By Todd Ceisner
As much as the 2013 FLW Tour season was a sensational coming-out party for Drew Benton, it was also an honest-to-goodness learning experience. From the grind of being away from home for month-long stretches and the sometimes harsh financial realities of being a pro angler to the high that comes with winning an event in his home state, he got an up-close look at the whole gamut of the business.
He caught tournament-winning fish in the final hour, like the one that carried him to victory at the season opener at Lake Okeechobee, but he also lost quality bites along the way that still irk him, like the frog fish that came unbuttoned on day 2 of the Forrest Wood Cup. The 25-year-old former college baseball player sure packed a lot into his first year on Tour. Oh, did we mention he took home Rookie of the Year honors after finishing 18th in Angler of the Year (AOY) points?
On Wednesday, as he was heading north toward the Ohio shoreline of Lake Erie where he'll close out the Bassmaster Northern Open schedule at Sandusky, Ohio, next week, he reflected back on his rookie season and what he learned about the business and himself.
"It was definitely eye-opening," he said with a wry chuckle. "The first half of the season was great. It was all I could ask for. The second half, not so much. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder right now. I want to wreck something. It's just so aggravating after having success to be struggling right now. It's all part of it, I guess."
Great Start, Slow Finish
Prior to 2013, Benton had fished three years in the EverStart Series Southeast Division and added the Bassmaster Southern Opens to his plate last year, finishing 13th in points. This year, though, he chose to make the jump to the Tour level. The start of the schedule favored him somewhat as he had been a frequent visitor to Okeechobee and had finished 12th at the Smith Lake Southern Open a year ago.
Okeechobee took him (and everyone else) by surprise. High water had the fish scattered, but he caught back-to-back 23-pound stringers to enter the weekend in 2nd place. A 15-pound bag on day 3 pushed him into the lead and he capped off the victory with a 13-pound effort that included a 6-pounder caught in the waning moments of the day.
He banked $100,000 for the win, relieving an enormous burden for the balance of the season. From there, however, his finishes progressively tailed off. He finished in the money at Smith Lake (15th) and Beaver Lake (29th), but the second half proved to be tough sledding (average finish: 74th) as the learning curve started to kick in.
At Lake Eufaula, a venue he'd fished numerous times, he got hung up on seasonal memories and it cost him.
"It was just a matter of me being hard-headed," he said. "I didn't think there would be any spawning fish left. That's what I love to do and if I'd have known that there were still fish on beds, I'd have done that one totally different. I've fished Eufaula quite a bit and I had it in my mind at that time of year they were supposed to be doing a certain type of thing instead of fishing the moment."
His 72nd-place finish at Grand Lake was due to him not getting the key bites in the tournament that he was getting in practice. Catching numbers wasn't an issue. It was triggering the 4 1/2-plus pounders to bite that knocked him down the standings.
"I had a good practice and was looking forward to it," he said. "I was getting two or three quality bites each day in practice to go with 100 3-pounders. It just seemed like during the tournament, I never got a quality bite. I caught plenty 2 1/2- to 3-pounders, but never got any solid 4- to 4 1/2-pound bites. That's just a great lake, but you can't be competitive without those big kicker fish."
His stubbornness reared its head again at Lake Chickamauga, where he focused solely on deep-water areas and bypassed fishing shallow until day 2. A mixed pattern could've helped him avoid an 84th-place result.
"I couldn't have won, but I knew it was going to be won offshore and I put all of my eggs in that basket," he said. "I had some shallow fish that I'd found in pre-practice and felt like that deal would be going on, but I never looked shallow one bit during the official practice. On the second day of the tournament, I actually fished half the day shallow and caught them pretty good. That was one of those deals where I was hard-headed again. I should've fished my strengths, which is shallow-water power fishing and not try to go out there and get out of my comfort zone.
"Things like that aggravate me when I look back at some of the stuff I did during the year. It tells me I have a long ways to go. I did good at an event that really fell into my lap. If things line up like that, anybody can win a tournament. I still have a lot to learn. I'm going to keep pressing, but I'm learning as I go. I'm going to try to not make the same mistakes twice. That's a big pet peeve of mine."
Cup of Frustration
Benton was thrilled to qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup in his first attempt, but his performance at the Red River has him yearning to get back. Like most of the competitors, he put in several days on the water prior to the off-limits period and by the end of official practice, he'd decided a run to Pool 4 offered him the best chance at a good day-1 sack.
He caught just 7-05 to open the event, digging himself quite a hole to start.
"I couldn't get them to bite and by the time I figured out they weren't biting, I tried to lock back up, but there was a barge coming down," he said. "By the time they got him locked through, the lockmaster didn't want to break the schedule, so I was basically stuck down there and I couldn't come back up until it was too late. I ended up trying to make the best of it down there."
He changed course the following day, but had no luck getting the fish that were chomping his frog back to the boat.
"The second day, I stayed in (Pool) 5 and caught a small limit early and threw a frog the rest of the day," he added. "I had so many big blowups, but only five fish actually got the frog and committed to eating it. I had all five hooked up and coming to the boat and only got one in the boat. It was like 4 1/4. All of the other ones were 4-plus, so I could've had over 20 pounds if I'd have just got them in the boat. Just things like that. It wasn’t like it was anything I could control. It was just fishing in that thick cover. For whatever reason, they'd run around a lily pad and get off.
"I had a couple in open water where there's no reason why they'd come unbuttoned, but they did. My co-angler felt bad for me and didn't know what to say. I said, 'There are days that are going to be like this and there are days where you have 5 minutes left and you pull up and catch a 7-pounder and you win $100,000.' Now I can see both sides of how it can be. It's definitely humbling."
Options Open for '14
As long as schedules don't conflict, Benton's game plan for 2014 is to fish the FLW Tour again as well as all three B.A.S.S. Open divisions. He's going to be careful, though, to not overextend himself financially based on what he learned this year.
"That was a huge eye-opener because if it hadn't had gone the way it did in the first one and I hadn't had won the 100 grand, I'd have been in the hole," he said. "It's almost the way the industry is now. They've changed the payouts and they're trying to help, but it's really like gambling when you're out there. You can be consistent, but when you have six tournaments, it's still going to cost the same for me to fish next year. If you just cut a check in all six tournaments, you're still not making any money.
"That's why we need more tournaments. Realistically, you can't do it on just six tournaments. That's the reason a lot of guys are fishing the B.A.S.S. Opens and other events. Eight or 10 would be ideal. It would make it so you'd only have to fish that one tour. I understand there are a lot of guys out there that have jobs and they can't get off that much time to fish the Tour, but for this to be what it is – a professional sport – you have to be all in. That's just my opinion."
As far as the '14 Tour schedule, he's obviously psyched to get a chance to defend his Okeechobee crown, but beyond that it'll be virtually all new water again. He's been to Beaver Lake once and Pickwick Lake twice.
"It'll be another challenge next year," he said. "I feel like Sam Rayburn is at the time of year that I can be competitive. If Hartwell is anything like what I think it's going to be, I think I can do all right there. As far as having any history on these lakes, I don't have any."