The 2019 FLW Cup field was finalized a few weeks ago after the conclusion of the FLW Tour’s regular season. All 52 anglers that qualified have since been focusing their efforts on planning and preparing to try and claim the $300,000 payday Aug. 9-11 on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Ark.
For some, preparation has been in the form of map study and online research, while others have made the trek to Lake Hamilton to get eyes on the playing field, which went off limits July 22.
We talked to a few of the pros that pre-practiced for the main event to see what they learned. Here are their first impressions and takeaways from pre-practice.
Joel Willert – Prior Lake, Minn.
Willert just wrapped up his rookie season on Tour and will be fishing his first Cup.
“I wanted to go down there to just go look. Obviously, I’ve never been there,” he says. “The biggest thing for going down there was just getting a feel for the lake and the surroundings. I camp, so I wanted to figure out where the grocery stores are, boat ramps and not have to worry about all that when I get down there.
“I didn’t fish that much, but I was going from Tennessee to Kansas, and it was only an hour and a half out of the way, so I just figured I’d swing in for a few days. I heard there was lots of brush and spent time looking for that just so I don’t waste time in practice graphing. I also wanted to get a feel for how the lake sets up.”
Buddy Gross – Chickamauga, Ga.
“I would prefer to pre-practice even if it’s just for a day to get a feel for it,” says Gross. “After we finished [the Champlain Tour event] I drove 17 hours straight to come down and practice. I wanted to eliminate water. I didn’t fish but for about 20 minutes the whole time and was there for about two days. I spent the rest of my time idling and graphing around. Now, I can worry about just fishing when practice starts.
“It’s a different lake and tight quarters. And them dadgum wakeboards are everywhere. Still, I really think we’re gonna catch some fish from what I saw.”
Billy McCaghren – Mayflower, Ark.
Though McCaghren doesn’t have extensive experience on Hamilton, he is one of the local favorites because he lives about an hour from the lake.
“I’ve been on Hamilton a few times before, but it does not rank very high on my list of places to fish,” he says. “I practiced for six or seven days, which is the most time I have ever spent on the lake.
“It’s a small Lake of the Ozarks as far as docks and boat traffic go. It has some decent fish in it, and that’s gonna be the key. You need a couple 3- to 4-pound-plus bites during the tournament. There are going to be fish on deep structure and some schooling fish. We’ll see fish caught from shallow to 30 to 40 feet deep. We won’t have a moon, so there won’t be a bream spawn, and there’s no thermocline, which could make it a little interesting because it has the fish more spread out.
“I spent more time looking at my graphs, but I did fish some. The fishing was better than last time I fished there. I fished a few times in the winter and early spring, plus I fished a BFL Regional there in the fall. So I don’t really have much experience there in the summer. But I haven’t had the best luck when I fish Hamilton. This was the first trip I made it home and back safely. In the BFL I hit a big wave while turning, and it shot the boat up in the air. When I landed I spun, and the boat ran up on the bank. Another time, on the way home, a car swerved into me and wrecked my boat and truck. Hopefully things go better this time.”
Matt Becker – Finleyville, Pa.
“I spent four days down there, last Wednesday to Saturday,” says Becker, who fished the Cup on Ouachita last year. “I actually did quite a bit of fishing because I don’t have much experience in the South in the summer. I wanted to fish and learn a few things. Generally, things won’t change that fast in the summer in terms of patterns, so that’s why I spent as much time fishing as I did idling. I didn’t think it was as bad. I actually thought it was better than Ouachita. I don’t know if the lake fits me better, but it wasn’t as hard to get bites. There should be a lot more limits this year from what I’ve seen. The biggest thing to me was that there’s no standing timber; less places for fish to hide, so they’re in more catchable places. They have to be on a drop, brush pile or stay on bank.”
J Todd Tucker – Moultrie, Ga.
“The last time I was at Hamilton was in 2001 fishing the All-American. Now that was 18 years ago, and it’s gotten a lot more populated since then,” says Tucker, who will be making his first Cup appearance. “It’s a busy place. I called my dad and told him I thought there were 6,000 boats on the lake, and if there were one boat per acre, there’d be 7,000 boats. It’s gonna be a mental challenge. I sat in the middle of all the boats and caught fish. Making decisions with all those boats buzzing around will be kind of hard to do, but that’s why I wanted to make myself try it.
“I scanned the first day for 10 hours. The second day I fished, but I tried not to over-practice. I didn’t want to have to idle around during official practice. So now I can maximize my time and tournament better. But the fishing is pretty much on par from the last time I was there. It’s the same lake, and the fish are the same size.
“The water color was perfect. I liked that the water had some color to it, which could make the fish bite a little better. I think you may be able to use a few more baits than you normally would – maybe something like a spinnerbait.”