By Todd Ceisner
They all felt the pressure to varying degrees.
One was trying to get back to the Forrest Wood Cup for the seventh time with the hope of winning it for a second time while the other two, one of them a rookie, were faced with a legitimate opportunity to qualify for the first time.
It came down to the Potomac River FLW Tour.
Scott Suggs, Joey Cifuentes and Andrew Upshaw all made the most of the opportunity presented to them. They all posted top-40 finishes near the nation’s capital to advance the necessary spots to qualify for the Cup, displacing three others who struggled in the season finale.
Upshaw carded a 17th-place finish to move up 16 places in the points standings, making the Cup in 31st. Suggs, the 2007 Cup winner, took 28th at the Potomac and jumped 13 places in the points to 32nd while Cifuentes, who started the year with consecutive triple-digit bombs, finished 35th and went from 48th to 37th in points.
Suggs admitted that making the Cup every year prompts him to place undue pressure on himself and this season was no different, but he was able to channel those nerves in a positive way.
“That championship is always so important to me,” he said. “It’s always on my mind. I’ve seen in the past where it’s hurt me, though. I get so worried and so worked up that I don’t relax. I had to really, from Guntersville to the Potomac, discipline myself and relax and fish them one at a time.
“It was amazing how well I felt all through the year. I slept well and this this year was the first time ever at the last tournament I really felt no pressure when I went fishing. I think that just comes from doing it so long. This whole year just felt totally different than any other.”
In Upshaw’s case, the greater the pressure, the harder he grinds, so he thrived knowing he controlled his own destiny.
“I tend to do really well when I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “I always have. I push harder. It was so hot that week and any time I’m faced with those conditions, I tend to do better. I force myself to practice longer and move faster and don’t ever settle. When you have the mindset to make the top 20, you don’t stop on 1 1/2-pounders. You just keep going.”
For Cifuentes, working his way back from a dismal start to his rookie season was reward enough that he tried not to put any added pressure on himself to make the Cup.
“There’s a little bit of pressure, but you try not to think about it,” he said. “It’s in the back of my mind, but if that’s what you’re worried about you’re probably not going to do well. I just told myself to do my thing and if it works out, it works out. If not, so be it.
“It was my rookie year, so if I didn’t make it, it wasn’t going to be a big deal. For someone like Suggs, he might have a little more pressure because he’s been doing it for so long. Hopefully, I’ll be in that situation down the road.”
Below are more details about how each angler reached the Cup:
Mississippi Suggs’ Saving Grace
Before he even made a cast at the Potomac, Suggs had rescued his season and Cup prospects with a sizable day-2 rally at the Mississippi River, where he surged 50 spots to salvage a 74th-place finish.
His day-1 bag was one fish shy of a limit and had him buried in 124th, but he rebounded with a 14-02 limit to avoid a triple-digit disaster.
“After day 1, I was totally destroyed and out of the Cup,” Suggs said. “To go out and trash all I did in practice with the rising muddy water and make the adjustments I made, and get bit quick, and have the confidence to stay with it, and have a massive turnaround and give myself an opportunity at the Cup was my whole year in one day.”
It left him 45th in points heading to the Potomac, well within striking distance of the projected cut line of 40th.
In the past, he’d figured out a way to cash a check, but it hadn’t helped him finish any higher than 40th. He figured he needed a similar outcome, possibly better, to make the Cup. He combined his trusted pattern with offshore grass and came out with the finish he needed.
“I went and did something that might get me all the way,” he said. “I went offshore and fished for bigger bites. I changed my way of fishing because that’s what I thought I needed.’
He said following his instincts on day 1 was the key to his third top-30 finish of the season.
Andrew Upshaw shook off a poor finish in Texas to qualify for his first Forrest Wood Cup.
“I had an area near Occoquan, but I’d run nearly to D.C. where I had bites on two spots,” he said. “I figured they wouldn’t get hit by others, but on my way up there, I saw a grass patch I hadn’t practiced on. I stopped and caught a limit on a buzzbait and just expanded on that area.”
