By Todd Ceisner
Everybody has a fish story. Some are better than others, but it's going to be hard to top the one Anthony Gagliardi has about his 2014 season. Wait until you hear the ending.
Six months ago, he was left questioning whether it was worth fishing the remainder of this year's FLW Tour schedule. In February, he was disqualified for a rules violation that occurred in practice at Lake Okeechobee and figured then his odds of qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Murray (his home lake) were too long to overcome.
After deciding to continue fishing the rest of the schedule, he stormed through the final five events and snuck into the Cup field by 1 point.
This week, he had to deal with the pressures of being the hometown local favorite at the Cup. Sure, he got to sleep in his own bed, but he also had hundreds of places he could've fished and years of experience on the sprawling impoundment, which can sometimes be a detriment. He avoided those pitfalls this week and after day 3, he was in 3rd place, less than 2 pounds off the lead.
On Sunday, he punctuated his incredible comeback in storybook fashion, edging Scott Canterbury by the slimmest of margins – 1 ounce – to capture the Forrest Wood Cup and $500,000 prize in front of an adoring crowd at the Colonial Life Arena in Columba, S.C. The margin of victory would've been 5 ounces had it not been for a dead fish in Gagliardi's bag, but based on the season he had it seemed fitting that the outcome be as close as possible.
“This is unbelievable,” said Gagliardi. “To win the Forrest Wood Cup, no matter where it is, is the most prestigious event that I could win in our sport. But to do it here, in front of all of these people who were rooting for me, it really just makes it so much more special."
After day-3 leader Brent Ehrler's final fish slid into the weigh tank and his weight came up short, Gagliardi pumped both fists in the air and looked up, an expression of both relief and disbelief on his face. Within seconds, he was lost in a sea of confetti as his wife jumped into his arms.
“I’ve never felt like I did this morning,” he said. “I was running down the lake, the camera helicopter was running beside me. The feeling that I had, just being here, in this tournament, on my home lake with the support that I’ve had – it was such a special feeling that I’ve never experienced before in a tournament.”
His 13-14 bag today gave him 51-02 for the tournament and his 1-ounce victory eclipsed Greg Hackney's 3-ounce win at Pittsburgh in 2009 for smallest Cup-winning margin. The Top 5 today was separated by a mere 11 ounces.
Canterbury, who also finished 2nd at Lake Lanier in 2012, caught 13-14 to close with 51-01.
Ehrler bagged 11-10 today, his smallest stringer of the event, and settled for 3rd with 50-11. Casey Ashley caught 14-00 and finished 4th with 50-07. Steve Kennedy's 20-02 stringer was the biggest of the tournament and it brought him from 10th to 5th with 50-07. Ashley won the tiebreaker based on his day-3 standing.
Here's a look at how the Top 10 finished up:
1. Anthony Gagliardi: 51-02
2. Scott Canterbury: 51-01
3. Brent Ehrler: 50-11
4. Casey Ashley: 50-07
5. Steve Kennedy: 50-07
6. Matt Herren: 48-00
7. Bryan Thrift: 44-06
8. Michael Wooley: 43-04
9. Scott Martin: 35-13
10. Jacob Wheeler: 33-07
At different points during the final weigh-in, several anglers were convinced they were going to walk away as the winner – Kennedy was sure he'd done enough to pull off a 10th-to-1st rally, then had Ashley bump him off by virtue of a tiebreaker. Then Canterbury took over the top spot, but his stay was short-lived once Gagliardi weighed in.
Murray was a junk-fisherman's dream this week, with fish available in brush, on the bank, up the rivers on visible targets and chasing bait on the lower end. Gagliardi won it with a one-two combination of schooling fish and shallow brush in the river, but Sunday he stayed with his pattern of casting fluke-style baits to bass chasing bait to the surface down toward the dam.
Details of Gagliardi's and the other top finishers patterns will be published soon.
Gagliardi had to overcome an unfriendly encounter with a local angler at his first spot this morning.
Gagliardi Stuck With Schoolers
> Day 4: 5, 13-14 (19, 51-02)
While Gagliardi mentioned the unique feeling he had while running down the lake this morning, he also had a unique experience once he arrived at his first spot.
After running from Dreher Island State Park down to the Saluda Dam, he was greeted at his first spot – a point where fish tend to school up and chase herring and shad – by a local angler who Gagliardi says doesn't have the best reputation on the lake.
