2014 Elites: On your mark!

The 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series season is about to begin, and I got to thinking about how important it is to get off to a good start. Then I got to wondering about who the fastest starters are in the Elites.

I realize there's a lot of anecdotal babble out there regarding such things ("Joe Schmoe always seems to get off to a good start!"), but I hate that kind of uninformed prattle that somehow passes for intelligent commentary. I decided to check for myself.

Not surprisingly, a fast start is pretty important (more on that later), and the fastest starters are the guys who go to the Bassmaster Classic most often and annually challenge for Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year.

I counted only the first tournament of the season and disregarded last year's rookies. I only looked at anglers who have fished two or more years in the Elite Series.

These anglers are the best 10 starters of the Elite era (2006-13):

1. Alton Jones (8 events; 5 times in top 8; never worse than 37th)
2. Kevin VanDam (8 events; 4 times in top 8; never worse than 31st)
3. Dean Rojas (8 events; 6 times in top 13; never worse than 51st)
4. Brandon Card
5. Todd Faircloth
6. Stephen Browning
7. Edwin Evers
8. Skeet Reese
9. Steve Kennedy
10. Bill Lowen

To give numbers to those names, Jones averages a finish in the top 14 percent of each Elite opener. KVD is close behind at 15 percent. At 10th, Lowen scores 27 percent. The average, of course, is 50 percent, and Matt Herren has been the most average starter in Elite history, scoring 49.82.

In the Elite era, those top 10 anglers have only missed 11 Classics out of a possible 74 (that's 85 percent and just about anyone not named Kevin VanDam would be happy with that). Yes, it's true that Browning made it last year by winning a Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open and not through his Elite performance, but that hardly dings the percentage at all (84 percent).

Are these guys strong starters because they're among the best anglers in the Elite Series or is it something else — superior talent in the early season, better eyesight for the sight-fishing events that dominate the early season, greater familiarity with the venues (three of the eight openers were on Lake Amistad; two were on the Harris Chain)?

It's certainly a mix of those things and probably more. Realistically, we'll never know exactly how it shakes out.

What we do know is that starting strong is important. It puts you on the path to the Bassmaster Classic and gets you in the running for AOY.

A slow start doesn't eliminate an angler from Classic or AOY contention, but it means he'll have to be extra good later in the year, that he won't control his own Classic or AOY destiny, and it adds pressure to an already challenging career. Few handle that well.

If you want to start slow and still have a truly great season, you'd better have the talent of Aaron Martens.

One who consistently rises to the challenge despite slow starts is 2013 AOY Aaron Martens. The Natural is not a fast starter. In eight Elite openers, his best finish is 26th and he scores well below average with an overall score of 56. In each of the last two seasons he's started in the 80s.

Why doesn't he start well? Martens is clearly one of the greatest talents in the sport, yet he consistently struggles in the season opener. The fact that he always puts together a strong comeback (often beginning with the second tournament of the year) is testament to his abilities. Last year he mounted a comeback for the ages. After posting an 85th-place finish at the Sabine River, he went on a tear and ended the season hoisting the AOY trophy ... his second. If he could just start with a top 12 finish, he might have even more trophies.

Rick Clunn once told me that in the early years of his career (before he won his first Classic and money was tight), desperation was his friend. Knowing he needed to earn a check just to buy gas to get home often spurred him to greater heights.

Of course, that was a different era. Sponsorships and paydays are better now (though expenses are also much greater), and Martens is a star who doesn't need to finish in the money just to make it home. Nevertheless he finds a way to use those poor starts to his advantage. I know that it makes him bear down more. Every pro angler must find ways to motivate himself or fall into lethargy, satisfaction and stasis.

But I digress.

I gave you the top 10 starters. Here are the 10 Elite pros who have averaged the worst starts:

1. B.J. Haseotes
2. Michael Simonton
3. Dave Smith
4. Jeremy Starks
5. Kurt Dove
6. Scott Ashmore
7. Byron Velvick
8. Bernie Schultz
9. Brandon Palaniuk
10. Chris Zaldain

Brandon Palaniuk has qualified for the last two Classics the hard way -- by winning an Elite event.

I've shared a boat with most of those guys and can tell you from personal experience that they have excellent skills. Four have won Elite tournaments. Two have won multiple Elite events. Six have been to the Classic, but only one made it to the Classic on points last year.

These 10 have talent, but struggle in the openers. Only Dove made the cut at last year's first event, and he was 50th. All of these get better as the season goes along — some of them dramatically so — but not before digging a hole that's tough to climb out of ... especially when you're competing against the best in the business.

All of them will be looking to break through this week at Lake Seminole.

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