KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Tom Mann Jr. of Buford, Ga., and Art Berry of Hemet, Calif., have each felt the sting of second place many times before; both are well-known for having a string of near-miss performances on tour.
So when they squared off against each other in the final round of Wal-Mart FLW Tour action at Lake Toho Saturday, there was a collective sense of relief among fishing fans because it became clear that, hey, one of them would finally get a win.
“I’ve stood on this stage a lot of times and I’ve finished second a lot of times,” Mann said before the last fish hit the scale. “I sure would like to win one.”
And win one he did. In a classic pro bass fishing showdown that pitted a grizzled tournament veteran versus a hot young gun – who were both anxious to shake the dreaded runner-up monkeys from their backs – the veteran Mann came out ahead and won $100,000 with a close 10-ounce victory over FLW rookie Berry.
“Wow, this feels good,” Mann said. “When you finally win a tournament, it does so many things. It’s just awesome. It’s great for your family; it’s great for your sponsors; and it boosts your confidence and gets you going again.”
Mann won with a final-round total weight of 16 pounds, 2 ounces. Despite a strong comeback Saturday, Berry came up short with 15-7.
This was clearly a two-man race by the end of the day. Despite calm, bluebird skies Saturday, the cold front that swept through central Florida two days ago gave the bass in Toho and Kissimmee lakes a case of lockjaw that stretched into the final day. Nobody caught a five-bass limit. Mann and Berry led the day by catching three keepers and, in the end, it came down to a contest between each of their kicker fish: Mann’s outweighed Berry’s by about half a pound.
And that was the difference. Mann, a two-time runner-up on the FLW Tour whose last tournament win was a BASS event 13 years ago, edged out Berry, probably the best young pro out of the West without a tournament win – but with a lot of second places.
Senko or swim
In the second position after Friday, Mann liked his chances today after seeing his partner Kenneth Chapman win the Co-angler Division with a dominant sack of fish. He knew that his fish were still there, so Mann returned to his area on Lake Kissimmee in the morning and started throwing the bait that led him into the finals: a watermelon-with-red-flake Senko.
“I spent two hours there this morning and I never got a bite,” he said. “So I went to my second-best spot and immediately caught a 2-pounder. Then I caught that 4-pounder. I didn’t have any idea that I would win, but I knew that it was going to be close.”
Mann’s water on Kissimmee was a stretch of bank with shallow water populated by grasses: maiden cane, arrowheads and lily pads. The bass he targeted all week were staging females hiding out underneath the grass waiting to spawn. The trick to catching them, he said, was the Senko and a lot of patience.
“I think more than anything it was the technique,” he said. “I was fishing the Senko really slow and just picking apart the grass line. Ninety percent of the bites came when the bait was on the fall. With that cold front, the water’s temperature dropped 10 degrees and it got dirty, which put the fish in a bad mood. I worked my main area over twice really hard and didn’t get bit, so I made the decision and said I’ve got to make the move.”
It turned out to be a veteran move. Already with a nearly 2-pound lead over Berry, the three fish he plucked off his secondary spot weighed a collective 8 pounds even and were just enough to push him past the hard-luck rookie.
“It’s not easy to take because you’re so close,” Mann said about Berry’s second place. “I know because I’ve been there. I thought I’d be there again because I thought he did it when I heard that he caught that last big fish on a swim bait. But it worked out.”
Berry is making it his mission to leave a Western imprint on the traditionally Eastern sport of pro bass fishing. The FLW rookie takes great pride in being from Southern California and gladly carries the torch of “Western pro” wherever he competes.
That’s why, when he caught what he thought was his winning fish late in the day on a swimbait – a distinctly Western technique – he was more than happy.
“I was fishing right in Toho. I caught one flipping fish and one on a flat on a spinnerbait,” Berry said. “I kept looking at the water and I was thinking, man, I could throw a swimbait around. For some reason, I just had a gut instinct about my swimbait. So I took it out of my rod locker and caught the big one on my second or third cast. It’s a Baby E swimbait, and it’s really the first true tournament-ready swimbait. It’s a smaller, shallow-running grass swimbait and it’s just phenomenal. I was really happy with my performance today.”
However, his kicker bass, at about 3 ½ pounds, wasn’t quite enough. His three fish Saturday totaled 9 pounds, 2 ounces – the heaviest catch of the day – but it was only good enough for second place and $36,000 in the two-day final round.
This was Berry’s fourth second-place finish in FLW Outdoors competition in the last three years. He collected three runner-up finishes in eight tournaments the first two years of EverStart Series Western Division competition and finished second in the points there last year. After having fished just three FLW Tour events in his career, he has already claimed two top-10 finishes, including today’s runner-up.
All of that is an enviable record by any measure, but for Berry, it’s still not a win.
“I’m sorry. I really don’t know what to say,” he said afterward. “I really thought I had it. I knew that, today, I probably fished harder than I ever have, and I fished smart. I could sit here and say that I lost four fish yesterday, but I am convinced that these are the things that make you a better fisherman.
“You know what? I’m excited about not winning because I know that it’s just going to make me work harder and harder at this. There’s nothing that I want more than to win.”
Lane slips to third
Hometown favorite Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla., likely felt the pain of the lockjawed bass the most. After leading Friday, he caught just two fish weighing 2 pounds, 5 ounces Saturday and finished third with a final weight of 13-3. He earned $25,000.
Lane’s pain is perhaps eased by the fact that he rose to the top of the yearly standings after this week’s tournament. The FLW rookie has 392 points and leads Kelly Jordon of Mineola, Texas, the Okeechobee winner, and Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala., by four points.
Florida flipping phenom J.T. Kenney of Frostburg, Md., the opening-round leader, caught three bass Saturday and finished with a final weight of 11 pounds, 11 ounces. He finished fourth and collected $20,000.
“I felt like I couldn’t do anything wrong coming into the tournament,” he said. “But I had a few missed opportunities today.”
Toby Hartsell of Livingston, Texas, finished fifth and won $18,000 with a final weight of 10 pounds, 6 ounces. Saturday he caught two bass weighing 4-9.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros finishers at FLW Lake Toho:
6th: Ricky Shumpert of Lexington, S.C., 9-3, $17,000
7th: Dan Morehead of Paducah, Ky., 8-15, $16,000
8th: Pugh, 6-5, $15,000
9th: Dion Hibdon of Stover, Mo., 5-12, $14,000
10th: Warren Wyman of Calera, Ala., 2-5, $13,000
The next Wal-Mart FLW Tour event is scheduled for the Ouachita River near West Monroe, La., March 9-12.