"There was a little boat on the spot that I wanted to start on and I went ahead and pulled in there," he said. "I wasn't going to not fish there. The fish started to come up and they were schooling all over the place between him and me and on the other side of him. You could tell he was agitated right off the bat. He started cussing at me when I first got there.
"He wasn't mad that I was there, but he was upset that I brought a flotilla with me because now everybody saw where his hole was. That's what it was all about. He said, 'I can't believe you brought all of these boats. Now, they're going to see where I'm fishing.'
Upon being told by Gagliardi that he was fishing in a tournament and wasn't sure what he wanted him to do, the man told Gagliardi he needed to "go out and get a real job."
"I took my hat off and rubbed my head because I didn't know what to say to that," Gagliardi said. "We never argued. I never got mad or said anything abrasive. He was there a good hour and I had to fish around him and through him and over him. I threw over his line a couple times when they'd break on the other side of his boat. I didn't care. He finally left on his own accord."
Gagliardi admitted that the encounter got in his head a bit.
"He rattled the heck out of me," he said. "I was torn up this morning. Every time those fish would come up on the other side of him and I couldn't throw at them or he'd throw at one that I was trying to throw at, I was a basket case this morning because of him."
He managed to catch a limit there after catching three keepers from the spot on day 3.
"It was not an area I even practiced on, but I'd caught them schooling there years ago," he said. "When I was running down past there each day, on the second day around noon as I passed that point, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was a fish and I watched it as I rode by and I didn't see anything else. I went on down and fished my other hump deal and never really thought about it after that. Yesterday, I went down and fished my hump and figured I'd go over to where I thought I saw that fish. When I got there there were a couple of birds just hovering around and one or two came up as soon as I set the boat down.
"I had a feeling when I got there that I had just caught the tail end of those fish schooling. That's where I started this morning. It was either that or I was going to start up the river on my shallow brush. It was one of those two and I figured it was give me a chance to catch a big bag, but then I got to thinking that if I did that, I might not catch much at all going up there and then I'll have wasted it and lost any time that I might have down on the lower end where I could possibly catch some schoolers. I decided to start there and that was definitely the right decision. They were there. There was a ton of big fish there."
Scott Canterbury reacts after losing a key fish on Sunday.
2nd: Canterbury Had His Chances
> Day 4: 5, 13-14 (19, 51-01)
Despite losing what he's sure was the winning fish, Canterbury was pleased with how his week unfolded and the adjustments he made mid-tournament.
"I feel good. I fished good this week," he said. "I fished on instincts after day 1. Day 1 sort of shot it for me by only weighing in four fish. I tried to force things to happen instead of just going fishing. Today, I had a couple of missed opportunities, but I did all I could do. I fished really good and fished my gut instincts and finished 2nd. I beat everybody but Anthony. He deserves it. He really showed out this week."
After getting dialed in on a flipping pattern in a creek upriver on Saturday, he had to adjust today.
"I figured them out about lunch," he said. "I started running sun and shallow wood and I caught them. I had a chance to have a really big bag today, but I just didn't capitalize. I still feel good about the way I finished."
The good one he lost, he figures, was a 5-pounder, at least.
"It was a weird bite," he said. "I hopped the jig under a dock and as it's going down, I felt him tick it and it starts going away from me instead of coming out toward me. You have to set the hook and turn the fish. I set the hook and got him turned and it was a 5-plus. I get him out from under the dock and he's 10 feet from the trolling motor and he just comes up, jumps and that's it. There's nothing I could've done differently. I set the hook as hard as or maybe harder than anybody on tour. I've caught a million on a jig and it just wasn't meant to be. That's all I can say."
3rd: Six Bites For Ehrler
> Day 4: 5, 11-10 (20, 50-11)
Ehrler played a hunch on day 3 and tied up a double-fluke rig and caught a double on his first cast. He was hoping it would continue to be a key producer for him today, especially around the schooling fish on the lower end.
"Each day developed as the day went on," he said. "The best day was day 3 when it was overcast all morning. You could run around and catch them pretty easily. Today was different.
