By Todd Ceisner
An oversight on the part of a friend and practice partner led to Brandon McMillan's disqualification prior to the start of the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour, putting the 2011 Okeechobee FLW Tour Open winner on the sidelines for this year's season opener on his home waters.
McMillan became the third pro to be hit with a DQ even before the first cast of the 2014 season. Last week, it was announced Anthony Gagliardi and Frank Clark were disqualified from the Okeechobee Tour stop because they had ineligible practice partners inside the 30-day window prior to the first practice day.
McMillan was disqualified after it was determined his practice partner, Cal Clark, was not signed up to fish as a co-angler despite Clark's belief that he had paid his entry fee.
When Clark made the 11-hour drive from Pulaski, Tenn., to Clewiston, Fla., last week, he was under the impression his co-angler entry fee had been taken care of well in advance. After practicing with McMillan for 3 days, he was informed at the angler registration meeting Wednesday afternoon that FLW had no record of receiving a co-angler entry fee from him.
Clark was then approached by an FLW official and asked if he had practiced with a pro. After he said he had practiced with McMillan, officials spoke with McMillan and later ruled a disqualification was necessary since McMillan, technically, practiced with a non-tournament contestant.
Officially, McMillan was found to be in violation of Rule 5 of the FLW Tour rules, which outlines who pros and co-anglers can practice with. The portion of the rule that applies here reads as follows:
"Pros and co-anglers may practice alone, with another contestant or with a member of their immediate family (mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, grandparent, grandchild or spouse), approved sponsor representatives or an approved youth age 18 or younger, provided the practice companion has also observed the off-limits period and procedures."
"I understand why FLW did what they did," McMillan told BassFan on Wednesday evening. "Was it 100 percent right? I don't know.
"Either it slipped his mind to make sure he paid his money or whatever, but he never could find any record that he paid," McMillan added. "I don't hold one iota of a grudge toward him. He's a good friend. I love him like a brother."
Clark, who was staying with McMillan this week, feels terrible that he let his friend down.
"The fact that it's him and it's his livelihood, it brings me down to a point I've never been," Clark told BassFan on Wednesday night. "It's hard to swallow knowing this is my fault. There's no way around it. I accept it. It was totally unintentional. Ö Brandon's one of my best friends."
McMillan was obviously disappointed about the ruling, but this latest DQ raises some questions about the responsibilities FLW puts on Tour anglers to know the registration status of practice partners/co-anglers prior to the start of practice.
Namely, should FLW generate a list of confirmed co-anglers prior to the start of the 3-day practice period and circulate said list to the confirmed pros so as to avoid such snafus in the future?
According to Chad Gay, direct of communications for FLW, pros are encouraged to contact tournament director Bill Taylor if there's a question regarding the status of a co-angler prior to the event.
"In light of recent events, it would behoove them to do so," Gay said.
'Same As Last Year'
McMillan and Clark befriended each other 2 years ago after McMillan won the Lake Seminole Southeast Rayovac (it was the EverStart Series then). Clark won the co-angler side of the event. Before the 2013 Tour season, Clark contacted McMillan and told him if he needed a practice partner for the season to keep him in mind.
The two practiced all season together and the plan was to do the same again in 2014.
Clark, who was staying at McMillan's house this week, told BassFan he remembers receiving a phone call from FLW some time last November, inquiring about his competition status for 2014. Clark said he informed the female caller of his desire to fish the Southeast Division of the Rayovac Series as a boater (pro) and also as a co-angler for the Tour.
"I remember telling the lady, 'Same as last year,'" Clark said.
After going through the financial details and payment options, Clark hung up the phone confident that his registration for both the Rayovacs and Tour were taken care of and that the entry fees would be auto-debited to his credit card. He said he has two credit cards on file with FLW just to be safe.
"It was the last I heard of it," he said. "I just assumed it was taken care of. I signed up the same way last year. I followed the same protocol as last year."
Clark fished the Lake Okeechobee Southeast Rayovac as a boater last month and stayed with McMillan, who also fished the event and finished 6th. Clark even left his boat in Florida, with the intent to retrieve it upon coming back for the Tour event.
After he was informed that he wasn't registered as a co-angler, Clark produced screen shots of recent credit card statements that reflect two separate charges for "FLW LLC." One charge was in the amount of $1,545 on Nov. 18, 2013 and the other was for $1,000 occurring on Dec. 30, 2013.
However, it's believed the first charge was to cover the three separate $500 deposits for the Southeast Rayovac tournaments and the second charge was the balance for the Lake Okeechobee Rayovac. There were no additional charges that could be linked to his Tour co-angler entry fee.
Clark said he didn't receive a confirmation of any kind alerting him his entry fee for the Rayovac had been paid so he didn't expect to receive one for the co-anger portion.
"If I had ever imagined that it would come to this, I would've asked for one," he said. "A co-angler is a co-angler and we carry no weight in this business. For a boater whose potential livelihood rests on one of these tournaments, it shouldnít be riding on whether or not a co-angler is confirmed in or not. That shouldn't be their responsibility.
"I don't do stupid stuff and I've been pretty successful in life and I usually think things through. I couldn't ever imagine something like this happening."
McMillan's DQ most likely derails any hopes he had of qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup. He would've been considered among the favorites to contend for the win at Okeechobee. Now, he's not sure what his next move will be.
"I'm not 100 percent sure what this does for the rest of my season or my career," McMillan said. "I have a full-time job (he's a driver for UPS) and I don't foresee giving that up in the near future and darn sure not now. I just don't know what to do.
"There's no way I can make the Cup. What really is the point of fishing the rest of the year? I'm one of the guys that tries to do everything by the book, especially here. It's not like I need a guy from Tennessee to tell me where to fish."
According to an article posted at FLWOutdoors.com on Thursday morning, McMillan has withdrawn from fishing the Tour in 2014.
McMillan said it's pretty common for pros to practice with co-anglers without knowing for sure if they've paid their entry fees. The assumption is made because the co-anglers have traveled to the tournament venue, gear in hand, ready to fish.
"I talked to two dozen team guys and before the co-angler steps off the dock on Sunday to start practice, not one said they ask to see confirmation that they're in the tournament," McMillan said."It sucks. It's a bad situation. It's hard enough to compete against the David Dudleys and Bryan Thrifts on a monthly basis without worrying about the intangibles and outside stuff."
Played It Safe
Initially, McMillan had planned to practice in the same boat as his younger brother Jared, who wasn't signed up for the event, but since he's an immediate family member he wouldn't have been in violation of Rule 5.
McMillan said he phoned FLW tournament director Bill Taylor last Thursday to confirm he would be allowed to practice with his brother on Sunday. He said Taylor informed him it wouldn't be a violation, but McMillan opted against it as he wanted to avoid a situation where Jared, who finished 2nd in the Southeast Rayovac last month, might inadvertently share fishing information with him. Such action would be a violation of Rule 5 and be grounds for disqualification.
Instead, McMillan chose to practice with Clark.
"I didn't want any gray area," McMillan said. "I know all eyes are on me here and I wanted to be 100 percent compliant."