By BassFan Staff

Drew Benton’s goal last year was to try to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series. He fell just short, finishing 13th in the Southern Open points. He wasn’t a big fan of the schedule for the Southern Opens this year, so he decided to sign up for the FLW Tour.

Looks like he made the right choice.

Competing in his first Tour event in his home state during his favorite time of the year to fish, the 24-year-old engineered a modest 13-04 stringer today to give him a 4-day total of 75-07, which was more than enough to hold off Brent Ehrler and win the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour season opener.

He did it in dramatic fashion to boot.

Benton accounted for about half of his weight with a kicker caught with less than 10 minutes left in the day. Otherwise, Ehrler likely would’ve walked away with his fifth Tour victory. Benton is the fourth angler to win his Tour debut at Okeechobee, joining J.T. Kenney (2002), Ray Scheide (2004) and Brandon McMillan (2011).

“To be honest, this takes a lot of pressure off for the rest of the season since I’m having to fund all of this on my own,” he said after earning the $100,000 winner’s share. “I don’t have a title sponsorship deal. It’s just a real relief that I can fish the rest of the year and not have to worry about the financial side of it so much.

“The $100,000 is not going to last forever, but it’s a big deal. That’s not even touching on the aspect of it being a dream for me to do this my whole life and then for it to happen in the first big Tour event I’ve ever fished. That’s just unexplainable. I can’t really put it into words.”

Ehrler, who’s struggled mightily in the past at the Big “O”, had the day’s heaviest sack at 14-05 and that pushed him up a spot in the standings with 70-08. Twenty-one-year-old Michael Neal caught 13-01 today and climbed to 3rd with 67-12. He was followed by Wade Hendricks in 4th with 66-13 and Rick Cotton in 5th with 66-11.

Here's how the rest of the Top 10 finished up:

6. Casey Martin: 61-14
7. Bryan Thrift: 60-14
8. Adrian Avena: 58-13
9. Chad Grigsby: 55-10
10. Philip Jarabeck: 55-06

Just five of the 10 finalists managed 10 pounds or more today, an illustration of just how tough conditions were. The wind howled again and made it difficult on those who were looking at bedding fish and others whose areas were exposed to the elements.

By no means did the lake show its true potential this week as evidenced by the weights. Benton’s winning total would’ve been 3rd in last year’s FLW Tour Open and 11th in the 2011 Tour event. The big fish were nearly unpredictable and heavy pressure in known productive areas certainly had an impact as the event wore on.

The next stop on the Tour schedule will be March 7-11 at Lewis Smith Lake in Jasper, Ala.

FLW/Rob Newell
Photo: FLW/Rob Newell

Benton threw a swimbait and fluke-style bait while seeking out bedding fish.

Back And Forth Day For Benton

> Day 4: 5, 13-04 (20, 75-07)

Benton was hopeful that the area that had produced so well for him the first 2 days would bounce back today after being ravaged by Saturday’s wind. While it didn’t kick out the numbers, he got the one bite that mattered most there at the end of the day.

After jumping back and forth between his key spot in South Bay and a stretch along the North Lake Shoal, he finally finished his limit up north around 2 p.m.

“I never really pressed all day,” he said. “I will say I’m proud of that. Even my cameraman said he noticed that I wasn’t too worried. I felt like it was so tough at the time when I had that limit, I just wanted to stay in the Top 5 after how the day went. After I caught the limit, I tried to go catch a big’un.”

He moved back to South Bay and started throwing a big spinnerbait around in the breeze. With about 7 minutes left before he had to head in, a 6-pounder inhaled the bait about 25 feet from the boat. It allowed him to cull and provided the winning margin.

“It was a struggle all day,” he said. “I ran down to the place where I really expected to catch them and the wind wasn’t necessarily bad there, but I think the prolonged wind from yesterday still had an effect on them. I just couldn’t make them bite at all. I made several passes and didn’t have a bite in like an hour and a half.”

Up north, he had several fish slap at the swimbait he was burning across some pads, but couldn’t get any of them to eat it.

“For like 30 minutes, I had all kinds of fish blow up on my bait, but they just weren’t committing to it,” he said. “They weren’t trying to eat it. They were just slapping at it like they were guarding fry. I missed several bites, but it was because they weren’t getting the bait. I was getting frustrated. I did that for a while and I think I wound up with one keeper out of that stretch.

He moved back to South Bay for about 3 hours, but only had one keeper to show for it.

“I ran around and looked at beds,” he said. “I’d found a bunch of males, but I’d left them all week and I was waiting to see if the females ever moved in with them but they never did, so while I was looking at those I was throwing a Bass Assassin Dye Dapper and Bass Assassin Vapor Shad around. I picked up a couple little keepers doing that.”

