By Todd Ceisner
When George Cochran won the 2005 Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Hamilton, his winning weight (technically) was 10 pounds, 3 ounces. For that, he took home $500,000, which breaks down to a little more than $49,000 per ounce. Not a bad haul for a day of fishing, albeit stressful, high-intensity fishing, on your home lake.
To get to that final day in mid-July 14 years ago, Cochran had to survive two rounds of bracketed one-on-one fishing, a format FLW utilized for years to tease up the drama element of the competition. None of that seemed to faze the then 55-year-old Cochran, who was a two-time Bassmaster Classic winner at the time.
“A lot of the fishermen complain about this or that, but I didn’t worry about the politics,” he said. “It didn’t matter what they did.”
What mattered was devising the best strategy he could for a unique format at a challenging time of the year on his home lake. Conditions were brutally tough with water temperatures in the upper 80s. Many thought deep brush piles were going to be the ticket, but Cochran proved otherwise by relying on a pair of topwater baits and wacky-rigged floating worm to generate bites from the shallows.
“It was really special,” said Cochran, who retired from FLW Tour competition in 2012. “I was getting close to the end of my career and having a world championship event on the lake I live on was like a gift from God. I had my family and all of my friends there. I had already won two Classics and my goal was to win a championship with FLW. The money wasn’t bad either.
"It went perfect for me the whole week. When you get older, everything has to go right for you to win and I didn’t lose any fish. Everything went my way.”
Rather than a four-day, cumulative weight determining the Cup winner, a bracketed format was followed for the first three days – anglers were seeded based of where they finished in FLW Tour points that year – and the 12 surviving anglers competed on day 4 with the angler catching the heaviest final-day bag claiming the win.
Here’s a look at some of the matchups that took place:
> Andy Morgan vs. Gary Yamamato
> Dean Rojas vs. Todd Faircloth
> Larry Nixon vs. Bobby Lane
> Nixon vs. Greg Hackney
> Anthony Gagliardi vs. Zell Rowland
> Matt Herren vs. Alton Jones
> Morgan vs. John Murray
> Brent Chapman vs. Cochran
Saved Best (Spot) For Last
Cochran entered the tournament as the 16th seed and was matched up against No. 33 Sandy Melvin in the two-day first round. Cochran wound up with a 10-01 (eight fish) total over two days to defeat Melvin, who had 4-03 (three fish).
On day 3, Cochran squared off against Brent Chapman, the No. 9 seed who had eliminated Randy Blaukat in his first-round match. Cochran caught a limit weighing 5-15 while Chapman managed four fish for 4-12. The win sent Cochran on to the final round for a one-day shootout against a stout group of 11 other finalists that included his brother-in-law Larry Nixon.
“It was different, but it was exciting because you knew if you got eliminated, it was over,” Cochran recalled. “Call me lucky or whatever, but the day I was up against Chapman, that was the closest day except maybe the last day and that’s when it counted.”
Indeed, but Cochran strategized perfectly. Over the first three days, he fished areas he had confidence in, but he bypassed one particular stretch because he was saving it in the event he advanced to the finals. (Click here to read more about Cochran’s winning pattern).
“You have to remember strategy was a big deal,” Cochran said. “I knew if I could make the last day, I had a good chance to win. I never went to my best area until the last day. I knew you could only go down this one stretch, which was about a mile long, once. I had done it before with my son and we’d caught 15 to 20 fish. We’d go back the next day and catch only five or six. That told me the fish didn’t replenish all that quick.”
Having the discipline to steer clear of the area turned out to be the critical move of the tournament. On the final day, he sacked 10-03 from that stretch (the only finalist to crack the 10-pound mark) and took home the title. It was one of just five stringers weighing 10 pounds of more caught at the ’05 Cup.
“I had to struggle the first three days to beat good fishermen,” Cochran said. “I always fished where I felt I could catch them, but I saved that area for the last day if I made it.”
As Cochran sees it, as much as half the field will arrive in Hot Springs this weekend with the notion that doing well will be satisfactory. It’s a guaranteed paycheck, after all.
