Imagine being a weekend bass fisherman and having a shot at a $1 million payday, competing against the likes of David Dudley, Jay Yelas and Larry Nixon. Those dreams have come true for a handful of weekend warriors from the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, Ranger Owners Tournament Championship Series and The Bass Federation.
In the past, the year-end championship was purely a tour-level contest held for only the most accomplished professionals on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour. In 2006, FLW Outdoors introduced the Wal-Mart FLW Series and restructured the format of the Forrest Wood Cup for 2007, allowing a few talented, if not lucky, weekend anglers the chance to compete against the sport’s elite.
This concept is not entirely new. In 1994 Bryan Kerchel won the Bassmaster Classic on High Rock Lake in Greensboro, N.C., as a TBF qualifier. At the time, the Bassmaster Classic was the most lucrative event in professional bass fishing. Kerchel won $50,000 in that tournament, but even more impressive is that he did so with very little experience at the tender age of 23. Tragically, Kerchel died in an airplane crash just four months after winning the Classic. But his performance proved that any angler, regardless of reputation or rank, could compete at the highest level, so long as he possessed the necessary skill set. However, Kerchel is the only amateur to date to win a tour-level championship.
All-American champion takes aim
Fast forward 13 years, and BFL boater Shonn Goodwin already considers himself a lucky man, having earned a six-figure payday at the 2007 BFL All-American. With an even bigger tournament looming, Goodwin is using the Forrest Wood Cup as a steppingstone to become a full-time touring professional.
“I’ve made the commitment to fish full time next year on the FLW Tour,” he said. “This upcoming tournament pits the best of the best against each other. I’ve got my work cut out for me, but that’s the great part. It’s a great measuring tool to see if I can compete against these guys.”
Having fished a few Stren Series and BASS Invitational events, Goodwin isn’t intimidated by the prospects of competing against legendary fishermen.
“When you first get to the lake to start practicing and you see their boats, you wonder, `What am I doing out here with these guys?’ It’s a little tough, but I just have to focus on what I’m doing. Ten years ago, it would have really shaken me. But now I realize that I can’t control what Jay Yelas does. I have an enormous amount of respect for guys like Yelas, Mark Davis and Larry Nixon. But I’m just going to focus on my fishing.”
The Moore, Okla., angler’s main goal for the tournament is to catch a limit on each of the first two days of competition. In what is projected to be a tough bite, he hopes that will be good enough for a top-10 finish. If he qualifies for the final round, he’ll swing for the fence.
“Fishing the FLW Tour is a huge commitment. I’m hoping to win enough at the Cup to cover my expenses for the FLW Tour next year. To do that, you basically have to be in the top 10. But make no mistake, I want to win this tournament just like I wanted to win the All-American.
“For the longest time, I didn’t even realize that winning the All-American qualified you for the Cup. I think I found out during the top-10 meeting (at the All-American). Believe me, that was a huge bonus. In my opinion, there are three major titles in professional bass fishing: the All-American, the Forrest Wood Cup and the Bassmaster Classic. I’m fortunate enough to have a chance at two of them, and I’m honored to be representing the grass-roots angler.”
Pope takes the short route
Roger Pope took the express route to the Forrest Wood Cup. It was a long shot, but Pope signed up for the first of two Rangers Owners Tournament Championship Series events in hopes of earning a Forrest Wood Cup berth. Each was incredibly popular: The first on Kerr Lake in Henderson, N.C., drew nearly 700 participants. But for Pope, the prospect of competing in the richest championship in the history of professional bass fishing was too good to pass up.
“I got a check at a BFL on Kerr Lake the year before,” said the Statesville, N.C., native. “I fish the lake off and on. It’s notorious for being really good in the spring and really tough in the fall. When I heard they were paying back to the top 100, I figured, Why not?
“Going up there thinking I could win it would be crazy, especially considering I hadn’t been to the lake all year. After we spent some time practicing, I went from hoping to get a check to hoping to finish in the top five.”
Pope and his partner, Roger Webber, were on good fish. Roughly a third of the way through the weigh-in, Pope and Webber placed their 20-pound, 8-ounce limit on the scale. It was the heaviest of the tournament thus far, but over 200 boats still had to check in.
“For two hours, when they were weighing those fish, that was the most nervous I’ve ever been. I thought we had a good enough weight to at least stay in the top two, but you never know. From there it’s been a whirlwind.”
Despite his great anticipation of the Cup, Pope has had difficulties finding the necessary preparation time. He is self-employed, and if he’s not working, he’s not getting paid. He plans to leave for Hot Springs on Friday night, giving him only four days to practice.
Pope said his foremost goal at the Cup is to finish in the top 40 and earn one of the many $10,000 checks. That will cover all his travel expenses and lost wages, plus put a little extra in his pocket.
“If I make it to Saturday, I think I’ll be in shock. I’ve fished in a lot of team tournaments against FLW Tour pros. I just keep telling myself it’s just a few more of them.”
Pope said the biggest adjustment will be the type of fishing. He’s an accomplished weekend angler back home, having won the 2007 BFL event on Lake Murray in addition to the Kerr Lake Ranger tournament. In North Carolina, he’s used to skipping docks and shallow stumps. Grass fishing in 25 feet of water is an entirely new monster. Still, he believes he can fish well enough to compete.
“I just want to thank everyone at FLW Outdoors and Ranger for this opportunity. For a man who works full time, this is a life-changing event. The good news is that the bass don’t know who is fishing for them. I’m going to relax and let the fishing come to me.”
Grass-roots anglers fishing in Pro Division
• Dennis Gilbert – Ranger Owners Tournament Championship Series at Kerr Lake
• Roger Pope – ROTCS at Kerr Lake
• Robert Dodson – ROTCS at Table Rock Lake
• Doyle Isom Jr. – ROTCS at Table Rock Lake
• Dave Andrews – The Bass Federation
• Shonn Goodwin – Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League