By Todd Ceisner
While the first half of 2019 was highlighted by the debut of a new tournament circuit with the Bass Pro Tour and the emergence of new stars on the Bassmaster Elite Series, the back half of the year was dominated by household names.
Bryan Thrift and David Dudley have been pillars of the FLW Tour for many years and both added new pages to their already stellar resumes – Thrift by winning the FLW Cup and Dudley by capturing Angler of the Year title number four of his career. Both then made more news late in the year when they accepted invitations to the Bass Pro Tour to fill the spots vacated by Brandon Palaniuk and Gerald Swindle, who both opted to return to the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Edwin Evers, another stalwart in the sport for the better part of two decades, added a BPT points title and a Redcrest championship to his dossier, which already included a Bassmaster Classic victory and 10 other B.A.S.S. wins.
Overshadowing all of the individual achievements was a transaction that had been talked about in many circles throughout the industry for several months. The sale of FLW to Major League Fishing came to fruition in October and gives MLF a framework through which anglers of all skill levels can compete and rise through the ranks. The first event on the FLW Pro Circuit, which replaced the FLW Tour, gets started on Jan. 23 at Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
Below is a rundown of a few other storylines that had people talking in 2019. If you missed part 1 of our year in review, click here.
Dudley Bags AOY No. 4
When David Dudley finished 38th in the 2018 FLW Tour Angler of the Year race, it represented his lowest points finish since 2009 when he wound up 64th. In 2019, he made sure there would be no squeaking into the FLW Cup. Dudley started 2019 with a 13th-place finish at Sam Rayburn Reservoir and never fell below that spot in the standings en route to winning his record-setting AOY title on the FLW Tour.
His only hiccup occurred at Lake Seminole, where he finished 74th. That was more than offset by six top-25 results, including back-to-back top-10s to close the season at Lake Chickamauga and Champlain.
As consistent as he’d been, though, he entered the finale at Champlain trailing John Cox for the points lead by one point. Dudley clinched the AOY crown with an 18-04 haul on day 3 to secure a top-10 finish. Cox, meanwhile, wound up 28th and finished 2nd in the points race for the second time in his career.
Dudley’s last tournament win came in 2012 and his most recent AOY title came during the same season, which added a little extra meaning to his fourth AOY triumph.
Dream Season for Evers
For years, Edwin Evers ranked among the most consistent performers on the Bassmaster Elite Series. He piled up wins and money – 11 B.A.S.S. victories and $3.1 million in earnings to be exact – but one achievement that had always eluded him was an Angler of the Year title.
After placing 2nd in the Bass Pro Tour season opener and then cruising to a win at Lake Conroe, Evers, who was among the first anglers to publicly commit to the BPT, put himself in position to finally capture a coveted points championship.
Edwin Evers had plenty of reasons to celebrate in 2019 after winning the Bass Pro Tour points championship and the inaugural Redcrest championship, which earned him $300,000.
Up against a talented field and competing under a format he was very familiar with – Evers was among the original group of MLF competitors – he piled up four straight top-10 finishes to open the inaugural BPT season. When he missed the cut, which happened twice, it wasn’t by much. He also maintained a laser focus despite his home in Oklahoma being destroyed by a tornado and subsequent rains while he competed at Smith Lake in early May.
Undeterred and unshaken, Evers held off a season-long push from Jeff Sprague, a newcomer to the MLF format, to claim the points title. He then capped off a magnificent campaign with a win at the 30-man Redcrest championship at the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wis. He turned the championship round into a virtual victory lap as he racked up astounding totals of 63 fish for 85-06 to claim the $300,000 payday by nearly 45 pounds.
“It’s been an amazing year,” Evers said afterward. “There have some really high highs and some low lows. At the start of the year, I said it would be a monumental feat just making the championship. Winning a tournament, the points and winning today, I’m blessed beyond anything I could imagine. I’m living out a childhood dream. Words can’t describe it.”
Thrift’s Wait is Over
Just as Evers’ pursuit of a points title had taken much longer than many expected, the same can be said for Bryan Thrift’s chase for an FLW Cup win. It was really the final piece missing from a sparkling career résumé. Thrift had 12 Cup appearances to his credit prior to 2019 and he’d been a top-10 finisher in nine of them.
He compiled a typical Thrift season in 2019 with three top-10s and three other finishes in the money. It added up to a 6th-place finish in points and a berth in the Cup at Lake Hamilton outside Hot Springs, Ark., in August. The mid-summer derby was expected to be a grind on the heavily developed lake that sees heavy use by recreational boats.
Thrift seized the lead on day 1 with a 15-03 stringer – one of only two bags to crack the 15-pound mark in the event – and never relinquished the top spot. His 10-13 haul on the final day was the lone double-digit stringer and it helped him finally capture the Cup victory that had eluded him.
“This is something I’ve been chasing a long time,” Thrift said afterward. “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.”
Let’s Make a Deal
Two months after Thrift hoisted the Cup and claimed the $300,000 top prize, the biggest news of the year finally materialized with the announcement that FLW was being acquired by Major League Fishing. In what had been a long-rumored deal across the industry, the move was made to fortify MLF’s place in the tournament business with a multi-tiered feeder system reaching down to the grass-roots level.
Gerald Swindle (top) and Brandon Palaniuk decided to leave the Bass Pro Tour after one season to return to the Bassmaster Elite Series.
As part of the move, the FLW Tour has been revamped for 2020 and renamed the FLW Pro Circuit. It will serve as the top rung of the qualification ladder beneath the Bass Pro Tour. The FLW Cup was shuttered in favor of a Pro Circuit AOY championship event. Additionally, extra divisions were added to the FLW Series while entry fees were reduced for FLW Series and BFL tournaments.
FLW, which had been operated by Irwin Jacobs and his family since its founding in July 1996, has approximately 50,000 fee-paying members from 11 countries and sanctioned more than 300 tournaments across seven categories (FLW Tour, FLW Series, Bass Fishing League, College, High School, International and charity) in 2019.
As the dust continued to settle in the wake of MLF’s acquisition of FLW, two BPT anglers opted to return to the Bassmaster Elite Series for the 2020 season. It was a bit of surprising twist considering the 80 original BPT anglers signed on for an initial three-year commitment with a reported buyout fee involved if they wished to leave the circuit.
Brandon Palaniuk and Gerald Swindle, both past winners of the B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title, opted out of their BPT deals and were granted re-entry to the Elite Series via the Legends exemption that was put in place several years ago to allow decorated anglers another option to remain eligible for the top circuit at B.A.S.S.
Palaniuk, a former B.A.S.S. Nation national champion, said the lure of getting back to his bass fishing roots is what prompted his decision to return to the Elite Series.
To fill the two vacancies on the BPT roster, MLF turned to Dudley and Thrift, both of whom accepted the invitations. For Thrift, it’s a chance to prove himself against a new roster of competitors under a different format. For Dudley, the BPT offers him a chance to start a new chapter in his already-storied career.