By Todd Ceisner
It was not a matter of if Bryan Thrift would ever win an FLW Cup, but seemingly when.
The two-time Angler of the Year, known for his awe-shucks North Carolina charm and tendency to small-eye his fish, had been close before with five top-5 finishes in 12 previous appearances in FLW’s marquee tournament. But he never truly felt like the event was his to lose. Until this week.
After holding the lead through the first two days, Thrift finally corralled the one achievement that has always eluded him. He hauled in a 10-13 limit out of stingy Lake Hamilton to slam the door on his first Cup triumph with a 38-07 three-day total. And now finally, all the talk and questions about if he’d ever win the Cup can fade away.
“This is something I’ve been chasing a long time,” Thrift said. “I’ve had a lot of close calls, but I never really felt like I had a chance to win the Cup until this event. I feel like this is the first true chance I’ve had to win and it’s an amazing feeling.”
It’s the first wire-to-wire Cup victory since FLW switched to a three-day format in 2017 and third wire-to-wire win since it went to a cumulative weight format in 2011. Thrift is the fifth angler to win both the FLW Tour Angler of the Year award and a Cup title, joining David Dudley, Scott Martin, Anthony Gagliardi and Greg Hackney. Martin’s bid to become the first two-time Cup winner fell short as he finished fifth today.
Clent Davis won last year’s Cup in Hot Springs by mounting a 10th-to-1st rally on the final day at Lake Ouachita. No such rally materialized today under sunny skies as the fishing was tougher following two days of overcast conditions. Prolonged fishing pressure, especially on the offshore brush piles, seemed to take its toll.
The top 5 was unchanged from day t2wo as Kyle Walters, the reigning FLW Series champion and Thrift’s roommate this week, remained in second after catching 7-04 today to finish with 33-06. Dakota Ebare hung onto third with a 7-11 stringer (four fish) to close with 32-02. Jeremy Lawyer had 7-00 today to finish fourth with 31-06 while Martin sacked 8-08 to push his total to 31-02 to collect his fifth career top-5 finish in the Cup.
Thrift was the first angler to box a limit today and it was critical to ease his nerves. He caught his first five keepers off an area where Bryan Schmitt had fished the first couple days.
“As soon as I set the boat down, it was like 200 yards of schoolers came up,” he said. “I was scrambling and picked my topwater up and caught a limit real quick.
Thrift pushed his career earnings with FLW past the $3 million mark today.
“Those schooling fish are what allowed me to win because it gave me the confidence to calm down and know I just needed two or three bites to seal the deal. It was an amazing week.”
After a lengthy dry spell, he moved into Hot Springs Creek around 12:30 p.m. and committed the rest of his day there. He caught three upgrades, including one at the end of the day, to cap it off.
“I told myself if you’re going to win, you need to go in there and stay the rest of the day,” he said. “I went in there for three hours without cranking up the motor and caught my three biggest fish. I still can’t believe it.”
In typical Thrift fashion, it was a junk-fishing tournament. He estimated using eight different baits to catch the 15 fish he weighed in. Additional details on his winning pattern will be published later this week.
“To me, the Cup is the hardest event to win because you only get one chance a year,” said Thrift, who went over the $3 million mark in career earnings with FLW today. “It’s something I can’t explain. I feel like I’d eventually get a chance to win. I didn’t know if it would ever happen or not because when the Cup was a four-day event, I’d usually screw up at least one day, so when they cut it to three days, that made me happy because hopefully we could avoid that one-day screw up.”
As the only competitor to catch at least 10 pounds all three days, he successfully avoided the miscues that had cost him in the past. In fact, before the tournament, he predicted that whomever was leading after day 1 would go on to win the Cup. It just so happened he was the day-1 leader.
“I figured the pressure and the boat traffic on the weekend would affect a lot of people and I figured whoever caught the big bag on day 1 would win, and fortunately, I was leading,” he said.
Walters did everything he could to chase him down and he knew his best chance to do so was to stick to the brush pile strategy that had produced some of the bigger fish caught in the tournament.
“I stuck to my guns because I knew it was my only chance to win,” he said “It was one of those things where I had to keep it going.”
Kyle Walters was surprised the bigger fish didn't bite as well today as they had been.
It never got revved up the way he thought it would and he settled for second. He mainly relied on a Texas-rigged big worm and a deep-diving crankbait to generate bites from the brush piles. Today, he added a dropshot to his arsenal.
“I couldn’t figure it out,” he said. “It was picture perfect like practice. I weighed in two small ones each of the first two days. I caught bigger fish, but just not enough of them.”
The Florida native, who struck up a friendship with Thrift through mutual friend and former FLW Tour pro JT Kenney, said he was thrilled to see his friend finally capture the win that’s eluded him for so many years.
“I take away from this that a dream can become a reality and aspirations do come true,” Walters said. “For me to come here and win would’ve been great, but Bryan won it as a true pro and I’m real happy for him.”
For the Tour rookie Ebare, he milked everything he could out of the river portion of Hamilton where water temps were 15 to 20 degrees cooler than on the main lake. Sharing water with Martin all three days took its toll on certain areas, but he’s happy with a third-place finish in his first Cup.
He mostly fished a weightless Zoom Super Fluke around inside grass lines and hard cover.
“I left it all out there and fished as hard as I could for three days,” he said. “There’s definitely hindsight about if I’d have done this at a certain point in time, I could’ve been more successful, but I did the best I could. Bryan had an awesome tournament and deserved to win. He’s been fishing really well.”
1. Bryan Thrift -- Shelby, NC -- 15-3 (5) -- 12-7 (5) -- 10-13 (5) -- 38-07 (15) -- $300,200
2. Kyle Walters -- Grant Valkaria, Fl -- 13-13 (5) -- 12-5 (5) -- 7-4 (5) -- 33-6 (15) -- $60,100
3. Dakota Ebare -- Denham Springs, La -- 9-8 (5) -- 14-15 (5) -- 7-11 (4) -- 32-2 (14) -- $50,000
4. Jeremy Lawyer -- Sarcoxie, Mo -- 12-1 (5) -- 12-5 (5) -- 7-00 (5) -- 31-6 (15) -- $37,500
5. Scott Martin -- Clewiston, Fl -- 11-9 (5) -- 11-1 (5) -- 8-8 (5) -- 31-2 (15) -- $30,000
6. Austin Felix -- Eden Prairie, Mn -- 13-5 (5) -- 9-4 (5) -- 7-13 (5) -- 30-6 (15) -- $24,000
7. Joseph Webster -- Winfield, Al -- 9-2 (5) -- 11-15 (5) -- 7-1 (5) -- 28-2 (15) -- $23,000
8. Ryan Salzman -- Huntsville, Al -- 9-5 (5) -- 12-9 (5) -- 4-14 (5) -- 26-12 (15) -- $22,000
9. Josh Douglas -- Isle, Mn -- 9-0 (5) -- 12-0 (5) -- 5-3 (4) -- 26-3 (14) -- $21,000
10. Jordan Osborne -- Longview, Tx -- 13-11 (5) -- 8-11 (5) -- 0-00 (0) -- 22-6 (10) -- $20,000