Things Are Looking ‘Up’
After a 118th-place finish at Lake Travis in his home state in February, Upshaw was in recovery mode. The former Bassmaster College Fishing champion knew another triple-digit finish would likely sink his Cup hopes.
“It could’ve gone a heck of a lot better,” he said of the Travis event. “I lost so many fish on day 1. I thought I’d blown my Cup chances. I knew I’d have to do well the rest of the year. I dug myself a hole and knew I couldn’t slip up.”
He followed up with two top-40 efforts, then missed paychecks at Beaver Lake and the Mississippi River had him 47th in points heading to the Potomac. He crunched the numbers and determined a top-35 finish would likely be enough to get him in the Cup.
“In my mind, I wanted to make a top-20,” he said. “I love the Potomac and all the shallow grass. It reminds me of (Sam) Rayburn and I’ve done well there in the past. I was really confident going up there.”
Prior to the Potomac, he’d caught two stringers over 15 pounds this season. At the Potomac, he started with a 15-04 and followed it up with 17-10 on day 2, which turned out to be the day he secured a spot in the Cup as he made the top-20 cut in 6th place.
“On day 1 at the Potomac, they’re easier to catch and day 2 is always so much different and harder and day 2 has always hurt me in the past,” he said. “My goal was not to screw up. I fished my instincts and made good decisions. It was a blessed day.
“One fish that stands out was with 20 minutes left. I’d made a hairpin turn and went to a grass bed leading into a community area. I was flipping a (Gene Larew) Biffle Bug and caught a 4-pounder that culled a 3 and I went from 16 1/2 to 17 1/2 with five minutes left. That one pound at the Potomac was a big deal, plus it’s always a cool deal landing a big one near the end of the day.”
Joey Cifuentes overcame a disastrous start to his rookie season and will compete at the Cup next month.
Cifuentes Took 'Baby Steps'
Cifuentes’ rookie season got started with two demoralizing finishes – a 104th at Lake Guntersville and a 125th at Lake Travis. He failed a catch a limit at either tournament. His confidence was shaken.
“To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about the Cup,” he said. “I was worried about making a check. It’s my first year on tour as a pro and I was doubting myself and was down. I wondered if I can compete. I questioned myself.
“My goal was just to make a check, so I tried to just take baby steps – make a check, make a top 20, make a top 10. After those first two, I didn’t know if I could do it.”
There were times he turned to Larry Nixon, who’s taken him under his wing in recent years. Nixon provided heady advice and kept Cifuentes from getting too negative about his situation.
“He’s my mentor,” Cifuentes said. “Every time I didn’t do well, he always gave me confidence. He knows I can fish and was there being positive. He’s just a good friend. He’s been in those situations before with slumps and my position was unique being my first year on tour.”
Following a 62nd-place finish at the Harris Chain in Florida, he turned his season around with a 3rd-place showing at the Lake Dardanelle Central FLW Series.
“That got me rolling and got me some confidence and I rolled into the next Tour event at Cumberland (24th) where I got my first check,” he said.
He hasn’t missed a check since. He made a top-20 cut at the Mississippi River (17th), but still had work to do at the Potomac to complete his Cup comeback. He caught 13-05 on day 1, but like Upshaw, backed it up with 17-plus on day 2 and got some traction on the leaderboard and in the points standings.
“On day 1, I had four fish and right at end of the day, I caught probably a 3 1/2- to 4-pounder and it got me to 13 pounds,” he said. “Without that fish, it would’ve definitely changed my tournament. I needed a fifth keeper and I just put my head down and flipped grass. I knew that’s what I needed to do.”
And now for Suggs, Upshaw and Cifuentes it’s off to Lake Murray for the Cup in mid-August, a fitting reward for the late-season rallies each pulled off.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Cifuentes said. “I think I’m going to just go at it like it’s just another tournament. There’s no pressure. There’s no entry fee and we’re getting paid regardless. I’m going to just have fun and enjoy the moment and being there. I hope to get back every year.”