ROGERS, Ark. (March 31, 2004) – Pro Shinichi Fukae of Osaka, Japan, grabbed the lead on opening day of the $1.25 million Wal-Mart Open on Beaver Lake thanks to a five-bass catch weighing 16 pounds, 7 ounces. The Wal-Mart FLW Tour’s annual event on the Arkansas fishery, which is presented by Tyson Foods, features 200 pros in the hunt for a top award of $200,000 cash. Two hundred co-anglers are also competing for a top award of $40,000 cash. The Wal-Mart Open is one of the regular season’s most lucrative events and is one of three FLW Tour events in 2004 with cash purses in excess of $1 million.

The Wal-Mart Open is traditionally held a few weeks later than this year’s event, meaning Beaver bass are still in prespawn mode. A cold front that passed through northwest Arkansas earlier in the week means chilly takeoff temperatures and highs in the 50s. The conditions made for a tough bite Wednesday, but Fukae prevailed thanks to a relatively lengthy two-week practice period and a productive small jig.

Fukae is midway through a successful rookie year on the FLW Tour, having finished fourth at the season opener on Lake Okeechobee and 11th on the Atchafalaya Basin. He stumbled a bit at the previous tournament on Old Hickory Lake, finishing 71st, but redeemed himself Wednesday with his leading limit of bass that he caught in 10 to 15 feet of water. He caught 11 keepers over the course of the day and caught mostly largemouths, including his heaviest, a 5-pounder. Sunlight seems to be helping Fukae’s pattern, as is the slightly higher water level. Fukae is currently ranked seventh in FLW Tour points standings.

In second is David Walker of Sevierville, Tenn., with five bass weighing 15 pounds, 6 ounces. Castrol pro Darrel Robertson of Jay, Okla., caught five bass weighing 14 pounds, 13 ounces to sit in the No. 3 spot, and following him in fourth is Craig Powers of Rockwood, Tenn., with five bass weighing 14 pounds, 9 ounces. Tied for fifth are Brent Chapman of Shawnee, Kan., and Ray Scheide of Russellville. Both anglers caught five bass weighing 13 pounds, 13 ounces.

Tony Couch of Buckhead, Ga., caught a 5-pound, 4-ounce bass Wednesday to earn Snickers Big Bass honors in the Pro Division. He earned $750 for his big bass.

Clayton Reitz of Morton, Ill., leads the Co-angler Division thanks to his catch Wednesday of five bass that weighed 11 pounds, 6 ounces. He fished with Ozark Trail pro Andy Morgan of Dayton, Tenn., who is currently 55th on the pro side.

“I caught them on a rubber worm, just dragging bottom,” said Reitz, who is fishing his first season on the FLW Tour. “We were fishing in about 12 feet of water. (Leading) feels neat and feels good, but things could be totally different tomorrow.”

Rounding out the top five co-anglers are Jason Knapp of Uniontown, Pa. (five bass, 11 pounds, 3 ounces); co-angler points leader Keith Pace of Monticello, Ark. (five bass, 10 pounds, 3 ounces); Lonnie Fuller Jr. of Hemphill, Texas (three bass, 9 pounds, 4 ounces); and Mike Jones of Lebanon, Mo. (five bass, 9 pounds, 1 ounce).

Thomas Higdon of Owensboro, Ky., claimed the Snickers Big Bass award in the Co-angler Division Wednesday thanks to a 5-pound, 3-bass that earned him $500.

Anglers will take off from Prairie Creek Marina in Rogers at 7 a.m. Thursday, 8 a.m. Friday and 6:30 a.m. Saturday. Thursday’s weigh-in will also be held at the marina beginning at 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday’s weigh-ins will be held at the Wal-Mart store located at 2110 W. Walnut in Rogers beginning at 5 p.m. and 3 p.m., respectively.

The community is encouraged to attend the Family Fun Zone Friday and Saturday outside the weigh-in tent in the Wal-Mart parking lot. The Family Fun Zone features interactive displays, product samples and games for the entire family to enjoy. The Fun Zone will open Friday at 3 p.m. and Saturday at 11 a.m.

Country star Blake Shelton will be on hand Friday to perform a free concert at Wal-Mart following the semifinal-round weigh-in. Shelton, who first made his mark in 2001 with the No. 1 smash “Austin,” will perform that and other hits including “Ol’ Red” and “The Baby.”

Following Thursday’s competition, the field will be narrowed from 200 competitors per division to 10, and weights will be cleared for Friday’s competition. Co-angler competition concludes Friday based on the heaviest one-day weight, and pros continue competition Saturday with the winner determined by the heaviest two-day weight.

Anglers are also competing this week for valuable points that determine Land O’ Lakes Angler of the Year standings and the field for the 2004 FLW Tour Championship, set for Aug. 11-14 in Birmingham, Ala., on Logan Martin Lake. The $1.5 million championship presented by Castrol awards the winning pro $500,000 cash, the sport’s largest prize.

Yamaha pro Dean Rojas of Grand Saline, Texas, who currently leads the Angler of the Year points standings, had a tough opening day on Beaver Lake, catching zero. His nearest competition, No. 2-ranked Glenn Browne of Ocala, Fla., who trails Rojas by one point in the standings, fared only slightly better, coming in at 175th place with one bass weighing 1 pound.

In FLW Tour competition, pros and co-anglers are randomly paired each day, with pros supplying the boat, controlling boat movement and competing against other pros. Co-anglers fish from the back deck against other co-anglers. Two hundred points are awarded to tournament winners, with 199 for second, 198 for third, and so on. Every angler who receives weight credit in a tournament earns points.

Coverage of the Wal-Mart Open will be broadcast to 65 million Outdoor Life Network subscribers on the “FLW Outdoors” television program. A tournament preview featuring bass-fishing legend Hank Parker will air April 18 at 1 p.m. Eastern time and April 22 at 5 p.m. Eastern time. Fishing fans can watch the tournament weigh-in with hosts Carlton Wing, Taylor Carr and Charlie Evans April 25 at 1 p.m. and April 29 at 5 p.m. Eastern time. Tournament veteran Larry Nixon will host a tournament wrap-up May 2 at 1 p.m. Eastern time and May 6 at 5 p.m. Eastern time.

The winner of the FLW Tour stop on Beaver Lake will also be featured on “FLW Outdoors Presented by Wal-Mart” on Sunday from 9-11 a.m. Eastern time. The cutting-edge radio program hosted by Keith Lebowitz and Tony Casillas is broadcast live on the World Wide Web at FLWOutdoors.com. The show is also broadcast throughout Texas and parts of Oklahoma on Fox Sports 1190 AM KFXR in Dallas. Listeners who would like to ask a question of any show guest can e-mail the question to keithandtony@flwradio.com.

Named after the legendary founder of Ranger Boats, Forrest L. Wood, the Wal-Mart FLW Tour is administered by FLW Outdoors, the world’s leading marketer of competitive fishing. Other FLW Outdoors-sanctioned tournament trails are the EverStart Series, the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour, the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye League and the Wal-Mart Texas Tournament Trail.

Wal-Mart and many of America’s most respected companies support FLW Outdoors and its six tournament trails. Wal-Mart has been the title sponsor of FLW Outdoors since 1997. <