By Todd Ceisner
Anthony Gagliardi can now exhale and all the lingering bitterness, disappointment and frustration can be pushed aside. All the South Carolina pro is feeling now is excitement, relief and anticipation.
With a 48th-place finish at the Kentucky Lake FLW Tour last week, Gagliardi pulled off what many thought was nearly undoable – he qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup despite having to overcome a disqualification at the Lake Okeechobee season opener (read our story here) that essentially shortened his season to five events.
And man, was it close!
Had Gagliardi finished one spot lower in any of the five tournaments he competed, he'd be a spectator at the Cup when it visits his home waters of Lake Murray next month. Instead, his 861 points were just enough to put him in a three-way tie for 36th place in Angler of the Year points and earn him a 10th career Cup berth.
"It feels about as good as when I won Angler of the Year," Gagliardi said, referring to his AOY title in 2006.
Gagliardi is believed to be the first FLW Tour pro to overcome a DQ and still qualify for the Cup. JT Kenney zeroed the first 2 days at the season opener at Beaver Lake in 2011 and didn't record a point for that event, but rallied to finish 29th in points and earn a trip to the Cup.
After day 2 at Kentucky Lake where he finished with 33-15, he sensed he was going to be real close to making it, but he didn't want to get his hopes up until it was official.
"I tried to do the math in my head and it was so close that I was afraid to let myself believe 100 percent that I was in," he said. "Nothing was official right away, but after a couple people showed me the standings, it was hard to accept at first. We did the math again and I felt confident that I was in. It was such a huge relief."
He'd been under so much pressure all season that he'd almost become immune to it, but on day 2 of the season finale he knew he had to deliver.
"It felt like the year I won AOY," he said. "At the beginning of the year, you're doing well and everything is great and you don't feel that pressure. Then you realize the first one is just as important as the last one and then it starts to hit you where you feel how important that last day is. I knew it was all riding on that one day. It had to happen then or it wouldn't happen at all."
Range of Emotions
Since the DQ occurred at the season opener, Gagliardi had time to regroup and refocus for the rest of the season, but knew he couldn't afford any slip-ups. He figured an average finish of 30th or better across the five tournaments would be enough to clinch a Cup entry. As it turns out, his average finish was 28.8.
He started with a 7th at Lake Hartwell, which gave him a big boost and he followed that up with a 30th at Sam Rayburn Reservoir and a 13th at Beaver before logging two finishes in the 40s on the Tennessee River. Knowing that his ultimate goal was to qualify to fish at Lake Murray, where he lives and captured one of his three Tour wins, amplified his desire to overcome the DQ.
"There's a sense of vindication, definitely," he said. "It was almost like I took it personal so there was a lot of vindication there. To let something silly like that happen to me and overcome it is big. It's one thing if I would've fished all six and not qualified for the Cup. That happens to a lot of people. It's another thing to have the Cup on your home lake and fish all six and not qualify. That would've been 10 times worse to know I shot myself in foot and not made it.
"I would've had so many what-ifs for rest of my life and that would've eaten at me for a long time. It's a huge sense of relief knowing I don't have to worry about all that stuff."
Now, he's able to put those negative emotions behind him and focus on preparing for what figures to be a tough event in the dead of summer.
"All the focus and emotional time I spent thinking about it can be redirected on this one thing in a more positive manner," he said. "There were still a lot of negative emptions as the season went on, but all of that is gone now. I can channel than in a more positive manner."
Flurry That Did It
While each fish he caught and weighed in during the season was crucial to his Cup quest, Gagliardi will never forget the afternoon rally on day 1 at Kentucky Lake.
"That was where I made the Cup," he said.
He'd struggled for much of the morning and had a 13-pound limit at noon, but knew he needed to make several upgrades or else he'd be under the gun to come up with a mammoth sack on Friday.
He was due to check in at 2:50 and at 2:40, he caught a 4-pounder to cull out a 2-pounder. Five minutes later, on his last cast, he made another 2-pound upgrade with another 4-pounder.
"After that, I just strapped everything down and headed in," he said. "If not for that 8-minute window, I'm sure I'd be on the outside looking in."
His 16-13 stringer gave him the confidence that he needed heading out on day 2.
"Throughout the course of the year, there were times where I would be getting down and I'd go a while without a good fish," he said. "But something good would always happen and put me back in a good frame of mind. When I caught those fish Thursday, it enabled me to have the right outlook and attitude Friday regardless of what would happen."
On day 2, he got on a good early bite and had 17-02, which was 2 ounces more than what he needed.
"I had a fish that I could've and should've gotten rid of, but luckily it didn't come back to bite me," he added. "I fished harder Friday than maybe I ever have in my career."
Gagliardi doesn't buy into the home-lake curse or jinx that some believe hinders an angler's ability to fish with an open mind on lakes they know well. He's disproved it himself by winning at Murray before, so he won't be won't be worried about it when the Cup is contested there for the second time.
"I don't see how that can be a hindrance," he said. "It's been debunked. I won here. Scott Suggs and George Cochran won Cups on their home lakes so if you're familiar with a lake, I just don't see how that can be detrimental. Every time you go out on a lake you try to learn as much as you can and that knowledge only helps you down the road."
He anticipates a similar tournament to when Michael Bennett won the Cup (and the $1 million payday) there in 2008.
"It'll play out extremely similar to the last Cup here," he said. "It's just the way it fishes that time of year. It's going to be super hot and it's not a current lake so it's tough to catch them in the summertime. Some of the fish move out and you can't ever target them. The catchable fish are up shallow. I think all 10 finalists last time were fishing shallow and I think that's how Bennett caught his fish.
"I'll try to have a lot of different things going to hopefully be able to string something together."