The words were like barbed wire ripped across Gagliardi’s back.
“It’s still sickening to go back and think about that moment,” Gagliardi recalls. “That was a bad time; I mean a really bad time, the absolute lowest point of my career, without a doubt. Honestly, the thought of throwing in the towel on the whole season did cross my mind.”
Thankfully, he didn’t. The Chevy and Team Rainshadow pro instead did the almost unthinkable, accomplishing a virtual mission impossible: He qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup – being held on his home fishery of Lake Murray – in just five tournaments after being disqualified from the season-opening Tour event on Lake Okeechobee.
FLW reported on this story after the second day of competition at the season-finale on Kentucky Lake – the day that Gagliardi found out he’d made the Cup.
It turns out there was more to the story. From his plans to turn around a disappointing 2013 season, including a new strategy for a strong start at Okeechobee, to a five-tournament grind that was near Angler of the Year pace, Gagliardi recounts for FLW his remarkable 2014 season. It was a season that started off dark and seemingly limited, but will end in front of the bright lights of a worldwide audience in Columbia, S.C., Aug. 14-17. That’s where we’ll find out if the final chapter includes a Forrest Wood Cup victory for the hometown favorite.
Head Start Turns False Start
In 2013, Gagliardi missed qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup and describes his 2013 FLW Tour season as mediocre at best. Coming into the 2014 season, he set new goals and had a plan for how to achieve them.
“I was coming off an unimpressive 2013 season and had used the off-season to really clear my head and work on a new attitude for 2014,” Gagliardi says. “I liked the 2014 schedule, and, obviously, I liked Murray being the site of the Forrest Wood Cup since I live here.
“I was really feeling good about a new beginning – a fresh start,” he continues. “In fact, I entered the Rayovac in January on Okeechobee just to get fishing again and get a head start on the season.”
But what was supposed to be a strong start out of the blocks turned into insidious quicksand that nearly swallowed Gagliardi’s fishing career.
Gagliardi inadvertently broke a new Walmart FLW Tour rule for 2014 (Rule 5, the 30-day restricted-access rule), which puts stricter limitations on a pro as far as with whom he can enter tournament waters with 30 days prior to the event. Gagliardi practiced with a friend from South Carolina who was entered in the Rayovac event as a co-angler, but had no plans of fishing the FLW Tour event. By the rule’s definition, Gagliardi’s friend constituted an illegal practice partner because the outing took place within 30 days of the FLW Tour event, and the angler was not a family member, a registered Tour angler or co-angler, or an approved member of the media.
“I knew about the rule, but I just never thought about it when my friend practiced with me,” Gagliardi recalls. “He rode with me down to Okeechobee, and the irony is he was actually planning to practice with another pro in the Rayovac event who was not a competitor in the Tour event. But we got in so late to Okeechobee that night, so I told him he could practice with me on the first day and then he could hook up with the other pro for the rest of practice.”
The rule infraction was completely inadvertent – there was no advantage to be gained. Yet, the rule had been broken, and thus Gagliardi would be penalized accordingly: complete disqualification from the Okeechobee Tour event.
“It was a careless oversight, pure and simple,” he says. “I had no idea what I’d done.”
Digging a Hole, Literally
Gagliardi fished the Rayovac FLW Series event and was still completely unaware he had made a rule infraction until just about a week before he was planning the leave home for the Okeechobee Tour event.
“I received a couple of texts from other FLW Tour pros who had fished the Rayovac and were asking around about who Tour pros had practiced with at the Rayovac,” Gagliardi says. “I thought it was an odd set of inquiries. So I went back and looked at the rules, did the math and figured out my practice partner at the Rayovac had fished with me inside the 30-day restricted period. And since he was not in the Tour event, a family member or a media representative, I was out of bounds. The very first thing I did was call Bill and explain the situation to him, and he said those words that I guarantee you never ever want to hear as a tournament angler.”
From that moment on, the next few weeks were somewhat of a blur to Gagliardi. While all his competitors headed to sunny, warm Okeechobee to kick off the FLW Tour season, he stayed at home and dug himself a big hole – literally and figuratively – in the frozen ground on the shores of Lake Murray.
“I sort of blocked everything out of my mind that week,” Gagliardi says. “I didn’t keep up with the Okeechobee event at all. I didn’t really even care.
“I do remember doing manual labor,” he laughs. “I needed an electrical line run to my dock for a boat lift, so I spent the week digging a 200-foot ditch through the backyard. I guess it was sort of a self-imposed punishment.”