"Anthony said something about getting right on the fish and them not biting. They were doing that today where I was at, too. I saw some 2 1/2- to 3-pounders coming up and I'd land the bait right top of them and they wouldn't bite. Every other day, if you got within 5 feet of them, they'd bite it and today they didn't. I'm not sure why, but that was the key for me doing well."
He had six bites today and landed five.
"I didn't have that great of a practice," he added. "My game plan was to fish some of the school fish in the morning and then run a mix of shallow topwater and deeper brush piles with a drop shot."
Steve Kennedy put a charge into the weigh-in with the tournament's biggest bag on the final day.
4th: No Rest For Ashley
> Day 4: 5, 14-00 (20, 50-07)
Ashley was one of three two-tour pros to make the final day. He'd come straight from the Delaware River Elite Series tournament last week and will leave Monday to head to New York for next week's Cayuga Lake Elite Series.
He said the demanding schedule seems to help him simplify his approach, even on a lake where he has a lot of history.
"I seem to fish a lot better when I'm tired, just beat down," he said. "I guess in your mind you can't just race around. You get set in your mind what you want to do and how you're fishing and you let things developing instead of trying to make something happen."
Rather than target the schooling fish on the lower end, he stayed shallow all tournament and covered as much water as he possibly could with a popper and a buzzbait. The last two days, though, he finished his limit out of deeper brush.
"I had six keepers today," he said. "It was typical August fishing here. The key was to get that big bite early in the morning."
5th: Kennedy Baffled
> Day 4: 5, 20-02 (20, 50-07)
The big fish Kennedy had seen earlier in the week in the area he was fishing finally showed back up today and they wound up in his livewell. At worst, he felt like he had two 3-pounders and three 5s, which would've given him 21-00. He was certain the last fish he caught – his kicker – had clinched an improbable rally from 10th place for him.
"It wasn't what I expected," he said. "I thought I had more. I thought I won with that big one. That was the last one I caught, too. I thought I had it.
"Today, I went up there looking for just those big bites. I knew I needed 20-plus pounds to have a shot at this thing. I made it happen. That's all I can say."
> Day 4 stats – 10 anglers, 6 limits, 1 four, 1 three, 2 ones.
> Michael Bennett's Cup-winning weight at Murray in 2008 was 52-03.
1. Anthony Gagliardi -- Prosperity, SC -- 13-02 (5) -- 10-03 (4) -- 23-05 (9) -- 13-15 (5) -- 13-14 (5) -- 51-02 (19) -- $500,000
2. Scott Canterbury -- Springville, Al -- 10-00 (4) -- 11-03 (5) -- 21-03 (9) -- 16-00 (5) – 13-14 (5) -- 51-01 (19) -- $60,000
3. Brent Ehrler -- Redlands, Ca -- 13-05 (5) -- 12-07 (5) -- 25-12 (10) -- 13-05 (5) – 11-10 (5) -- 50-11 (20) -- $50,000
4. Casey Ashley -- Donalds, SC -- 9-00 (5) -- 11-14 (5) -- 20-14 (10) -- 15-09 (5) – 14-00 (5) -- 50-07 (20) -- $40,000
5. Steve Kennedy -- Auburn, Al -- 9-13 (5) -- 9-15 (5) -- 19-12 (10) -- 10-09 (5) -- 20-02 (5) -- 50-07 (20) -- $35,000
6. Matt Herren -- Ashville, Al -- 10-04 (5) -- 10-14 (5) -- 21-02 (10) -- 11-15 (5) -- 14-15 (5) -- 48-00 (20) -- $30,500
7. Bryan Thrift -- Shelby, NC -- 14-09 (5) -- 10-07 (5) -- 25-00 (10) -- 13-14 (5) – 5-08 (3) – 44-06 (18) -- $26,000
8. Michael Wooley -- Collierville, Tn -- 9-08 (4) -- 14-12 (5) -- 24-04 (9) -- 8-09 (3) -- 10-07 (4) -- 43-04 (17) -- $24,000
9. Scott Martin -- Clewiston, Fl -- 13-06 (5) -- 7-08 (5) -- 20-14 (10) -- 11-09 (5) -- 3-06 (1) -- 35-13 (16) -- $22,000
10. Jacob Wheeler -- Indianapolis, In -- 12-05 (5) -- 11-13 (4) -- 24-02 (9) -- 7-02 (3) -- 2-03 (1) -- 33-07 (13) -- $20,000