By this time of the season, reality has set in on the Walmart FLW Tour. The 167 pros still in the chase know the score: Most of them will be fishing for checks at Pickwick this weekend and at Kentucky Lake June 26-29. Only a handful will be fishing for a ticket to the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Murray in August. Of this latter group, some already have a fairly good idea that their future travel plans include a summer trip to Columbia, S.C. Several more on the cusp will be disappointed, and a few will be happy. One of them might be the guy the confetti gets dumped on at the final weigh-in of the Forrest Wood Cup.
A fitting finale
It’s fitting that the final two qualifying tournaments in the 2014 season are on Tennessee River impoundments. All things considered, that river system’s TVA lakes have been the historic epicenter for game-changing events in bass fishing, and the proving grounds for so many great pros. Tennessee River impoundments collectively rank as the finest bass fishery in the nation, with ample supplies of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted subspecies. The abundance of bass suggests another Tennessee River trait that makes its lakes such popular tournament destinations: Every possible pattern, from flipping jigs into shoreline weed mats, or plumbing the offshore depths for schooling fish, comes into play – sometimes all at once during an early summer day.
That’s likely to be the case during the coming events, though nobody reasonably expects them to be much more than offshore duels among the Tour’s best ledge fishermen. It’s logical to assume that the “local guys” with their secret spots have the upper hand, but that’s seldom the case. Fishing skill almost always trumps familiarity when an angler who knows what he’s doing locates fish anywhere. Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes pro Dave Lefebre of Pennsylvania, in 2012, and Keystone Light pro Chad Grigsby of Minnesota, in 2011, proved that most recently at Kentucky Lake where they won Walmart FLW Tour summer events.
“Both Pickwick and Kentucky Lake were hit hard by the long cold winter and are fishing about two weeks behind at this point,” notes Bill Taylor, FLW’s director of tournament operations. “But both lakes are at full pool and in good shape. Catches in local tournaments are right up there where one would expect these two fine Tennessee River lakes to produce. I predict 75 pounds will win each Walmart FLW Tour event with a top-20 cut at 28 pounds.”
The early favorites
Pickwick has been famous for its jumbo smallmouths for years, but when Lance Walker caught and subsequently released a largemouth that weighed more than 14 1/2 pounds there in early 2012, the fishing focus shifted a bit. Walker’s catch put the lake on the map as a solid largemouth destination, and anglers accustomed to targeting Pickwick’s smallmouths turned some of their attention to bigmouths. In the process, the lake was transformed into more of a multi-dimensional fishery.
Pickwick’s hydrilla should produce at least a few eye-popping big largemouths in the coming days. That’s the observation of well-known local guide Roger Stegall, who notes that as hydrilla has proliferated in the lake during the past few years, the largemouth bass population seems to have profited. Last winter’s cold weather knocked back the hydrilla, but scattered pockets hold enough grass to invite shallow-water presentations.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of 6- to 10-pound largemouths now, and a lot of those fish are coming out of the hydrilla,” says Stegall. “So I wouldn’t count out the guys who know how to fish the weed mats, especially if they have some ledge spots going for them too.”
It’s doubtful that the eventual winner at Pickwick will spend a lot of time fishing grass, however. Ledge master Mark Rose, the Walmart pro, won at Pickwick in 2011, the last time the Tour visited there, by more than 5 pounds over runner-up Kevin Snider of Kentucky. The latter isn’t fishing the Tour this season, but Randy Haynes is, and he’s another west Tennessee ledge expert who’s a wizard with electronics. Haynes joined the Walmart FLW Tour last year, and his win at Lake Eufaula provided strong evidence that he belonged in the top tier.
If anyone needed additional proof of Haynes’ ledge-fishing ability, it came at the Rayovac FLW Series Central Division tournament on Kentucky Lake last weekend, which Haynes won with a three-day stringer that topped 75 pounds. That event was considered a tune-up for both Pickwick and the last 2014 Tour stop on Kentucky Lake. Haynes, Jason Lambert (who finished second in the Rayovac competition with 73-7), Rose (third, 71-3), Barry Wilson (fourth, 70-2) and Brandon Hunter (fifth, 69-13) are all offshore journeyman and will be among the pre-tournament frontrunners at either event.