2nd: Ehrler Elated

> Day 4: 5, 14-05 (20, 70-08)

Prior to this week, Ehrler’s best career finish in the state of Florida was a 53rd at Lake Toho in 2005, his rookie year on Tour. His average finish in four previous Okeechobee events was 101st. Needless to say, his runner-up showing to open 2013 came as a bit of a surprise to the Californian.

“It’s exciting. Coming here and just hoping for a check and finishing 2nd is a pretty cool feeling,” he said. “That fish on the second day is when I lost the tournament. I hate to be the guy that says, ‘Woulda, should, coulda,’ but I’m really going to regret that one.”

He’s anxious to see if the momentum will carry over to the next event at Smith Lake next month.

FLW/Brett Carlson
Photo: FLW/Brett Carlson

Brent Ehrler's previous-best finish at Lake Okeechobee was 77th back in 2006.

“Any time we start in Florida, it’s always been a tough tournament and I know there’s been a couple of years where that first tournament has been the worst one of the season for me,” he said. “If definitely gives me a good jump and some momentum and hopefully that’ll carry through the rest of the year. You never know, I might go to a lake I think I might do well at and not do well. You never know how it’s going to go in a tournament.”

He had a flurry of bites this morning and quickly boxed a 12-pound limit before he picked up his flipping stick and went looking for kicker bites. He managed one 3-pounder and nothing else as he worked along the west side of the lake.

“The wind was blowing in on the stuff I was flipping and it was trashed, but I felt like it was the only way I could get that 5- to 8-pound bite,” he said. “I stayed with it because I felt like I needed 20 to win.”

3rd: Neal Thrilled

> Day 4: 5, 13-01 (20, 67-12)

There won’t be much time for Neal to bask in his 3rd-place showing. He left Clewiston immediately after the weigh-in today and headed back home to Dayton, Tenn., so he doesn’t miss any classes at Bryant College, where he’s a junior computer science major.

“I came down here with the mentality that if I finished in the Top 50 that I would be completely satisfied with this trip,” he said. “Making the Top 20 was a bonus and moving up again today was way more than I could ever ask for. It was the first time fishing or even seeing this lake.”

It took him twice as long to get to his area in Eagle Bay today due to the blustery conditions, and once he got there, he noticed the bite was tougher as well. He only got eight keeper bites after getting double that and more on previous days.

“It definitely slacked off,” he said. “I think this cold front for these 2 days knocked them in the head.”

As he embarks on his second season at the Tour level, he’s learning quickly that the way he does things back home on the Tennessee River isn’t always going to translate to every Tour venue.

“It was just a fresh start,” he said. “I’ve got the ball rolling downhill now. Last year was a learning curve for me. I had to change the way I’m used to fishing. When I’m back home, I can just run and gun every sweet spot. I can’t do that anymore. I have to find an area and grind it out for at least 2 days and make the Top 50 off of that. If I make it past that then I’ll start going for the big bites. I’ve got a different mentality as far as how to approach a lake and practice.”

4th: Hendricks Missed Some Chances

> Day 4: 5, 12-02 (20, 66-13)

Hendricks is pleased with the strong start to the season, but it’ll take him a while to get over the missed opportunities he had today. He estimated he only landed about 30 percent of the bites he got.

“Any time you make it to the Top 10, you have to walk away with your head held high, but as far as the overall performance today, the bites were there,” he said. “I just couldn’t get them in the boat. The cover was just so intensely thick and it’s a 50-50 chance when you do hook a fish if you’re going to get it in the boat. I had some other opportunities that just didn’t swing my way that probably could’ve put a threat on the lead based on how difficult the fishing was today.”

The wind also made it difficult for him to fish his key area effectively.

FLW/Brett Carlson
Photo: FLW/Brett Carlson

Fourth-place finisher Wade Hendricks had chances to catch other fish similar to this one today.

“For me, it was basically move 20 feet, put the poles down and pitch around,” he said. “The only place I could fish to cover water was off the front of the boat because if I pitched left or right on a cross wind, it didn’t put me in any position to boat the fish because I’d have no boat control because if I did get bit, I’d have to chase the fish down to get him out.

“With the wind, it was the only way to really set yourself up for a victory once you got a bite. It slowed my ability to cover water in there. The mental aspect of the day was the hardest and trying to be patient and positive that the big bites were there even when the bite was slow. It was so tempting to run off and try to find easier bites.”

