This week marks the beginning of yet another season of professional bass fishing. While the Bassmaster Elite pros patiently wait to compete in the Classic or work the expo, the FLW Tour kicks off with its season opener on Florida’s famed Lake Okeechobee.
FLW has a rich history on the Big O, especially recently. The past several seasons have been instrumental in the rise in popularity of mat-flipping across the country, thanks in large part to FLW pros dominating this event with that technique. Each season, it seems, the best in the world take it one notch higher, increasing the weights of their sinkers or the number of weedguards on their jigs.
Many of you have commented on a previous column I wrote, where I swore to be pretending I was Randall Tharp while flipping, with similar role-play in your own fishing. There is just something incredibly hardcore with the whole technique. This year, however, reports are that big-stick techniques may not prevail.
As I alluded to a few weeks ago, for some reason I feel compelled to give you my picks for the upcoming season openers, both this Tour event and the Classic. We’ll start here in south Florida, as the action is taking place as you read this.
Like many of you, I have been keeping up with the pre-tournament reports, web blasts, podcasts, tweets, posts and videos. Never before have I seen so much up-to-date information on an event; FLW should be commended. As usual, Rob Newell, one of my favorite reporters and hosts for anything bass, is there in the heat of the action. A bass junkie from way back, Newell never lets an angle escape him. It’s great to see pro fishing being reported by someone who lives and breathes this stuff, and shares as much knowledge as many of the pro competitors.
FLW’s Fantasy site has Newell interviewing many top favorites, and each shares just a little knowledge without revealing their secrets. I was blown away by Newell’s interview of Tour rookie and local stick Tony Davis. Here’s this poor guy in one of his first big events, and FLW has him front and center as a Fantasy Fishing sleeper pick. Geez, do you think he’s going to be feeling a little pressure? For his sake, I hope his first spot pays off.
FLW’s fantasy game weights different anglers by placing them with high “salaries," and makes picking them push the threshold of a fantasy player’s salary cap. For this event, the anglers with the highest salaries include the no-brainers: Tharp, Ish, JT Kenney and the other Florida aces. Will one of them win? FLW seems to think there’s a real good chance of it, and rightfully so.
Past events here have been dominated by locals and superstars. It seems that, if your new to the game and come to the Big O, you don’t stand a chance. Perhaps it’s the vast size of the lake, as the only other venues we see such home-field advantage on are other monster bodies of water.
Drew Benton seems to be in the driver’s seat. The winner of last year’s event, Benton was quick to point out that the lake is capable of being fished in many different styles, and the “mat-only” approach may not be necessary. He also pointed out that he likes it that way. A guarantee? There’s no such thing, but the kid has a lot of potential to pull it off.
Bryan Thrift certainly can’t be ignored. Without question one of the best to fish FLW for the last several years, Thrift is coming off consecutive Top-10 finishes at the Big O in each of the last two season openers. Unfortunately, he stumbled a bit here in last month’s Rayovac event. But Thrift is a natural, with top finishes at an unheard-of number of locales, including Beaver, Eufala, Grand, Table Rock, the Potomac, Lanier, Guntersville and others. When this guy gets around ‘em, it’s on.
Now normally my inclination would be to pick a two-tier pro for this year’s win. With all of the recent hype on the number of guys going all in and fishing both B.A.S.S. and FLW, I really feel one will have a stellar year on both tours. Ish Monroe is a no-brainer, and guys like Steve Kennedy or Jason Christie always have a chance. But the Classic is just days away, and I have to imagine that most of their thoughts are on Guntersville rather than the lake under their feet.
Which brings me to my pick to win the season opener. (Note: If you’re Peter Thliveros, please stop reading here to avoid a pre-tournament jinx. Others, continue on.)
Yep, Peter Thliveros.
Newell’s interview with Peter T. was stellar. He possesses more knowledge of Florida bass than perhaps anyone out there, heavily disguised in his care-free, jovial style. When I see Thliveros, I just instantly think Florida.
And this tournament has potential to be a sight-fishing derby, a technique in which Thliveros is an expert. I still remember watching him on TV decades ago, catching Florida giants off beds, toting the mesh-back Ranger hat and the Terminator-style polarized glasses. Vintage.
And who could forget when Big Pete won here in my backyard on St. Clair, catching a key fish on a Sassy Shad that his son picked out for him prior to the event? His thunderous roar as he pushed the Ranger to the limit heading back to weigh-in, careening through Clair’s onslaught of power-boat wakes. That was an FLW highlight for years after.
Yep, he’s my pick. I visualize an event where someone with a little more knowledge, and a lot more history, sneaks into an overlooked spot and pulls out an old-school Florida technique, like just casting a worm or sneaking around looking. And he’s just the man to do it.
Another year begins, where dreams will be made and broken in the same day. A fisherman will lose the fish that would change his life, while another will land it. In the end, a $100,000 check will be hoisted high overhead, and fans will take it for granted. But this is the American pastime where it’s a lone player against the elements and the odds, and every participant is equally capable of winning the crown.
And that’s why we all keep playing, watching, and talking bass fishing.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)