Forrest Wood Cup implications
A lot of things are going to get settled in June besides who gets the six-figure paychecks at the last weigh-ins. There’s also the matter of the pros who are going to the Forrest Wood Cup. Pickwick will provide some good clues, and Kentucky Lake will settle all bets.
Among the contenders to watch are Haynes, who’s in 70th place heading into Pickwick; Lambert, in 63rd place; and Chevy pro Anthony Gagliardi, currently in 44th place despite having missed the first Tour event of the season at Lake Okeechobee. Haynes and Lambert will have to put together two extraordinary finishes each to reach the championship – but it’s possible.
Gagliardi, of Prosperity, S.C., will be one of the favorites to win the Cup if he can qualify for it. That would require a pair of solid performances. Just ahead of him, in 43rd place, is Andy Montgomery. Another South Carolina pro who seems to be flying under everyone’s radar screen now, Montgomery will be tough to beat on Lake Murray ¬- providing Pickwick and Kentucky Lake are kind to him.
It’s purely coincidental, but the 2014 Angler of the Year race is shaping up as an East-West test of sorts that pits current leader and defending AOY Andy Morgan and Rose (currently fourth) against Californians Cody Meyer (second) and Brent Ehrler (fifth). Of course, Rayovac pro Jacob Wheeler (third), Shin Fukae (sixth) or Jason Christie (seventh) have something to say about it as well, but the nod has to go either to Morgan because of his consistency, Rose because of his mastery of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s western impoundments, Ehrler because he’s a proven winner on any body of water and Meyer because he’s had a red-hot season with three top-10 finishes.
So how does this quartet size up against the likely factors that will come into play at Pickwick and Kentucky Lake? Consider a couple of probabilities that will play big factors in both tournaments:
• Likely patterns – It’s summer on the Tennessee River, the water is hot and the shad schools are bunching up offshore. Sure, it’s possible to pick up some kind of limit early inshore on topwaters or by flipping, but the big sacks at Pickwick and Kentucky Lake will be caught offshore. The ledges are going to get worked over with crankbaits, jigs, big soft plastics and jigging spoons. Among this group, Rose is the shoo-in on both lakes.
• Hot weather and angler performance – In June, the average air temperature in Florence, Ala., is 88 degrees. By late June, the average air temperature in Aurora, Ky., is hitting 90 or so. Last year, nearby Paducah recorded a high of 94 on June 27. In 2012, the air temperature hit a record 108 degrees on June 29. Kentucky Lake, in particular, is going to be an endurance test. The advantage goes to Andy Morgan and Rose, who grew up spending sultry days on Southern lakes, rivers and oxbows. It gets hot in California, too, especially this year, but as the old saying goes, it’s not the heat, but the humidity that gets you and affects your game.
There’s more at stake
Beyond the AOY, there are other issues at stake in the final two events. The Rookie of the Year race on the pro side is shaping up to be a neck-and-neck finish among current leader Shane Lehew (586 points and 31st overall) of North Carolina, Jeff Sprague (578 points, 35th) of Texas and Keith Amerson (558 points, 42nd) of Tennessee. The smart money is on Amerson, who lives in Selmer, Tenn., near Pickwick Lake and not so far from the southern end of Kentucky Lake. Five of his top-10 finishes in Walmart Bass Fishing League tournaments have come on Kentucky Lake.
Even the Co-Angler of the Year race is tight, in part because of the vagaries of the pro partner draw, but also because the fishermen at the top balance each other in talent. Missourian Nick Loeffelman Jr. is the current leader by 36 points over Ken Coats of Oklahoma, and he’s 41 points ahead of Brian New of North Carolina. Loeffelman claimed the fifth spot at Okeechobee in the season-opener, followed by finishes of 19th, 11th and fifth at Lake Hartwell, Sam Rayburn and Beaver Lake, respectively. Looking at the stats, New has been the most consistent of the trio since a 68th-place trainwreck at Okeechobee. A traveling companion of Chevy pro and fellow Tarheel Bryan Thrift, New had finishes of third, seventh and third, respectively, in the last three tournaments.