CLEWISTON — “If the weather gets right, it could be the perfect storm like it was in 2011 when they broke all the records,” said bass-fishing pro Drew Benton.

Benton hails from Panama City, Fla., and like the other 179 bass-fishing pros who will be making their way to Clewiston, Benton is gearing up for the 19th season of the Walmart FLW Tour.

Named for the founder of the Ranger Boats brand, Forrest L. Wood, the FLW Tour features professional and non-professional bass fisherman vying for large cash prizes and valuable points towards the coveted Forrest Wood Cup.
This year, 180 professional bass fisherman will team up with 180 co-anglers and set out on Lake Okeechobee beginning Feb. 6. The four-day tournament carries a $100,000 top prize for pros and a $20,000 top prize for co-anglers. Professional fisherman fishing out of a Ranger boat can add an extra $25,000 to their prize, while co-anglers can add an extra $5,000 to theirs.

“There’s endless opportunities on Lake Okeechobee right now,” said Benton, who won the Walmart FLW Tour in 2013. “It’s been too cold and the major spawn hasn’t happened yet. It all depends on the weather, but we could easily see a four-day total of 100 pounds again.”

The weather has an especially large impact on the fish in Lake Okeechobee. Bass-pro J.T. Kenney, of Palm Bay, Fla., weighed in on how the weather leading up to the tournament could affect its outcome.

“Even though it really screws up fishing, it takes these cold fronts to trigger those big giant schools of fish that live out on the main lake — and are uncatchable — to move into the grassy areas to spawn,” said Kenney. “That’s the time of year when we can see the big 30-pound stringers. I really believe that if we hit a warming trend before the tour event, it’s going to be lights out.”

With only one week until the tournament kicks off from Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina, and the weather forecast predicting hotter temperatures in the next few days, anglers could be warming up to great outcome for FLW 2014.

Ramon Iglesias, general manager at Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina, has been helping to bring the FLW Tour to Clewiston for several years. Iglesias said the tour has a big impact on the entire community. Based on a 2009 study, the approximate economic impact of the tour on the city of Clewiston is $1.55 million.

The 360 fisherman who will be travelling to Clewiston for the tour, often weeks in advance, spend money on food, fuel and accommodations, said Iglesias. Not to mention the FLW film crew, media outlets, marketing teams, and any family members who accompany them — the financial impact of everyone involved with the tour add up.

Everyone needs to eat, sleep and fuel up. Visitors will be spending money at area restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores and hotels. The gas stations also prosper because the fisherman need to fuel up both their boats and the trucks that haul them. In fact, the study suggested that boaters spend roughly $120 per tour day on gasoline alone.

Iglesias also reiterated the fact that the dollars spent in the area during the tour, stay in the area.

“This is a big thing for our community,” said Iglesias.

The FLW Tour also features two expos to be held in the Walmart parking lot on Feb. 8 and 9 before the fisherman weigh in at 4 p.m. Families can come out and experience Ranger boat simulations and interactive games, while meeting with professional anglers and getting freebies from the tour’s sponsors, including Chevrolet, Dunkin’ Donuts, Kellog’s, Snickers, and of course, Ranger boats. The expos begin at 12 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 8 and Sunday, Feb. 9. Attendees will also be treated to a free concert by country music singer Josh Thompson on Feb. 9 at 3 p.m., before the final weigh-in.

These expos are an example of the family friendly atmosphere of the FLW Tour.

That family friendly atmosphere is one reason by Billy DeHart chose to compete in this year’s tour. DeHart, who travelled to Clewiston from the San Francisco Bay Area to compete for the second time in the FLW series, has been fishing in tournaments since 1993. The FLW Tour, he said, is family oriented and welcoming to newcomers in the fishing arena.

“[FLW] is open to all,” said DeHart, “You don’t have to qualify and it’s open to everyone, unlike other organizations.”

DeHart will join the other 359 anglers and co-anglers on Feb. 6 at 7 a.m., when the boats take off in a shotgun start from Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina. Below is a schedule of the 2014 FLW Tour:

Thursday, Feb. 6
Takeoff at Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina, 7:30 a.m.
Weigh-in at Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina, 3 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 7
Takeoff at Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina, 7:30 a.m.
Weigh-in at Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina, 3 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 8
Takeoff at Clewiston Boat Basin, 7:30 a.m.
FLW Expo at Walmart, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Weigh-in at Walmart, 4 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 9
Takeoff at Clewiston Boat Basin, 7:30 a.m.
FLW Expo at Walmart, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Josh Thompson concert at Walmart, 3 p.m.
Weigh-in at Walmart, 4 p.m.