By Todd Ceisner
The FLW Tour season kicked off last week at Sam Rayburn Reservoir with a much different roster than BassFans are accustomed to seeing. The field was still typically large for an FLW Tour event – 170 boats strong – and anchored by several familiar names, but a bunch of mainstays were still at home, preparing for the start of new seasons with either the Bassmaster Elite Series or Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour. As the old Dylan song goes, the times they are a-changin’.
The stringers were still stout at Rayburn – exceedingly high water didn’t stop a parade of 20-pound bags and a 33-pound sack by eventual winner Terry Bolton from being hauled in – and a top prize of $125,000 was still handed out at the end. It was a fitting way to kick off what figures to be a fascinating season at the top tier of the sport.
Still, the event had to be strange for the nearly 30 anglers who have opted to compete elsewhere in 2019. Among those whose names have long been associated with FLW, but were absent last week, were a pair of three-time Angler of the Year winners in Andy Morgan and Clark Wendlandt. Between them, they competed in 320 FLW Tour tournaments (Forrest Wood Cups included) and won nearly $4.5 million combined during their FLW stints.
Wendlandt is still a month away from starting his Elite Series career along with 16 other former FLW Tour anglers, while Morgan and Anthony Gagliardi, who won the AOY title in 2006 and the 2015 Forrest Wood Cup, are among a group of 12 former Tour pros readying for the inaugural BPT event at the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in Florida.
’It Was Weird’
Last Friday, Morgan spent time at the gym rather than flipping trees and bushes and lobbing a Carolina rig at water-logged Rayburn. It was an odd feeling, he said. He’d competed in every FLW Tour season opener the circuit launched in 1996.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s the first one I’ve missed since ’96. I missed the people. I missed my running partners (Ramie) Colson and (Terry) Bolton. I enjoy those guys. I miss the FLW folks. I texted Kathy (Fennel) and Trish (Blake) Thursday morning to let them know I was thinking about them. I don’t want them to think (leaving) was an easy decision because it was not. FLW is all I’ve known.”
Still, despite being pre-occupied with duck and deer hunting since early November, he said knowing the tournament season is under way has him getting antsy for the start of the BPT season now.
“I’m excited for a new beginning,” he said. “I’m getting to the age that if I want to try something new, it’s now or never. I’m not going at it any different than I always have. I made that decision when I thought about whether I’d get invited. It’s still fishing – I’m not going to change anything at all. I’ll have me some sharp hooks, some strong line and good tackle and go bass fishing.”
Morgan said he’s not nervous about preparing for a new chapter in his career.
When he opens the Elite Series season in Florida in a couple weeks, Clark Wendlandt won't have the luxury of using a landing net.
“Shoot no. I’m actually excited,” he said. “It’s going be fun and it’s going to take fishing to a new level. I’ve had more excitement about this ever since I was invited.”
Wendlandt started his Tour career in 1997 and had fished every tournament since then save for two events at the end of the 2014 season as he recovered from a heart attack. Not being at Rayburn last week was “definitely strange,” he said.
“I have a lot of friends still fishing there so I did pay attention to it from the standpoint of seeing how my buddies did,” he said. “I talked to some and was more into finding out how the fishing was.”
He said knowing the season has already started for some has him itching to point his truck toward Florida for the start of the Elite Series schedule, but he’s fine with waiting a few more weeks.
“The season typically starts in February to me, so early January doesn’t feel like it should be fishing season yet,” he said. “From that standpoint, I wasn’t that upset I wasn’t there.
“I’ve been ramping up, though. I got the boat done earlier and ahead of schedule this year so I could fish a lot and the weather has been mild enough to fish so I’m going to put a lot of emphasis on fishing a bunch before the season gets going.”
For Gagliardi, his absence from the FLW Tour season opener wasn’t as emotional as one might expect.
“It’s not as weird as I thought it might be,” he said. “I guess I’m in that mode that I’m always in when we’re a couple weeks out from the first event. I’m thinking about getting things ready, but I haven’t spent too much time thinking about not being there. It’s a little strange, though. I don’t think it’ll set in until I fish the first BPT.”
That Florida Feeling
While their FLW Tour brethren got their season kicked off in Texas, Florida will be the scene for the 2019 launch of the BPT and Elite Series. Most pros say it takes a much different mindset to compete in Florida than at fisheries in other locales.
“There are some lakes here (in Texas) that have spawning bass in them already,” Wendlandt said. “I can duplicate that, but Florida takes a different mindset anyway. You just have to do best you can to gear up for it and hopefully, experience over time will allow me to perform well.”
In Gagliardi’s case, Florida has always been a vexing proposition. His track record at Lake Okeechobee, for instance, is a mix of top-20s and triple-digit finishes. In two Tour stops at Lake Toho, he’s finished 47th and 71st. He’s the first to admit it’s not his favorite place to compete.
“Florida is just a different animal,” he said. “I just don’t understand it. I don’t grasp it. It’s the one place where I don’t understand pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn. I don’t know how it’s different. I just know I can catch ‘em on a stick bait or flipping. At other places, you have a sense of what phase they’re in. Not in Florida, at least for me. It’s the same baits and techniques every time we go and you have to be prepared to catch a lot of fish, mostly small ones and hope for a couple big ones along the way.”
Added Morgan: “It’s Florida. It’s a different deal altogether. There’s bass fishing and then there’s Florida bass fishing. They’re two very separate things.”