BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On the eve of the 32nd annual CITGO BASS Masters Classic, Jay Yelas stood before the national news media. He listened to a scenario in which he and Kevin VanDam were compared to PGA golfers Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
Yelas was likened to Mickelson, a brilliant golfer who's had the misfortune of living in the sizable shadow of Tiger Woods.
Both Yelas and VanDam started their B.A.S.S. careers 12 years ago. Although the Texas pro has enjoyed a stellar run that has included four victories and 12 consecutive Classic appearances, his efforts have been dwarfed by VanDam's three B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year awards and the 2001 Classic championship.
"That's a fair comparison," Yelas responded.
"I've had a good career, but it doesn't compare to what Kevin has accomplished. In this sport, I am Phil Mickelson and he is Tiger Woods."
A month later, Yelas took a major step toward shaking the Mickelson tag by turning in one of the most dominating performances in Classic history en route to running away with the biggest title in the sport.
On a stifling hot July week on Alabama's Lay Lake, Yelas beat Tiger Woods and 50 other top anglers.
"This is the thrill of a lifetime for me," Yelas said. "Winning the Classic really 'makes' your career as a professional bass fisherman. The BASS Masters Classic is the pinnacle of tournament fishing. It's the biggest tournament in the world. And it's one of the things I hadn't won. If you look at the guys who won the Classic, people still remember them from winning the Classic 20 years ago. So this is huge.
"On a personal level, winning the Classic means a lot. Everybody knows I'm a fairly spiritual guy. I love God. When God decides it's your time to win the Classic, you win."
It was obviously Yelas' time.
The 36-year-old California native largely eliminated any of the usual Classic suspense in the opening round by jumping out to a 4 1/2-pound lead with a five bass limit weighing 18 pounds, 9 ounces. He doubled that lead with a catch of 16-9 the following day and finished with four bass that added up to 10-11 for a total of 45 pounds, 13 ounces, posting a 6-pound-plus margin of victory over California pro Aaron Martens.
How dominant was the Yelas victory? Consider that he became the first champion to take all three daily big bass awards (including two 6-pounders) and he became only the fourth wire-to-wire winner in Classic history. The others include Bo Dowden in 1980, Stanley Mitchell in 1981 and Rick Clunn in 1984.
"It's been a dream week for me," Yelas said. "Everything just went perfectly. I've never had a week like this in a big tournament."
It was the kind of week that Yelas could not have anticipated based on what he had experienced a month earlier during the official six day practice period of Lay Lake. In fact, his winning area had been loaded with striped bass chasing shad — he never caught a largemouth there. But his hopes were buoyed on the lone Classic practice day when one pass through the area produced 3- and 4-pound largemouth bass.
That area was unique in Classic history, a 200-yard-long stretch of bank representing the first major break in water current immediately below the upstream Logan Martin Dam. "I can't remember the last time a guy won a big bass tournament fishing a tailrace," Yelas said.
This shoreline was so shallow — about 6 inches deep, according to Yelas — that it didn't have enough depth to hold fish in the mornings. But all that changed when the Alabama Power Company began generating power. Once the turbines turned, the area was inundated with about 3 feet of rushing water within an hour or so.
"The key to that bank was that it was the last good ambush cover before the dam," Yelas explained. "It's like the fish are so competitive that they leapfrog each other up to the head of the current to get the bait that's washing down. It's a steep undercut bank with overhanging trees. The key to the pattern was the fish were only on shade. They weren't on wood or anything like that. They were on shade. When the sun was out, most of the bank would be sunny. But every 20 feet or so, there was an overhanging sycamore tree or willow tree.
"I would pitch a jig up under the shade, but the current was so strong that it would just wash the jig downstream. So I would pitch it up there and just let it wash downstream, while reeling enough to keep up with the slack and letting it bounce on the bottom."
In an interview with the news media, Yelas credited his MotorGuide trolling motor for keeping him in the game in the heavy current.
All of Yelas' best bass were caught on a 5/8-ounce prototype "Berkley Jay Yelas Power Jig" trimmed with a black, brown and pumpkinseed skirt and a green-pumpkinseed Power Frog chunk-type trailer. He threw the jig-and-frog on 25-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT line.
For tackle, the Classic champ relied on a 6 1/2-foot Team Daiwa worm/jig rod (medium/heavy) and Team Daiwa baitcasting reel.
Three of the 14 bass that Yelas brought to the scales, however, were caught with a 3/8-ounce Berkley Frenzy deep diving crankbait (firetiger). He threw the crankbait on 12-pound-test Trilene XT line, in combination with a 7-foot Team Daiwa cranking rod (fiberglass) and matching Daiwa reel. He worked the crankbait in an erratic fashion at about three-quarters speed.
Yelas aimed the crankbait at submerged rock ledges (located farther down from the dam) that generally rose from a depth of 15 feet to 6 feet. He targeted these spots early in the morning before the artificial current began to run. But Yelas admittedly struggled when the water wasn't moving.
The Classic was won on a magical piece of bank where the man-made flow roared by in a manner that reminded Yelas of his college days spent salmon and steelhead fishing in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
"My confidence in that water really paid off," said the new Classic champion. "That's something that holds true with all tournament fishing. When you've got a good spot, you've got to stick with it and don't get antsy, just be patient."
And this sport's Phil Mickelson just won his first major.