“They just want to do well,” he said. “The other half just wants to win. That’s half the battle right there.”
From there, the trick will be seeing how quickly certain skill sets and strategies click with the lake.
“Then you have to figure out how to fish your strengths,” he added. “I knew if I was going to win, I wasn’t going to win it deep. The lake is different now. There’s a lot of brush and it could be won deep. I went shallow because it was my strength. I beared down and focused and figured out two or three key baits. I stuck with my game plan.”
Cochran says mixing multiple patterns throughout the day wasn’t appealing to him.
“Younger guys will do this or that for a while, but I was focused,” he said. “You have to bear down because it will be tough and you can’t miss any fish.”
Lake Has Evolved
It’s a different Lake Hamilton today than the one Cochran won at 14 years ago. He still fishes it regularly and is pretty plugged into the local tournament scene. He says it took about 13 pounds to win a three-hour tournament this past Tuesday evening.
“It’s much better now (than in 2005),” he said. “The lake cycles because of habitat and water levels and the lake has been super. August is the dog days of summer, but it still can produce.”
Cochran thinks a 13-pound average will put someone in contention to win this week, but getting a good start each day will be critical due to the amount of recreational boat traffic the lake sees each weekend during the summer.
“Before 9 a.m. will be crucial,” he said. “Anything’s possible, but after 9 or 10 a.m., they all come out. You have to have some strategy about how and where to fish because if you’re on the main lake it’ll be rocking and rolling. It won’t bother the fish much, but it’ll bother some fishermen.”
Cochran likened the fishing conditions at Hamilton in August to how the USGA sets up a course for the U.S. Open. Oftentimes, the rough is left to grow longer and the greens manicured to roll faster, making playing conditions much more challenging.
“You can’t judge a lake based on when it’s tough in August,” he said. “Somebody might win at 16-under, but it might also take being right around par to win, too.”
> Since 2011, FLW has used a cumulative tournament weight format to determine the Cup champion. The event was shortened to three days (from four) beginning in 2017. Had the ’05 Cup been a four-day cumulative weight event, there’s no way to know who would’ve prevailed or how much weight it would’ve taken due to the shift in strategy for the bracket format. Of the 12 finalists, Dean Rojas had the best four-day total with 28-12. Cochran would’ve been fourth with 26-03.
> For nothing more than to see what a bracketed format would look like with the 52 qualifiers for this year’s Cup, BassFan has seeded the field in the following order: FLW Tour points finish (1-43), 2018 FLW Series qualifiers (44-48), BFL All-American champion (49), TBF champion (50), FLW College Fishing champions (51-52). This format would produce 13 finalists. Here’s what the first-round and potential second-round matchups would look like:
1. David Dudley
52. Blake Albertson
26. Chris Brasher
27. Dakota Ebare
2. John Cox
51. Adam Puckett
25. Jared McMillan
28. Ryan Salzman
3. Joseph Webster
50. Preston Craig
24. Kurt Mitchell
29. Wade Strelic
4. Scott Martin
49. Brennon McCord
23. Joel Willert
30. Larry Nixon
5. Buddy Gross
48. Erik Luzak
22. Bryan Schmitt
31. Nick LeBrun
6. Bryan Thrift
47. Cory Johnston
21. Brad Knight
32. Joshua Weaver
7. Terry Bolton
46. Zack Birge
20. Austin Felix
33. Todd Castledine
8. Brian Latimer
45. Jon Griffith
19. Josh Douglas
34. Kurt Dove
9. Ron Nelson
44. Kyle Walters
18. J Todd Tucker
35. Andrew Upshaw
10. Braxton Setzer
43. Jason Reyes
17. Matt Reed
36. Sheldon Collings
11. Jeremy Lawyer
42. Tom Redington
16. Billy McCaghren
37. Tommy Dickerson
12. Bradford Beavers
41. Matthew Stefan
15. Miles Burghoff
38. John Voyles
13. Brandon McMillan
40. Jordan Osborne
14. Matt Becker
39. Casey Scanlon