The 2018 FLW regular season is now complete, with the final event being the show-stopper we needed. As predicted, Mark Rose held on to the Angler of the Year title – though not as convincingly as he may have liked. Scott Martin appeared to be a real threat midway through the Lake St. Clair slaughter and probably had Rose pacing a bit. In any case, Martin will likely threaten for the title again next year, as he always does.

Hats off to event winner Chad Grigsby. The former Michigander looked to his roots to develop a solid game plan of dancing with the date that brought him: Grinding it out in the best spot on the lake with proven tube tactics, as well as a few other refined techniques. According to interviews, Grigsby rotated in a finesse program relatively new to the Lake St. Clair system, including spybaiting (now a couple of years in the making on St. Clair) and fishing a light hair jig (originally developed in the far reaches of Minnesota’s Mille Lacs and Ontario’s Lake Simcoe). All proven smallmouth catchers; all coming together at just the right time.

However, Grigsby’s biggest accomplishment may not have been winning the tournament after all. With the highest of finishes came a squeaker entry into the Forrest Wood Cup – if my math serves me right, Grigsby would have missed the invite with a finish any worse than 3rd. Taking into account such a comeback, I’d watch this guy at the big event; he’s got to be boiling over with confidence, and we all know how that seems to make the fish bite.

A more in-depth check of FWC qualifiers reveals the usual names near the top: Thrift, Meyer, Canterbury, Wendlandt. Throw in a few newer faces who have graduated to hammers – Birge, Neal, Johnston and Johnston – and add a couple veterans happy to have changed leagues, like David Williams and James Niggemeyer, and we have quite a “routine” field.

Which brings up an interesting characteristic.

For the first time in a while, I recognize the vast majority of the most successful FLW Tour anglers. Check the list yourself. The top finishers have become more … household.

Maybe I’m looking into this too much, but I truly wonder how this will impact the next phase of competitive fishing. You see, with high numbers of FLW pros jumping ship and moving to the Bassmaster Elite Series in recent years, the remaining talent was often less than recognizable. Many of the anglers who filled the open holes were regional fishermen trying to make a jump, or high-stakes gamblers without much of a résumé.

The result? The big guns of the FLW Tour – those pros with experience and longevity in the game – whooped ‘em. They took the new kids to school, especially in the points race.

What we’re left with is a stacked list of FWC qualifiers coming from the Tour, and a more recognizable list of names near the top. Essentially, such should lead to more fan interaction and following, easier publicity for the standouts and a better chance of a big-name champion. In terms of marketing and the future of the Tour, it’s a pretty good scenario.

Two aspects of FLW’s unique system must be accounted for, however. First is the organization's desire to include just about everyone possible in their championship. Thirteen fishermen requiring no experience whatsoever in FLW Tour competition are eligible to compete in the Cup. Granted, this is by design. Allowing Series anglers, TBF winners, All-Americans and the like is sure to increase interest from competitors but, with regular-season field sizes larger than ever, I’m not sure that’s as important as it once was.

Moving on, we must also consider the toughening of the field on Tour. While all the pro fishing conversations seem to revolve around the increasing level of competition on the Elite circuit, from what I see, a similar argument can be made on the FLW side. In fact, judging by the earnings list, standing out and striking it big is apparently getting more difficult.

Now the final numbers haven’t figured in, as the Forrest Wood Cup is still ahead of us, but the full-season payout for the top finishers on Tour appear to be less than similar years. Once more, there’s only a couple anglers who earned six figures in 2018, compared to several more in years past.

My theory: The top guys are all dividing the money more frequently due to tighter competition, without a handful of standouts cleaning up. Perhaps the days of the FLW kingpin are fading – whether that’s David Fritts, Brent Ehrler or Bryan Thrift – and the new guard will simply trade money more often.

In any case, the field is set and the deck is stacked. In 5 short weeks, one man will separate his name from the list.

(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.)