We're only two events into the eight-tournament Bassmaster Elite Series season, but trust me when I tell you it's not too early to take stock of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race or even to predict who the main contenders will be this year.
Yes, there are six tournaments left in the season and that's a lot of casts, a lot of catches and a lot of competition to come, but we can already start to make some educated guesses about who's in the hunt for AOY and who needs to get things in gear before this year gets away from them.
Brandon Card leads the way after two events. He has a two point edge over Edwin Evers. Card is the youngest angler in the hunt for AOY at 26, and he's in just his second year on the Elite Series. Twenty-six is young, but it's not historically young for an AOY. Kevin VanDam was 24 when he won his first title in 1992. Card could become the next youngest AOY if he pulls it off.
I mention age not because it precludes an angler from winning AOY, but because it's often an indicator of who are the strongest challengers. Yes, there are some outliers like a young KVD or, more recently, Ott DeFoe, but the average AOY is 36 years old, and it speaks to that combination of youthful vitality and experience that it typically takes to win the title. The last dozen AOYs have been between 32 and 43 years of age. Thirty-seven of the 41 have been between 30 and 44.
Of the top dozen anglers in this year's race, nine are in that range. (Coincidence? I don't think so.) Card is the only one who's younger; and Alton Jones and KVD are older. Perhaps ironically, Kevin VanDam — the youngest angler ever to win AOY — would also become the oldest at nearly 46 if he wins his eighth title in 2013.
Theoretically, anyone can put eight good tournaments together and win AOY, but previous success is a strong indicator of who's a contender and who's not quite ready. Only two anglers have ever won AOY as a rookie — Kevin VanDam in 1992 and Tim Horton in 2000. Greg Hackney and Steve Kennedy came close, in 2004 and 2006, respectively, but in Elite history only VanDam and Horton won the award without at least one prior AOY finish in the top 16. Almost all had top 10 finishes.
How does that relate to our current top 12? Well, Cliff Crochet has never ranked better than 52nd (2010) and Billy McCaghren has never ranked better than 27th (2009). Without a stronger track record, they have to be regarded as long shots. Crochet has started strong in each of the last two seasons. He was 10th at this point in 2011 and 11th in 2012, but ended the year in 75th and 59th, respectively. It's certain he learned from the experience, but is he ready? McCaghren is historically a slow starter, but has turned that around this year.
Current AOY leader Brandon Card was 22nd and Rookie of the Year in 2012, but the way he put that season together was interesting and perhaps telling. He started the year with a 21st-place finish at the St. Johns River and got stronger from there ... through the first half of the season, anyway. At the end of four events, he was fourth in AOY and had the attention of the bass fishing world.
Then, as the weather warmed and the tournaments headed north, Card's fishing cooled and his numbers headed south. He was a respectable 37th at Toledo Bend, but missed the cut in the last three events. As a young angler from Tennessee, he certainly must've learned a lot in that final swing, and it will certainly benefit him this season, but can he win AOY as a sophomore? We'll find out.
That brings us to the "best bets" of this year's AOY race — the anglers who have a solid résumé, the "right" level of maturity and enough history on the tournament trail to be dangerous.
You don't have to look any farther down the AOY rankings than second to find the guy who may have the best chance of them all. Edwin Evers is 38 years old. He's been fishing at the highest level for a long time now, was AOY runner-up in 2010 and 2011 and has been in the top 10 of the AOY race five different years. Everyone expects E-squared to win one of these years, and it just might be this year. Expect him to be in the hunt right to the end.
Jeff Kriet had a bad year last year, failing to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic in his home state. He's using that frustration as a wakeup call. Kriet is 43, was 6th in AOY back in 2005 and has five top 25 AOY finishes in his career. He's a real candidate.
Alton Jones is the oldest angler currently in the top 12 and has made many runs at the title over the years, including a second place finish in 2003. He'll be 50 when the season ends, but his enthusiasm for the sport keeps him young and energized, and there's an empty spot in his trophy case for AOY.
Bobby Lane, 39, is an angler who has to avoid one really bad event. Last year he stumbled out of the gate with a tough event in his home state, but otherwise had a strong year. A native Floridian has never won AOY, but Lane (and Terry Scroggins, currently 16th) has all the tools. He was great at Bull Shoals last year and at West Point in 2011, so he should be at or near the top at the midway point in 2013.
I tend to think of Ish Monroe, 38, as a home run hitter, and AOY as kind of like the batting title. He wins more than his share of tournaments but has never had a season without at least one finish of 75th or worse. It may be impossible to do that and win AOY. His best AOY finish was 15th in 2007.
John Crews, 34, is one of Monroe's closest friends, and until a few years ago he had the same problem regarding disastrous events that would cripple his season. Then, in 2010, something happened and his "bad" finishes put him in the 60s rather than the 90s. The result? He's qualified for every Classic since then and posted two top 20 AOY seasons. He's obviously learned a thing or two about tournament damage control, and that's critical at this level. This could be his breakout year.
One of the most talented anglers who has never won AOY is Dean Rojas, 41. He always seems to be high among the leaders through the first few events, but every year since 2007 he's had at least one tournament in the last two where he placed 78th or worse. If he can find a way to maintain his successes and mitigate the damage when things aren't going his way, he'll be a factor. His best career AOY finish was 5th in 2006. That year he was 63rd in the finale on Table Rock Lake and would have made it a race with a better finish.
Keith Combs, 37, is currently 10th and riding high after his win on Falcon Lake. He's got the skills to be AOY, but does he have the experience? Until his win, he had never placed in the top 12 of any Elite event not on the St. Johns River. Combs had a strong rookie season in 2011, but struggled at times last year, missing four of the last five cuts. I think he'll challenge for AOY sometime soon and that his prime is still ahead of him.
If followers of the sport have learned nothing else over the past 20 years, they know never to count Kevin VanDam out of anything. The G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) is in search of his eighth AOY title and currently sits in 11th place. The 10 anglers ahead of him stand between KVD and his goal.
That's not a good place to be.