The 2014 Elite Series season still has four events to go, but if you're one of the competitors you'd better believe you're already coming down the home stretch. There are just two more tournaments on the schedule for you to make your move at a Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, a 2015 Bassmaster Classic berth or to re-qualify for the 2015 Elite season.
Those two tournaments are on the Delaware River (Aug. 7-10) and Cayuga Lake (Aug. 21-24). The other two events are BASSfest and the AOY Championship.
BASSfest comes first (June 11-15). It's on Chickamauga Lake in Tennessee, and the field will consist of the Elite anglers plus 33 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens anglers. They'll be fighting for money and a trophy ... not AOY points. Every Elite angler who participates will get 100 points, which makes it a strange hybrid event that's hard to categorize except to say that it's not like anything the Elites have ever done before.
BASSfest is a wash as far as AOY is concerned (though it actually works to the advantage of the leaders since they retain their leads while eliminating another event). It's kind of like trading touchdowns early in the fourth quarter of a football game. All that's really happened is some critical time has run off the clock.
What makes BASSfest most interesting is the strategy that the anglers will use in fishing it. BASSfest is not a points event, but there is a hefty entry fee. Just three things are up for grabs: prize money, a Classic spot and a trophy.
The prize money is nice — $125,000 to the winner. That's 25 percent more than a regular Elite event. Just making the cut and getting paid, though, can be critical for some of the anglers — the Elites who have struggled this year and lack big bank accounts at home. For some, a payday could mean the difference between making the next event and going home ... to stay.
The Classic spot is great, too. In addition to a chance at the sport's greatest prize next February, savvy pros have bonus clauses in many of their sponsorship contracts. They get paid if they qualify for the championship (or maybe if they win an event), and every dollar helps.
Just how the 140 anglers in the field will approach the event is hard to say, but I'd put them into four groups.
(1) The first group is those who have already locked up a Classic berth or who are so high in the AOY standings that their Classic spot is practically guaranteed. This would include the Elite and Opens winners and the anglers in the top dozen or so of the AOY race. They're looking for the win at Chickamauga and the big check. For Group 1, second place at BASSfest is just the first loser.
(2) The second group is those who must win a tournament to get to the 2015 Classic — they're either Opens anglers who look at BASSfest as an extra route to the big dance or Elites having a terrible year with no chance to qualify for the Classic on AOY points. Group 2 contains way more than half of the 33 Opens anglers and most of the Elites ranked 65th or worse in AOY. As a practical matter, there's not much difference between how Groups 1 and 2 will approach BASSfest, just in the quality of the season they're having so far and how desperate they may be.
(3) Group 3 is made up of Elite anglers who simply need a check ... and they might rank anywhere in the AOY race. They're required to fish the event to earn the 100 points that everyone else is getting, and they paid a lot of money to be there. If sponsorships or prize money have been scarce, a payday is their goal and the bigger it is, the better. These guys would love to win, but know it's better to finish 50th and take home a $10,000 check than to go down swinging while trying to knock the ball out of the park.
(4) There's one other group of anglers out there, and that's the Opens anglers who want to prove that they can compete with the big boys of the Elite Series. These anglers are not desperately seeking a check — if they were, they probably wouldn't have paid to enter BASSfest — and they're a little less eager to go for broke and the win than the Group 2 anglers. This is an opportunity to test their mettle against the best in the business, and their goal is to get into the money (top 60), maybe qualify for the finals (top 12) or simply make a good showing.
All in all, BASSfest promises to be an interesting tournament because it's not quite like any other tournament — except perhaps the Bassmaster Classic. In the Classic, you get something like the same mix of approaches (former champs would go in Group 1, Classic veterans in Group 2, a handful of pro anglers in Group 3 and the BASS Nation, Weekend Series and College qualifiers in Group 4), but the field will actually be much stronger at BASSfest. In fact, the BASSfest field will be the biggest and strongest of any Elite event ever.
If you doubt that last statement, take a look at the Elite field and add the following talent: a former Bassmaster Classic champion (Luke Clausen), six former Classic qualifiers (Rich Howes, David Kilgore, Jared Knuth, Matt Lee, David Lefebre and Steve Sennikoff), a former Elite pro (Brian Clark) and some FLW standouts (J.T. Kenney and Jacob Wheeler, the 2012 Wood Cup winner). That's pretty stout.
From an angler's perspective, the group you fit into dictates your approach. For fans, it'll be interesting to see the mix of approaches used by the anglers. If you're a Fantasy player (Is there Fantasy for this one? I don't even know.), this one could turn your league standings upside down. Predicting how the field will perform is folly. Stick with the guys who you think might need a check and hope they make a cut or two.