By Todd Ceisner
Round one of the three-round Bassmaster Northern Open slate went in the books last week with native son Ott DeFoe notching a long-awaited win at his home waters of Douglas Lake.
The Elite Series pro had been snake bitten in previous major tournaments in his backyard, but he caught a giant bag on the final day to seal up his first career Open victory and a berth in next year's Classic at Lake Hartwell. In many ways, it was a big sigh of relief for DeFoe.
He wasn't the only one smiling afterward.
Joining DeFoe among the 12 finalists at Douglas were three Forrest Wood Cup winners Ė Brent Ehrler, Luke Clausen and Jacob Wheeler Ė all of whom would likely jump at the chance to fish the Elite Series, much like DeFoe did 5 years ago when he used the Opens as a pathway to the Elites after establishing himself in the pro ranks on the FLW Tour for 4 seasons.
While DeFoe's victory was certainly a feel-good outcome at Douglas, the remaining two Northern Opens figure to be among the most important tournaments from the standpoint of the impact they can on certain anglers' futures.
For FLW Tour regulars looking for an avenue to the Elite Series, the Northern Opens were the only conflict-free option on the calendar in 2014. The first Central Open at Lake Amistad in February conflicted with the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour while the Lewis Smith Lake Southern Open was on top of the Lake Hartwell FLW Tour in March.
Aside from the aforementioned Cup champs, Michael Neal (6th at Douglas), JT Kenney (13th), Shin Fukae (18th), Koby Kreiger (24th) and Stetson Blaylock (57th) are among the other FLW stalwarts fishing the Northern Opens.
It's unfair to presume all are shooting for an Elite Series berth at this point. Some guys, like Kenney, for example, have stated previously they need to fish as much as possible, regardless of which trail, in order to pay the bills. Still, their motivation is likely the same Ė see if they can qualify and give themselves as many options as possible going into 2015.
Schedule wise, next year's FLW Tour will again be six events plus the Forrest Wood Cup. Anglers who derive their income solely from tournament fishing have said with regularity over the last two years that it's getting increasingly more difficult to make a living fishing just six, maybe seven, events a year.
There's been no word yet how many Elite Series events B.A.S.S. will offer next year, but if it sticks with the eight events it's offered in recent seasons, the extra two tournaments could be enough incentive to sway some.
Last year, there was an exodus of anglers from the FLW Tour to the Elite Series via the Opens. The group included Jacob Powroznik, Boo Woods, Justin Lucas, Glenn Browne and Chad Morgenthaler. Randall Tharp and Brett Hite also made the Elites, but opted to also fish the FLW Tour this year.
The quest for an Elite Series berth even prompted Morgenthaler and Browne to skip last year's Lake Eufaula FLW Tour event to fish the final Southern Open at Logan Martin Lake. It was a calculated risk that paid off for both men, who are enjoying fine freshman seasons in the Elite Series.
This year, veteran angler Todd Auten decided to skip the FLW Tour altogether in order to fish all three Open divisions this year in an effort to chase a Elite Series spot.
Familiar Venues Remain
For the anglers who posted strong results at Douglas, following it up with similar outcomes at Lake Champlain (July 31-Aug. 2) and Detroit River (Sept. 4-6) becomes even more important. The margin for error in a three-tournament sprint is razor thin, especially when the goal is to finish among the Top 5 in points.
Champlain, the sprawling lake on the New York-Vermont border has been a regular stop for the FLW Tour in the past so there should be an element of familiarity regardless of previous finishes. Champlain has a reputation as one of the best smallmouth/largemouth lakes in the country and should present anglers opportunities to target fish any number of different ways.
Like Champlain, the Detroit River won't be a new venue to those hoping to challenge for an Elite Series spot once the tournament rolls around the week of Labor Day.
But with 170-plus boat fields and no off-limit periods, both will be sizable hurdles.
Bottom line: The Northern Open division this year has a mini tour-level feel to it and the competition figures to only intensify over the final two events.