The five fish he weighed were the only five he got in the boat and among them was a 6-pounder. He lost one of similar stature and another in the 4-pound range.

He downsized baits at the end of the day to entice some smaller fish and he stuck his final two keepers within the final 20 minutes.

“The big ones just weren’t cooperating,” he added.

5th: Wind Hampered Cotten’s Efforts

> Day 4: 3, 5-08 (16, 66-12)

Cotten was committed to a jig-pitching program in an area that was at the mercy of any kind of wind disturbance and in the end, his results on the weekend (6 fish for 12 1/2 pounds) were a direct result of not being able to present his baits the way he wanted to.

“On the first 2 days of the tournament, there was maybe a 5- or 10-mph wind and when you’re throwing a 1-ounce jig from 25 or 30 feet away and you’re trying to make the perfect pitch, you can do that very easily in a 5- to 10-mph wind if you’re used to doing that,” he said. “When the wind gets up to 15 to 20 and the water gets a little more off-colored, it gets a little tougher, especially after you’ve been throwing the jig for 5 days, counting practice. It’s tough on your body. You had to make the perfect cast. You can’t hit the reeds and you had to make it touch down without a splash. It gets tough on you.”

Today, he hit the panic button a little too early, he thinks, and vacated the area that had carried him through the first couple of days.

“I ran back to the south end of the lake to a place where I thought I could catch them and I didn’t,” he said. “I caught one 12-inch fish out of there today.”

While he did let a decent lead get away after day 2, he’ll look to build on his career-best finish at the Tour level when the schedule shifts to his home state in a few weeks.

“It’s hard to feel disappointed when you come in 5th when there’s 174 anglers and you’ve got the likes of Roland Martin and Scott Martin and Ron Shuffield and Brent Ehrler,” he said. “I had a 7-pound lead on day 2 and I still didn’t feel that comfortable because I wasn’t getting that many bites and I knew if the wind got up it could spell trouble for me. The wind got up and it did spell trouble for me.

“It’s tough to get 4 days with the wind not blowing here. One day, it’ll blow out of the south. The next day, it’ll blow out of the east. The next, it’ll blow out of the west and the next it’ll blow out of the north. Especially at the Tour level, where you only get 3 days to practice, it’s tough to try to find some fish on all sides of the lake. You literally can’t do it or you will not get on big fish. In hindsight, I wished I would’ve found some fish on the east side. I never practiced over there. Today, the wind was dead out of the east. This lake can humble you in a heartbeat.”

Notable

> Day 4 stats – 10 anglers, 9 limits, 1 three.

> Due to the strong winds today, FLW opted to not use its water tank weigh-in system as it usually does on the final day of Tour events as officials couldn’t get a consistent zero reading.

Final Standings

1. Drew Benton -- Panama City, Fl -- 23-07 (5) -- 23-09 (5) -- 15-03 (5) -- 13-04 (5) -- 75-07 (20) -- $100,000

2. Brent Ehrler -- Redlands, Ca -- 19-07 (5) -- 16-10 (5) -- 20-02 (5) -- 14-05 (5) -- 70-08 (20) -- $35,000

3. Michael Neal -- Dayton, Tn -- 15-07 (5) -- 22-12 (5) -- 16-08 (5) -- 13-01 (5) -- 67-12 (20) -- $30,000

4. Wade Hendricks -- Thompsons Station, Tn -- 13-14 (5) -- 24-06 (5) -- 16-07 (5) -- 12-02 (5) -- 66-13 (20) -- $25,000

5. Rick Cotten -- Guntersville, Al -- 24-00 (5) -- 30-03 (5) -- 7-00 (3) -- 5-08 (3) -- 66-11 (16) -- $20,000

6. Casey Martin -- New Market, Al -- 26-12 (5) -- 18-09 (5) -- 8-04 (5) -- 8-05 (5) -- 61-14 (20) -- $17,000

7. Bryan Thrift -- Shelby, NC -- 17-05 (5) -- 19-14 (5) -- 14-03 (5) -- 9-08 (5) -- 60-14 (20) -- $16,000

8. Adrian Avena -- Vineland, NJ -- 21-02 (5) -- 16-09 (5) -- 10-15 (5) -- 10-03 (5) -- 58-13 (20) -- $15,000

9. Chad Grigsby -- Maple Grove, Mn -- 12-10 (4) -- 25-11 (5) -- 10-11 (5) -- 6-10 (5) -- 55-10 (19) -- $14,000

10. Philip Jarabeck -- Lynchburg, Va -- 17-08 (5) -- 19-01 (5) -- 9-04 (5) -- 9-13 (5) -- 55-10 (20) -- $13,000