This week it’s all about the Cup as FLW prepares for another edition of its championship event and outdoor show, sure to bring excitement, entertainment and scrumptious barbecue to the attendees and fans. The Cup dates back to the inception of FLW in 1996 – although it carried a few different names in the early years – and always seems to prove that the cream rises to the top, as previous winners include many of the biggest names in pro fishing.
As in the past, it’s time to consider who’s got a shot to win this year, give my take from the inside and make a winning prediction. As usual, my guess may surprise a few of you.
For starters, let’s examine a couple anglers on everyone’s radar: Bryan Thrift and John Cox. Undoubtedly two of the hottest fishermen on Tour, each seems to constantly put himself in position to win anywhere they go. Both bring a unique set of talents to their approach and rarely waver from a game plan. That steadfast method proves to be a major advantage in championship events time and again, as less experienced anglers often try to do too much, and too many things, failing miserably in the process.
Cox and Thrift will likely be in the mix. In fact, I’d predict that, along with David Dudley and Scott Martin, one of these four will threaten to win up until the last moment and finish in the top 3. Perhaps that’s not such a bold prediction, as we’ve seen the 2019 mass exodus of touring pros open up the ranks a bit; meaning existing, accomplished pros have cleaned house at both B.A.S.S. and FLW. For these four hammers, life is pretty good, and should be at the Cup. None, however, will win. It’s just too predictable.
Speaking of ship-jumpers, two former FLW standouts should also have a shot: Cory Johnson and Zack Birge. Here, I especially like Southwestern Costa-qualifier Birge. He’s a veteran of several Cups and had a good start on the Bass Pro Tour, so he’s fishing well. Birge is young and aggressive, and he placed well in the Cup last year just upstream at Ouachita. I’d watch him.
Johnson, however, doesn’t get my vote. No doubt he’s an incredible fisherman, proven with high finishes in numerous locales, and he and his brother continue to pillage tournaments all across the Northern region. But I was turned off by Johnson’s approach – and comments – in a recent BassFan interview. Here, he practically regarded the Cup as an inconvenience in his schedule, and promised to bail out if he performs poorly on day 1. After his remarks, I doubt he’ll be missed.
In this day and age, one must always consider college fishing superstars; records prove that young anglers are carrying their college momentum into the pro ranks and never looking back. This year, Austin Felix stands out as a top scholastic performer at the Cup. Since his big YETI College Fishing team win in 2014, Felix has fished well at both the Tour and Costa levels, and he’s played the game long enough now to stay level-headed. But he’s a Northerner and a grass guy, accustomed to drastically different conditions than Arkansas in August. In the end, I think Felix will have a solid career; I’m just not sure it will peak this week.
Larry Nixon is the only competitor with real Lake Hamilton experience, as he competed in the 2005 Cup and watched his best buddy George Cochran take down half-a-mil. While I’m sure Nixon could ID every stretch of shoreline Cochran fished that week, I doubt it will make any difference. Nixon is a true warrior – he’s done this more than possibly any fisherman in history – and he knows to play each game with an open mind. A Nixon win would be monumental, reminding me, really, of Cochran’s triumph late in his own career. But Nixon has been plagued by injury and he attracts too much attention from spectators. Sadly, Larry Nixon is who I want to win, but not who I predict to.
Nope, that guy is none other than Matt Becker. Yep, 26-year old, unassuming Matt Becker form Finleyville, Pennsylvania. Becker was the Tour’s Rookie of the Year in 2018, finished well in the Cup that season and performed solidly again in 2019, earning checks in five of the seven regular-season events. Becker should fly somewhat under the radar with both the Arkansas press and fan base and will likely find suitable conditions to finesse-fish offshore. Finally, Becker is a limit-catcher. In nearly every event this season he weighed in a five-bass limit every day he competed. Such will be the most important aspect of fishing this week: bringing five fish to the scales. The winner will do so, and may be the only one in the field.
Yep, Becker’s my man. Sure, I had to leave a few top performers out; Nick Lebrun has proven he’s the real deal, and I’m fascinated by everything Brian Latimer does. But this week my money’s on a young angler from the Keystone State, surprising everyone by his performance.
Regardless, when it comes to a summer event in Arkansas, the champion will earn it.
(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.)