ROGERS, Ark. – David Fritts. Rick Clunn. And now, Shinichi Fukae. The Japanese pro joined the ranks of bass fishing’s best Saturday by winning the Wal-Mart Open at Beaver Lake, becoming only the third pro angler ever to win multiple tournaments in the same Wal-Mart FLW Tour season.
Fritts won three FLW tournaments in 1997, and Clunn won two in 2000 – including that year’s Wal-Mart Open right here at Beaver Lake. Now, Fukae, who opened the 2006 season with a $100,000 victory at Lake Okeechobee, joins that elite group with another win – this one worth $200,000 – this week at Beaver Lake.
Not only that, Fukae has something that even Fritts and Clunn do not: an FLW Tour Angler of the Year trophy, which he won during his rookie season in 2004.
“Yeah, I’m excited right now,” Fukae said after the Saturday weigh-in. “It’s great. This is fantastic.”
Because he spoke through a translator, it was perhaps difficult for Fukae to express fully the breadth of his emotion in the face of such an accomplishment. Then again, given the seeming ease with which he dispatched the pro competition in Friday and Saturday’s final round, there’s no doubt that the pro from Osaka, Japan – who now calls Mineola, Texas, his home – is one cool customer when it comes to competitive fishing.
“I’m thinking all the time to fish against the fish, not against the people,” he said.
Fukae established a seemingly scant lead Friday by catching a five-bass limit weighing 11 pounds, 3 ounces in tough, changing conditions at Beaver Lake. Saturday – another windy day – he went right back to his main area at the mouth of Honey Creek near Beaver Dam and caught some 15 or so keeper bass. The five good spotted bass he weighed in again amounted to the heaviest limit of the day, 9-13, and he won the tournament with a two-day weight of 21 pounds even, almost 3 pounds more than runner-up Mark Rose.
Fukae’s winning area consisted of a patch of standing timber that became even more exposed than usual this week thanks to low lake levels. There, he keyed on a gently sloping gravel ramp where bigger spotted bass were staging to spawn. He changed nothing about his bait presentation most of the week, saying he elected to stay with a 4-inch green-pumpkin Yamamoto worm with a light, 3/32-ounce jighead on 8-pound-test line. But conditions changed slightly once again Saturday.
“I knew from last year that they were going to spawn in that area,” he said. “But today I changed the way I selected the spot due to the wind. I fished a little bit deeper today, from about 10 to 12 feet.”
With the finesse-fishing leg of the tours in full swing, Fukae is clearly rolling. He finished third at the inaugural Wal-Mart FLW Series event at Lake Lanier earlier this month. With this week’s win at Beaver Lake, he has now amassed almost a half-million dollars in FLW Outdoors earnings in just 2 ½ years on the American tour. Add to that his runaway 2004 FLW AOY title, the 2003 Japan Bass Angler of the Year award and 2003 BASSER All-Star Classic he won in Japan just prior to moving here, and it’s arguable whether he’s the best in the game at the moment.
“I think the victories here are much greater than the ones in Japan because there are so many great anglers in the field, like Larry Nixon and Guido Hibdon,” he said. “But I think I still need to learn more about American fishing and the American style, like crankbaits and power fishing.”
If he does that, look out, because Fukae has his sights set on making even more history.
“I’m going to try to win three, four times (in a year),” he said. “I love Kentucky Lake and Lake Champlain (the next two FLW Tour venues).”
Rose, one of the local favorites from Marion, Ark., caught a limit weighing 8 pounds, 9 ounces and finished second with a two-day weight of 18-2 in the finals. He earned $100,000 – the biggest check of his lengthy fishing career.
“I knew I wasn’t on enough fish to win this thing,” he said. “So I’m truly very excited.”
Rose caught his fish in the Clifties area of Beaver Lake, fishing points with 4-inch watermelon and green-pumpkin finesse worms on 8-pound line with 3/16-ounce weights. He, too, keyed on gravel points and made a milk run to about eight or nine spots in the area.
Two years ago, Craig Powers of Rockwood, Tenn., won $100,000 for finishing second at this event. This year, he cleared half that, $50,000, after pouring it on again at Beaver Lake and finishing third.
Powers caught a 7-pound, 7-ounce limit Saturday and finished with a two-day weight of 17-3.
“I caught every fish in this tournament on a topwater,” he said. “I made it the first two days with it, and I lived by it. Maybe I should have changed with the conditions, but you’ve got to go with the horse you rode in on. I knew, going into today, that I needed to get lucky and catch a big one or two, and it didn’t work out. But I’ve had a fabulous tournament.”
He also had some observations about the force that is Shinichi Fukae.
“He’s just a great fisherman,” Powers said. “People are going to hear a lot about him for a long time to come.”
Jeffrey Thomas of Broadway, N.C., finished fourth and collected $40,000 for a final weight of 14 pounds, 15 ounces. He caught the second-heaviest stringer Saturday, 9-8, with just three fish.
“I decided to go up the river and fish little flats with drains flowing into it,” he said. “I was keying on the big bite today, and I only got three of them.”
Darrel Robertson of Jay, Okla., last year’s Wal-Mart Open runner-up, posted one of the bigger limits Saturday and finished in fifth place, earning $30,000. He caught 9 pounds, 5 ounces and totaled 12-3 in the final round.
“I wasn’t really that effective the last two days,” he said. “But I had a lot of fun today, and I caught a lot of fish.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro finishers in FLW Tour competition at the Beaver Lake Wal-Mart Open:
6th: Mike Wurm of Hot Springs, Ark., 12-1, $28,000
7th: Clifford Pirch of Payson, Ariz., 11-14, $26,000
8th: Koby Kreiger of Okeechobee, Fla., 11-12, $24,000
9th: Toby Hartsell of Livingston, Texas, 10-8, $22,000
10th: Takahiro Omori of Emory, Texas, 6-5, $20,000
With two top-20 and one top-10 finish this season, Robertson also took over the lead in the FLW Tour pro standings with two tournaments remaining. He has 715 points.
Anthony Gagliardi, who was first in points coming into Beaver Lake, dropped one slot into second place with 694 points.
The next Wal-Mart FLW Tour event, the fifth of the season, is scheduled for Kentucky Lake near Benton, Ky., May 10-13.