AOY: Seven up and seven down

We’re only done with three Elite Series tournaments, so it might seem like the season just started; but for those anglers who want to move up in the Toyota Angler of the Year standings or maintain their position, time is running surprisingly short. A week from now, we’ll be at the halfway mark; and while no one can really coast after that, before you know it we’ll be hearing about anglers who “need to win the last event” if they want to have a shot at the Bassmaster Classic.

Obviously, everyone wants to win the AOY title, but only a few anglers each year have a meaningful opportunity to achieve that. As Ken Duke has pointed out previously, one bad stumble and you’re pretty much out of that race. On the other hand, the Classic carrot remains viable for everyone up until the last event. To be honest, I didn’t love the “win and you’re in” concept at first, but I’m inclined to admit that I was wrong. It keeps anglers committed until the end, and that increases the incentives, the storylines and the possible payoffs.

On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of an eight-event Elite Series schedule. It crams too much together and leaves anglers’ careers subject to too many uncontrollable variables – if your motor blows at the wrong time, you can flush your year down the crapper. Additionally, as a fan, I want more tournaments, at more venues, at wildly different times of year. I understand the operational and financial reasons that led them to cut back from eleven to eight, and I know that the B.A.S.S. management team has a lot of issues to deal with, but I sincerely hope that expanding the schedule is a high priority.

With all of that in mind, it’s not too soon to analyze what’s going on among the 100 anglers who have plunked down their cash and committed to the season. Year after year, certain names repeatedly end up in the same general areas (top, middle or bottom), but the beauty and the frustration of this sport is that we don’t have a large enough sample size to ever predict precisely what will happen. Unlike baseball, where we have thousands of at-bats  to analyze how a hitter fares on turf, against lefthanders, in hit-and-run situations, or on odd-numbered Thursdays, in professional bass fishing, the data field we mine is sorely lacking. So while certain guys are in their predictable spots, for whatever reason there are plenty of guys who’ve left their assigned seating, oftentimes for the worse.

I’m going to give you seven of each:

The top seven in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race features a septet of pros whose presence there should surprise exactly no one.

  1. In the No. 1 spot, we have Edwin Evers, one of the two or three best anglers on tour never to have won a major title.
  2. Directly behind Evers is Terry Scroggins, who likewise has nibbled around the edges of greatness, not missing a Classic since 2004 and consistently threatening to become a superstar.
  3.  In third place is some guy named VanDam. It’s only a surprise when he doesn’t win  Toyota AOY.
  4. The cleanup slot is occupied by Ishama Monroe, fittingly a longball hitter who knows how to close out a win.
  5. Next we have Jeff Kriet, another angler perpetually on the verge of establishing himself as a super-duper-star. He’s already a fan favorite.
  6. Behind Kriet is Brandon Card, last year’s Elite Series Rookie of the Year.
  7. Finally, the seven spot is filled by a first ballot Hall of Famer, the ageless Gary Klein, he of eight B.A.S.S. wins and 29 Classic appearances.

That’s a Murderer’s Row for the ages, and the makings of a pretty good Fantasy Fishing team. Apparently most of the cream does rise to the top.

However, some of the cream got stuck at the bottom of the mug, too. If you scroll down the standings, you’ll find a group of superstars scattered among the bottom half. None of them should have a finger on the panic button quite yet, but if they don’t get cracking soon it will be “put up, or work the Classic Outdoor Expo” time. Here are seven who caught my eye:

  1. #51 Ott DeFoe – Two years in the league, two years in the final eight. He was the greatest threat to become “the next KVD” (like so many others) until Jason Christie started blowing the doors off. He’s reasonably well-positioned to make the Classic, but his first AOY may have to wait at least another year.
  2. #52 Mike McClelland – After a year where he barely snuck into the Classic field, McClelland made a run at the title, finishing 5th, then started off the year with an 11that the Sabine, but out-of-the-money finishes on Falcon and Bull Shoals (two lakes where he was on a lot of fans’ Fantasy Fishing teams) can’t sit well with him. Like DeFoe, he’s well-positioned for a Classic berth, but the AOY potential that he best demonstrated in 2008 hasn’t yet provided a breakthrough.
  3. #62 Mike Iaconelli – Like McClelland, after a strong Classic showing in Oklahoma, Ike has struggled to keep his momentum going. His boating mishap on the Sabine was the worst of his travails, but he’s only notched one check in three Elite Series events so far. With the late season trips up north, you’d be foolish to bet against him making the Classic, but with a best finish of 36th so far, AOY seems unlikely. It’s now been seven years since he won that title and 10 since his Classic victory.
  4. #69 Jason Quinn – If you’d told most fishing fans back in 2004 that Quinn would have a major title by now, few would have blinked an eye. Granted, things lined up well for him that year with a home lake Classic on Wylie, and he performed admirably. But the expectations went beyond the hometown benefit of the doubt. Since then, he’s qualified for a Classic every 3 years – 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013 – and while he’s put together some quality finishes, he hasn’t done it with any rhythm. At 41 years old, he can’t play the “young gun” card anymore. Entering an age when many anglers seem to peak, this is a time for him to break out of his shell of inconsistency.
  5. #93 Tommy Biffle – I was surprised when I checked the record book and noticed that Biffle hadn’t made the Classic in 2012 or 2009. It seems like he’s there every year, and a favorite to win every year. After watching fellow master flipper Denny Brauer retire after 2012, Biffle inherited the sole mantle of the guy you expect to hammer them when the bite is shallow and tight to cover. Lots of fish were caught on a jig at the Sabine – he finished 84th. There was a strong shallow bite at Falcon – 54th. He’s a legit threat to win at some point this season, since he’s won six B.A.S.S. events in five states, on rivers and lakes, on smallmouths and on largemouths. Still, you can’t depend on winning to get you into the Big Dance. He’ll need some of his typical Top 12s if he is going to vault up the scorecard.
  6. #94 Timmy Horton – Like Quinn, Horton was marked as a world-beater from the get-go, and with good reason – he won the AOY title in his first year. Nevertheless, after making 10 Classics in a row at the start of his career, he’s only fished one of the last four. Horton has a lot on his plate with a TV show and other obligations; but, like Quinn, he is also right around the 40-year mark, and it’s time to live up to the tremendous promise that has ebbed a bit in recent years.
  7. #97 Brandon Palaniuk – This is the one that probably hurts fishingfans the most. Palaniuk, the likeable, ultra-polished, super-talented, out-of-nowhere B.A.S.S. Nation-bred competitor, has now nearly claimed two Classics, but doesn’t have the trophy, although he does have some Elite Series hardware. That’s a big profile to live up to. Meanwhile, in his last six events other than the Classic, to include three Opens and three Elites, he’s finished no better than 66th. Last year, he won at Bull Shoals; this year, he finished 81st. At 25 years old, it’s a little bit premature to expect him to dominate every time out, but you get the feeling that he’s dangerous enough to win any event but inexperienced enough that the wild swings may continue for a while.

 I don’t have to tell any of them that their performances have been sub-par so far. They’re all probably ready to bite someone’s head off at this point. I can also guarantee you that none of them want to hear the question of death from a single fan: “Why are you working the Classic show? I thought you were fishing this thing.” That’s a greater motivator than fame or fortune.

The great thing for all involved is that there’s time and room to move up. In fact, of the seven downers I listed here, I’d be willing to bet at least two or possibly as many as five will be fishing at Guntersville next February. Meanwhile, one of those top seven may fall off the map completely. Still, it’s a lot easier to play with top seven house money than it is to scratch and claw from now through August.