leander, Texas, earned third place and $40,000 with a limit weighing 13 pounds, 9 ounces.
He and Scheide shared the same backwater area Saturday, and by the time Wendlandt arrived there, Scheide had already caught his big kicker in the shallow water.
“I kind of rolled the dice today. I had this place that I told a few friends about, and when I pulled in there, Ray was there. It was way in the back of a creek, and it was a place I’d saved until today. I’d known about it for 10 years,” Wendlandt said.
Wendlandt said he caught his fish on a Gambler Swim Blade, crankbait and worms.
Shinichi Fukae of Mineola, Texas, caught a limit weighing 13 pounds, 5 ounces and earned $35,000.
“I’m happy,” he said. “My main goal was to make the championship this year. I still cannot believe I’m here. That’s fantastic.”
He fished a dock pattern on the lower end of the lake, saying he caught bass in “many areas” and that he never spent more than 10 minutes in a single spot.
“It was bam, bam, bam,” he said, “between the start point and the lower lake.”
Fukae fished a green-pumpkin Shaky Head worm on a 3/32-ounce jighead with 8-pound Yo-zuri fluorocarbon line. He said he had been catching some 20 to 30 fish a day until Saturday, when his fish total dropped to about 10.
“I just fished whatever dock had a brush pile,” he said. “I was moving between the docks and the brush piles.”
Jay Yelas of Tyler, Texas, finished fifth with a limit weighing 13 pounds, 2 ounces. He earned $30,000.
“I caught at least 13 pounds every day of this tournament, so it was a great week,” Yelas said. “This is a great place to fish. Alabama’s a place I love to come to because I’ve got a lot of friends here.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 12 finishers at the 2006 FLW Tour Championship at Logan Martin Lake:
7th: Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., five bass, 10-11, $23,000
8th: David Dudley of Lynchburg, Va., five bass, 9-7, $22,000
9th: Brennan Bosley of Benton, Ark., five bass, 8-13, $21,000
10th: Anthony Gagliardi of Prosperity, S.C., five bass, 7-12, $20,000
11th: George Cochran of Hot Springs, Ark., five bass, 7-10, $19,000
12th: Kim Stricker of Howell, Mich., two bass, 1-12, $18,000
Catch all the action
Coverage of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship at Logan Martin Lake will be broadcast on Fox Sports Net on the “FLW Outdoors” television program. Part 1 of the championship will air Sunday, Sept. 24, at 11 a.m. Eastern time, and Part 2 will air the following Sunday, Oct. 1, also at 11 a.m. Eastern.
For a sneak peek at the action on the water, click here.