Nobody saw it coming, not even Derek Remitz. But it sent a clear message to the rest of the field: The rookies are here, and they are good.In his first Elite Series tournament of his life, Remitz held up a 30-pound stringer on the final day at Lake Amistad, put down the fish and picked up the trophy. But the most impressive part of his victory was whom he beat.Mike Iaconelli, the reigning Angler of the Year champion, finished second and had this to say about the new face that would eventually be nicknamed "Wolverine": "I had some great areas, but it wasn't enough," Iaconelli said. "I just got beat, plain and simple."
Then there was the rest of the top 12: Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Steve Kennedy, Ish Monroe, Davy Hite, Edwin Evers, Jeff Kriet, John Murray, Todd Faircloth and Ken Brodeur. Seven of those 12 anglers are currently in the top 20 in the Angler of the Year Standings."I guess this is the way you want to start," Remitz said after his win. "I can't believe it."Six months later, after knocking out two more top five finishes and four more top-20s, Remitz is starting to look back at his incredible year.
"I was really hoping to just get back to the Classic and hang in there as good as I could," Remitz said after coming off the stage at the Bassmaster Legends. "I've had a few surprises and a couple good finishes, but it's just the style I fish, I guess."I'm usually not on a whole lot, but if it starts to happen, it starts in a tournament and not in practice."
And he isn't alone in his success. Casey Ashley was next to last after one day on Amistad (beating only fellow rookie James Niggemeyer) and didn't finish the tournament much better at 88th. In fact, despite putting up two straight top-25s after his opening blunder, nobody really noticed Ashley until the tour hit his home water in Evans, Ga.
He led the first day, but finished eighth (three places behind Remitz), and was figured to never be heard from again. Never, that is, until his victory on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. His 22-pound Day Two carried him to victory and officially put him on the map."I have done a lot better than I expected to," Ashley said. "Coming in, you don't really know what to expect. My biggest goal was to survive and make it the next tournament."
Ashley's done more than survive, but it has been an up-and-down season for both him and Remitz. Some shaky tournaments mixed in with their victories has Remitz sitting in 22nd and Ashley in 29th in the Angler of the Year standings.
"It's the top 100 anglers in the nation, but you don't how good they are till you get out there and fish against them," Ashley said. "These guys can catch them anywhere, in any conditions — so you better be able to do it too, or you're going to get left behind."Remitz said that even after winning the first tournament of the year, he had to make plenty of adjustments."The lakes we go to are so good and the guys are so good, I've kind of had to change my fishing style quite a bit this year and learn how to fish a whole lot faster," he said. "I can't just go out and fish for 12 hours and deadstick all day."
Ashley and Remitz represent the beauty of the level playing field on the Elite Series, but not every rookie has had a dream year. James Niggemeyer is 58th in AOY, James Charlesworth is 89th, and Glenn Delong sits 92nd.
"Obviously, I wanted to be in the cut for every tournament, but I've had four top 50s and a top 12," Delong said "There are guys who haven't even cashed a check this year. You have one bad day and you're out of these tournaments."
Delong said it all comes with being a rookie, but some have just been more fortunate than others. Delong fished against Remitz in the Bassmaster Opens all last year and he said he's not surprised at Remitz' early success."He was just as tough in the Opens," he said.
While Delong will be fishing for his future on the Elite Series in the Sunshine Showdown, Remitz and Ashley will be battling for a title neither one had thought much about entering the season: Rookie of the Year. Remitz leads Ashley by 61 points, going into the last event on Lake Toho.
"It's not a real big lead, but it's a little bit of cushion," Remitz said. "If I have a decent tournament, I should be alright, but I try not to think about something like that right now."Ashley said he is also ignoring the situation, in hopes that it won't affect his fishing."I'm more focused on the Classic than anything right now," Ashley said. "You start thinking about all those things and it will mess you up. I'm just going to go out there and fish, and let the rest take care of itself."