On some level, we all know what it takes to win the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. The list goes something like this: superior fish-finding and catch management skills; virtuoso versatility with all types of baits and presentation methods; a schedule that suits your primary skill set; and at least a little luck.
There are probably close to two dozen anglers in the Bassmaster Elite Series who are capable of winning AOY in any given year. Obviously, names like VanDam, Reese, Iaconelli, Martens and Swindle come to mind when discussing the title, but others who have yet to climb that mountain are also more than capable —Chapman, Evers, Jones and Faircloth come immediately to mind.
So, knowing what it takes in terms of talent and knowing the likely candidates for fishing's most prestigious title, what's left to know?
Just some of the most interesting details, that's all.
(Caveat: For the purposes of this article, I'm going to ignore the postseason tournaments of 2009 and 2010 because there's no longer a postseason element to the AOY race, and the radically different scoring system for those events defies statistical comparison for the other seasons.)
Cats supposedly have nine lives. Elite anglers chasing AOY get one.
That's how many first cuts you can miss and still have a viable chance to win AOY. Since the Elite season runs for eight events and 32 competition days, you can afford to have a bad day (or even a bad tournament) and still take home the hardware. In fact, only twice in Elite history has the eventual AOY made every first cut (top 50 anglers) for the entire season. Skeet Reese did it in 2009 (yes, I know he didn't actually win AOY that year, but remember my caveat) and Kevin VanDam did it last year. The other AOYs in the Elite era all missed at least one cut. When he won the AOY title in 2007, Reese missed the first cut twice, but that was in an 11 tournament season. You can't miss two cuts in today's eight tournament season.
AOYs start strong, gain momentum in the middle of the season and finish strong. In the six previous Elite seasons, no eventual AOY was in worse than eighth place at the midpoint of the season, and most were much better. KVD was eighth after five of 11 events in 2008. None of the other eventual AOYs were worse than third (VanDam last year) and three of the six were already sitting in first place.
So, how far back can an angler be right now and still have a shot at AOY? Let's be generous and say that the top 10 still have a chance. I'll even make it 11 since Brandon Card, Todd Faircloth and Matt Herren are in a three-way tie for 9th. Any further back and you not only have the points deficit to overcome, but too many other anglers to leapfrog in the standings.
To win the AOY title an angler generally needs an average Elite Series tournament finish of 13th or so. The best average finish for an entire regular season came in 2010 when Skeet Reese averaged 9th place for the season. He had six top 5 finishes that year and only missed one first cut.
The worst AOY season in terms of average finish was 2006 when Michael Iaconelli averaged a 17th place ranking in 11 Elite events. Rather than think of that season as the one Ike won, you might remember it as the one VanDam lost because he was disqualified from the Santee Cooper tournament for allowing someone else to drive his boat in practice while he stood on the bow and looked for bedding fish. A recent rule change prohibited the practice. (Randy Howell and Alton Jones were DQed for the same infraction.) If KVD had fished that event and weighed in a legal bass, he'd have eight AOY titles today instead of seven.
In 2012, Brent Chapman is averaging better than a fifth place finish. He won't be able to keep that up —no one could —but he also won't have to. Randy Howell is in second place and on a solid AOY-type pace. David Walker, in third, is going pretty strong, too. Everyone else will have to pick it up if they want the title.
I've already written about the new AOY scoring system and speculated on what it might mean to the race. Briefly, a finish in the bottom 25 is now worse than any last place finish in the past. It's an unforgiving system that will doubtless take its toll on Bassmaster Classic hopefuls, but I doubt it will have much impact on the AOY race for one very simple reason: The anglers challenging for AOY don't finish in the bottom 25 — ever!
In fact, the worst finish by any regular season AOY came in 2006 when Iaconelli finished 66th out of 102 anglers at Lake Champlain. That's not good, but it's not nearly as bad as a bottom 25 percent finish today. Any angler who finishes in the bottom 25 this year has just seen his AOY hopes vanish. That means former AOYs like Denny Brauer (94th at the St. Johns), Rick Clunn (79th at the St. Johns), Mark Davis (83rd at the St. Johns), Davy Hite (86th at the St. Johns and 90th at Bull Shoals) and Aaron Martens (84th at the St. Johns) will not be adding to their AOY trophy cases this year. And perennial AOY hopefuls Casey Ashley (77th at Okeechobee), Greg Hackney (82nd at Okeechobee), Steve Kennedy (96th at Bull Shoals) and Terry Scroggins (92nd at Bull Shoals) are all but mathematically out of the hunt.
If you're a gambler and like to play with the odds in your favor, put your money on one of the anglers currently in the top 11 (I was going to make it the top 10, but there's a three-way tie for ninth) to be the 2012 AOY. If history teaches us anything about this race it's that you need to start strong to have a chance to win, and these were the strongest starters this year.
A good thing about that group is that it features a couple of anglers who have been there before and gotten the job done — Reese and VanDam. There are also contenders who have come close and learned from the process — Chapman, David Walker, Edwin Evers, Tommy Biffle and Todd Faircloth. Then there are the vets who want to take that next step in Randy Howell and Matt Herren. Finally, there are a couple of young guns in Keith Combs and Brandon Card, this season's breakout rookie.
Realistically, 85 of the 99 Elite anglers are already out of the AOY race whether they know it or not.