As Gagliardi dug his own ditch one shovel scoop at a time, his competitors were getting ahead of him, one bass at a time.
“At the time I figured my Cup chances were completely done for,” he says. “In my mind I went from the high hopes and excitement of having some excellent opportunities to make a lot of money in 2014 to not even making the Cup, and then only having five tournaments to make a living, which could have been a financial catastrophe.”
Despite the low odds, Gagliardi knew that qualifying for the Cup was certainly mathematically possible in five events. Difficult? Yes, but doable.
“I figured I would need a top 30 for five events in a row,” he says. “The only other time I had a streak like that was in 2006 when I won Angler of the Year.”
Many might figure that since Gagliardi’s Cup chances were slim-to-none he would have reverted to a “go big or go home” approach to his fishing to see if he could win an event and a $125,000 payday. But, according to Gagliardi, quite the opposite occured. He buckled down more than ever for top-50 checks.
“I’ve never been a real high-risk fisherman anyway,” Gagliardi says. “My style is more conservative, a slow-and-steady approach. So I wasn’t going to change my whole strategy and start taking major risks. The way I saw it, with only five tournaments to work with, I had to get at least a $10,000 check in every one just to stay afloat financially. This was not the time to start gambling with high-risk moves on the water.”
Gagliardi’s first Tour event of 2014 was Lake Hartwell in March where he finished seventh and, for the first time, saw a sliver of a chance for Cup qualification.
“In the standings I was still somewhere in the hundreds,” Gagliardi recalls. The top 35 in the Tour standings get invites to the Cup. “But there was a glimmer of hope. Simply based on my top-30-per-tournament premise, Hartwell actually gave me a little breathing room – as strange as that might sound after missing an entire tournament.”
At Rayburn, Gagliardi hit his target on the nose – 30th place. That brought him up into the 60s in the points.
“After Rayburn my goal became to finish each tournament high enough so that I at least left myself a chance at the next tournament,” he remembers. “If I could just stay in the hunt, I could stay fired up enough mentally to enter the next event with a good attitude. But if I had one bad day, I knew it was over.”
A 13th-place finish at Beaver Lake shot Gagliardi up to 44th place. At nine spots out of Cup qualification, Gagliardi was within striking distance with two tournaments left.
“The problem was going to be those two ledge events at Pickwick and Kentucky Lake,” he says. “In those ledge-fishing events I really don’t know what to do to better my chances. I go out, mark schools and come back in the tournament and fish them just like everyone else. You can finish anywhere from first to 100th doing that. There is very little separation from the field in terms of overall strategy.”
At Pickwick, a 46th-place finish lifted him to 37th in the points. Now mission impossible was in his grasp.
Gagliardi turned out a similar finish at Kentucky Lake – 48th place. As the scores were tallied, it was clear that Gagliardi would end up right on the cut-off line, or right below it.
All settled, Gagliardi finished the year in 37th place in the AOY standings, two spots below the Cup cutoff. But thanks to three anglers double qualifying (Andy Morgan, Randall Tharp and Dan Morehead), FLW extended the cut to 38th place.
Gagliardi was in.
He tied for points with Philip Jarabeck and Barry Wilson, and the trio claimed the final three Cup spots, which were added due to the three double-qualified pros.
Looking Back and Ahead
Looking back on the tumultuous year, Gagliardi says trying to qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup in five tournaments magnifies every fish catch.
“I can literally tell you about every fish I caught throughout the season. That’s how critical they were,” he says. “Big fish and lost fish are both magnified by 100. In my mind I can still see a 6-pounder I caught off the bed at Rayburn. I caught a 4 1/2-pounder in the last few minutes at Pickwick that I’ll never forget. And at Kentucky Lake, I caught two 4-pounders in the last 10 minutes of the day that took me from 13 pounds to 17 pounds. Without those two bites, I don’t get in the Cup. I can literally sit here and tell you about every fish that was the fish that did it.
“And one thing I really need to do is thank all the people that have been pulling for me since January,” Gagliardi adds. “The support I received from family, friends, fans, FLW staff and even my fiercest competitors was overwhelming all year long. That kind of encouragement goes a long way when you’re on pins and needles at every event.”
As Gagliardi looks toward the Forrest Wood Cup on his home lake, he feels the best part of his year might still be yet to come.
“I’m just glad the nightmare is over,” he says. “It’s like a million-pound weight has been lifted off me. I’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure I feel better now than I would have if I had qualified in six tournaments. Things happen for a reason, and given the crazy way in which events have unfolded this year, I’m starting to think the best part of my season might still be on the horizon at Lake Murray.”