Chase for the $1.5 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship under way

CLEWISTON, Fla. (Jan. 18, 2006) - The 2006 tournament season got off to a sweet start for pro Mike Hawkes of Sabinal, Texas, Wednesday when he caught a five-bass limit weighing 19 pounds, 12 ounces to lead the 2006 Wal-Mart FLW Tour season opener presented by Snickers on Lake Okeechobee.

Pros are competing on the massive lake for $100,000 cash and valuable points that could qualify them for a trip to the $1.5 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship in Birmingham, Ala., for a shot at $500,000 cash - the sport's biggest award. Conditions were less than ideal on opening day, however, as overnight wind stirred up sediments and overcast skies coupled with sporadic rain kept the bass relatively scattered for most of the day. The lake, which was hit hard by hurricane Wilma in 2005, still holds plenty of big bass, but getting them to bite was not as easy as in years past.

Key baits for Hawkes where a black and blue Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver with a 1-ounce tungsten weight and a 1/2-ounce black and blue Mini-Me spinnerbait with gold willow-leaf blades.

Hawkes started his day flipping the Sweet Beaver to matted reeds in Moonshine Bay then switched to the spinnerbait due to the overcast conditions and a stiff wind that made boat positioning difficult. Late in the day, however, as the clouds broke, he switched back to the Sweet Beaver with good results, landing a 7-pound, 9-ounce largemouth with just 15 minutes to spare. The fish was the perfect companion to a 6-pounder that he caught earlier in the day on the spinnerbait.

"I'm gong to go back tomorrow and catch five more and do the best I can," said Hawkes, who earned two top-10s on the FLW Tour last season and finished 17th in the Land O'Lakes Angler of the Year points race. "One good bite is all it will take, and I won't have a problem. I'm prepared to go out and struggle though. The clouds are suppose to clear out with the high pressure moving in, so I don't think they will bite as good as they did today. I think it's going to be a little harder on everyone."

Rounding out the top five pros are Chip Harrison of Bremen, Ind. (five bass, 18 pounds, 14 ounces); Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla. (five bass, 17 pounds, 14 ounces); Kelly Jordon of Mineola, Texas (five bass, 17 pounds, 12 ounces); and Tony Defilippo of Lake Ann, Mich. (five bass, 15 pounds, 2 ounces).

Harrison caught most of his bass, including an 8-pound, 7-ounce largemouth, flipping a silver and blue Gambler BB cricket rigged with a 1 1/2-ounce tungsten weight. Like the vast majority of the 200-boat field, he was fishing matted vegetation in Moonshine Bay. He also threw a white spinnerbait and Rat-L-Trap between mats. Unlike Hawkes, Harrison believes that bright sun and calm winds will help improve the bite Thursday.

Sean Hoernke of Magnolia, Texas, earned $750 for the Snicker's Big Bass award in the Pro Division thanks to an 8-pound, 13-ounce bass he caught en route to a three-way tie for seventh place with Anthony Gagliardi of Prosperity, S.C., and Dale Teaney of Williamsburg, Ohio.

Lee Teeter of Hickory, N.C., leads the Co-angler Division in the chase for a top award of $20,000. He caught five bass weighing 13 pounds, 3 ounces while fishing with Snickers pro David Lauer of South Bend, Ind., who is currently tied for the critical 10th-place cut position.

Rounding out the top five co-anglers are Judy Israel of Clewiston, Fla. (five bass, 12 pounds, 6 ounces); Kenny Moody of Killen, Ala. (five bass, 12 pounds); Rob McMurray of Troy, Mich. (three bass, 11 pounds, 14 ounces); and Kenneth Chapman of Woodlawn, Tenn. (five bass, 11 pounds, 13 ounces).

McMurray earned $375 for the Snicker's Big Bass award in the Co-angler Division thanks to an 8-pound, 7-ounce bass.

Overall, 1,106 bass weighing 2,562 pounds, 11 ounces were caught Wednesday, including 223 five-bass limits.

Anglers competing in the $900,000 tournament will take off from Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina in Clewiston each morning at 7. 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 1005 W. Sugarland Highway in Clewiston beginning at 4 p.m.

The community is invited to attend the free Family Fun Zone Friday and Saturday outside the weigh-in tent in the Wal-Mart parking lot. The Family Fun Zone, which opens at 2 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday, features interactive displays, product samples and games for the entire family to enjoy.

Two hundred pros and 200 co-anglers representing 38 states, Japan and Canada compete in the two-day opening round for one of 10 slots in Friday's competition based on their two-day accumulated weight. Weights are cleared for day three, and co-angler competition concludes following Friday's weigh-in. The top 10 pros continue competition Saturday, with the winner determined by the heaviest accumulated weight from days three and four.

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.

Coverage of the Lake Okeechobee tournament will be broadcast to 78 million FSN (Fox Sports Net) subscribers in the United States as part of the "FLW Outdoors" television programs airing Feb. 19 and Feb. 26. "FLW Outdoors" airs Sunday mornings at 11 Eastern time. "FLW Outdoors" is also broadcast internationally to more than 300 million households in such countries as Germany, China, South Africa, Australia, Malaysia, Russia, Hungary and the United Kingdom, making it the most widely distributed weekly outdoor-sports television show in the world. Additionally, FLW Outdoors is proud to provide tournament coverage to more than 800,000 servicemembers stationed around the world in 177 countries and aboard naval ships through broadcasts on the American Forces Network.

Named after the legendary founder of Ranger Boats, Forrest L. Wood, FLW Outdoors administers the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, Wal-Mart FLW Series, Stren Series, Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, Wal-Mart Texas Tournament Trail, Wal-Mart FLW Walleye Tour, Wal-Mart FLW Walleye League, Wal-Mart FLW Kingfish Tour, Wal-Mart FLW Kingfish Series and Wal-Mart FLW Redfish Series. These circuits offer combined purses exceeding $36.5 million through 235 events in 2006.

For more information about FLW Outdoors and its tournament programs, visit FLWOutdoors.com or call (270) 252-1000.

Wal-Mart and many of America's largest and most respected companies support FLW Outdoors and its tournament trails. Wal-Mart signed on as an FLW Outdoors sponsor in 1997 and today is the world's leading supporter of tournament fishing. For more information about Wal-Mart, visit Wal-Mart.com.