The first week of August brings us the FLW World Championship, as 50 anglers will take to Alabamaís Wheeler Lake in pursuit of the Forrest Wood Cup.
Interest in FLWís top prize may have waned a bit, as Tour pros making the jump to the Bassmaster Elite trail have garnered most of the attention, but make no mistake: with a $300,000 payday on the line, the Cup still carries considerable weight.
This year may be one of the best on record. A quick check of the Tour qualifiers reflects a whoís who of top pros. Sure, a few big names are missing: Larry Nixon and (2014 Cup winner) Anthony Gagliardi are absent, but, for the most part, the big guns will be in Alabama.
Also appearing will be a large number of anglers from the FLW Series trail. In total, 10 triple-A qualifiers made it, compared to the 36 from the FLW Tour Angler of the Year standings. Undoubtedly, some consider this off balance. However, both FLW and B.A.S.S. have placed increasing importance on their starter leagues, giving working-class pros the ability to compete for the biggest titles. Is it fair? Probably not, but it definitely keeps interest up and entry fees rolling in.
Letís not get sidetracked, though. After a bit of research and consultation with my crystal ball, here are my picks to place high and, ultimately, win the 2016 Forrest Wood Cup:
Donít Discount the Amateurs
The aforementioned list of anglers qualifying though the FLW Series contain three guys, in particular, who are anything but rookies, and one or more will make a serious run at the title.
Denny Brauer, Ray Hanselman and Bill Chapman canít be ignored. Brauer once won everything in fishing, but retired several years ago from full-time tournament competition. I doubt his hunger to win ever went away. Brauer will recognize this as his last big chance; heís always been an incredibly dangerous big-money competitor, and he wonít get rattled.
Hansleman is an ace; everybody knows it. If he can get his focus dialed in the way he did in 2015, there are no limits for this guy.
Chapman is one of the greatest regional anglers in history and a master of shallow junk-fishing. In addition, heís competed countless times for six-figure paychecks. Look for Wheeler to set up around his short-line strengths.
Canterbury Must Be Considered
Scott Canterbury is one of the best on Tour right now, and recently experienced his breakthrough moment with a regular-season win. With that monkey off his back, additional titles should come easier. His next may very well be his biggest.
Johnston and Johnston
Canadaís Johnston brothers have gained considerable recognition for their strong performance at nearly every venue.
Their unique brotherly-love style of practice and competition simply puts them ahead of others who do it on their own. Both have considerable momentum and confidence resulting from solid performances, combined with love from the camera. Look for that momentum to carry one of them very close to the title Ė Iím just not sure which.
Wesley Strader, Bryan Thrift and Andy Morgan
All three of these guys just smell like Wheeler Lake. This tournament will be tough, requiring quick adaptation to changing conditions and a multitude of proven techniques. This trio is more than proven in competition, none are scared of failure, and all can bring the heat when the title is in their sights. Any of them could win.
However, my pick to win the 2016 Forrest Wood Cup, likely to come as a great surprise, is:
Betting on Fukae may be a long shot, but his stats canít be ignored. He has qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup every year heís competed on Tour with the exception of one. Heís a former Angler of the Year and has amassed Top-10 finishes all across America, from Champlain to Toho.
Besides his longevity and consistency, Fukaeís biggest advantage might be his ability to adapt to challenging conditions. He regularly employs finesse techniques at otherwise power-fishing tournaments, often pestering the leaders by doing so. Wheeler could very well turn into a finesse-type venue, as water levels are challenging for shallow anglers, yet offshore schools of bass arenít overly prolific.
Fukae also receives less attention from the American press than other anglers. While Iíve always felt his lack of communication might be somewhat orchestrated, Fukae still pulls it off despite being in the States more than a dozen years. This may very well attribute to less pressure and fewer jitters, thus giving him a better ability to relax and make prudent, on-the-water decisions.
So there you have it, BassFans. In any case, this event should present a real test for some of the best competitive anglers in the world. Wheelerís never been easy, and summertime water temps in the high 80s, coupled with an ever-changing fishery, could result in some real surprises this week.
Regardless, one man is going to win, changing his life forever.
(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.)