By Todd Ceisner
The way the 2013 FLW Tour started out, it had the look and feel that it may turn into the Brent Ehrler Invitational Series. Then, in the matter of a few events it turned into the Jason Christie Experience.
Ultimately, it concluded with a triumphant Andy Morgan, in his hometown no less and fishing out of a Bullet boat for the first time in more than 15 years, hoisting the Angler of the Year trophy that had eluded him so many times before in his career. To cap off the year, Randall Tharp proved you don't have to go far on the Red River to catch fish worth $500,000 in the Forrest Wood Cup.
While the FLW Tour schedule has been condensed to six events now, the 2013 season was not lacking for interesting or exciting moments and story lines.
The year started with FLW expanding its Tour field size to 175 anglers to accommodate a strong registration rate. It also marked the end of the road (for now) for the much-maligned, but incredibly effective umbrella rig. The rig played a big role in several of the events this year, including Christie's win at Beaver Lake and Casey Martin's incredible 100-pound performance at the Lake Chickamauga season finale. FLW decided to ban the umbrella rig for 2014, meaning both top-level tours have now outlawed the multi-lure rig.
With the 2014 Tour opener at Lake Okeechobee less than 2 months away, we've compiled a brief recap of each FLW Tour winning moment from 2013 below.
Lake Okeechobee Clewiston, Fla. Feb. 7-10
Despite the best efforts of Ehrler and other Tour veterans, the Lake Okeechobee season opener belonged to the new kids on the block. Six of the Top 10 finishers were either rookies or second-year Tour pros.
With the lake level up since the previous year and the fish in a transition mode coming off the spawn, the overall weights at the Big O fell well below expectations. While there were plenty of 20-pound bags and a number of 7- and 8-pound specimens caught, all of the right ingredients were lacking for a true slugfest.
In the end, Drew Benton, a 20-something from Panama City, Fla., fishing his first Tour event, found himself in the lead entering the final day. He didn't flinch, boating a 7-pounder in the closing minutes of the final day to become the fourth angler to post a win in his Tour debut at Okeechobee. It's not often a 13-04 stringer on the last day is enough to clinch a win anywhere in Florida in February, but that's exactly what Benton totaled to close out the victory.
Brent Ehrler got off to a blistering start in 2013, registering a runner-up and a win in the first two events.
He held off a weekend charge from Ehrler, who up until this year had struggled mightily not just at Okeechobee but in Florida overall.
Smith Lake FLW Tour Jasper, Ala. March 7-11
Brent Ehrler's prowess on deep, clear lakes is well documented and his performance at Lewis Smith Lake provided additional evidence that the Californian is among the best in the world when a finesse-style presentation is on the menu.
Following up his runner-up finish at Okeechobee, he took the lead on day 1 with 17-08 and never looked back in winning in wire-to-wire fashion by more than 7 pounds over Jacob Powroznik. A wacky-rigged Senko fished over and around brush piles was his primary weapon as he relied heavily on his electronics to read how the fish were positioning around the cover.
He carried a 6-pound lead into the final day and sealed the win by catching a 4 1/2-pound kicker spotted bass with an umbrella rig. It was his fifth Tour victory and fourth in the last 3 years, and it gave him the early lead in the AOY chase.
Beaver Lake FLW Tour Rogers, Ark. April 11-14
It was a year of firsts, literally, for Jason Christie. The Oklahoman competed in his first Bassmaster Classic, fished both tours for the first time and became the first three-time tour-level winner since Kevin VanDam in 2005.
The first of his three triumphs came at Beaver Lake and he did it by after scrapping his plan to target smallmouth bass after day 1. He caught a 20-pound bag on day 3 to jump from 10th place to first (he was 67th after day 1). From there, he rode the umbrella rig to victory, catching 14 pounds on the final day to win by 3-05, the smallest winning margin on Tour this year. In doing so, he avoid a painful repeat of the 2009 Beaver Lake FLW Tour when he took the lead into the final day only to come in with three fish and slip to 4th.
Lake Eufaula FLW Tour Eufaula, Ala. May 16-19
When he's not dominating tournaments on the Tennessee River, Randy Haynes lays flooring for a living.
At Lake Eufaula, a tournament that most observers thought would be won shallow, Haynes laid a beat-down on the field by doing what he does best fishing offshore. It was a bit of a gamble, but he was able to locate a handful of areas where post-spawn fish were congregating.
He averaged 17 1/2 pounds over the first 2 days, then put the hammer down with a 22-pound stringer on day 3 that gave him an 8-pound cushion. He didn't let up on day 4, bagging 16 pounds to beat Bryan Thrift by an impressive 11 pounds. After collecting four victories in the EverStart Series, Haynes finally had his first Tour triumph.
Casey Martin closed out the season with a 100-pound total at Lake Chickamauga in June.
Grand Lake FLW Tour Grove, Okla. June 6-9
In February, Christie fished his first Classic at Grand Lake, the lake he credits with helping develop his skills as an angler. The results weren't to his liking he finished 7th but he knew he'd get another shot at his home lake later in the year. That opportunity came during a high-water period in early June and after he'd already posted wins at Beaver Lake and Bull Shoals Lake two months prior.
Christie seized upon his experience in the Elk River when the water's up, flipping stretches of shoreline that he'd learned to be productive over the years in similar conditions.
Lake Chickamauga FLW Tour Dayton, Tenn. June 27-June 30
Earlier this year, Lake Chickamauga was generating endless amounts of buzz around the bass fishing world as stringers in the 35- to 40-pound range become commonplace in local tournaments. In March, Rogne Brown, a noted guide on the lake, set the 1-day BFL record with a 40-14 bag there.
Despite hitting the lake toward the end of June, Tour anglers were still curious if the Tennessee River impoundment was for real. Taking everything into account, the dock talk was that 25-pound bags would be considered giant and 80 pounds would probably win the whole deal.
With the AOY title hanging in the balance in his hometown, Andy Morgan did exactly what he needed to do to put the crown out of reach and on his mantle, notching his fifth Top-15 result of the year.
At the same time, Casey Martin was putting on a jaw-dropping performance as he ran up a 4-day total of 103-03 to win by 22-11, the second-largest margin of victory in an FLW Tour event. How'd he do it? With a super-sized umbrella rig, of course. He closed out the tournament with a 30-01 stringer on the final day and became the third Tour rookie to post a victory this year.
Forrest Wood Cup Red River, La. August 15-18
A few words come to mind when thinking about fishing in Louisiana in the middle of August. Hot is one of them.
While the temperatures did creep into the 90s during the Forrest Wood Cup at the Red River in Shreveport, it was actually a bit of reprieve from what competitors had to cope with during practice. One angler even found water temperatures of over 100 degrees in one backwater pond.
While the main river did produce some good stringers during the event, the bulk of the damage by the top finishers, including winner Randall Tharp, was done in the lily pad- and wood-laden backwaters. It was a shallow-water slugfest and it played right into Tharp's wheelhouse. He'd posted a Top-5 finish at the Red during a Central Open in April and started to get a feel for how it would fish several months later.
He settled into a strategy of catching a morning limit with a square-bill crankbait and frogs in a channel off the main river in Pool 5, then returned to the ramp area where he hoisted key upgrades and kickers out of a pad-infested backwater. It worked each day and despite ceding the lead to Thrift on day 3, he delivered a 14-pound stringer on the final day to claim the biggest payday of his fishing career.