Every year at about this time — hopefully earlier — Elite Series anglers start taking a hard look at what it's going to take going into the stretch run to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic. Some are already in or practically in. Others are all but eliminated. In between are those who may need to strategize in order to qualify for fishing's biggest championship. The stakes are pretty high.
When trying to figure out just how many Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points will be needed to make the 2015 Classic, you need to start with a very different number — the number of Elite anglers who will be competing in the Classic.
B.A.S.S. guarantees that at least 29 Elite pros will earn Classic berths — it could be more, but it won't be fewer.
The first qualifier for any Classic is the defending champion. That's Randy Howell, who's having a pretty good year in the Elites. He currently ranks 16th in AOY. Also, there's Cliff Pace, the 2013 Classic champ who was unable to defend his crown earlier this year after breaking his leg in a hunting accident. He's guaranteed a berth in the 2015 championship though he's sitting out the Elite season with a medical exemption.
Now take a look at the current AOY standings and scroll down to 29th place. It's Rick Clunn with 388 points. If the season ended today, Clunn and everyone ahead of him are in the Classic. Several more Elites will make it because of "double qualifications."
An angler double qualifies when he satisfies more than one of the criteria for making the Classic. For example, Elite winners are in if they fish the full season. That includes Brett Hite, Chris Lane, Mike McClelland, Jacob Powroznik and Jason Christie. Jacob Wheeler won BASSfest, but he's not in the Elite Series. He'll need to fish the remaining two events in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Opens to lock up his Classic spot.
Opens winners are also in if they fish the full division schedule. Two Elites have won Opens this year: Stephen Browning and Ott DeFoe. They'll almost certainly qualify for the Classic via that route, but could double qualify through the Elite Series. Browning is currently 46th in AOY and DeFoe is 28th.
And since Howell, Hite, Lane, Powroznik, Christie and DeFoe currently rank in the top 29 of AOY, they'd be double qualified if the season ended today. That's a big deal for the anglers who rank just outside the top 29. For every Elite angler who is double qualified, another gains entry to the Classic via the AOY standings, starting with number 30.
So right away you'd expand the number of Elites fishing the Classic from 29 to 35. And because McClelland is the first of those (30th in AOY and he's won an Elite event this year), we can bump that number up to 36.
Again, this assumes the season ended today. A lot can change between now and the end of the year.
Now it's time to look at the remaining "win-and-you're-in" events. That would include Elite stops at the Delaware River and Cayuga Lake and four Open tournaments. Naturally, the two Elite events will be won by Elite Series anglers and it's unlikely that an angler who has already won will win again this year. Now we're up to 38 Elite qualifiers, but since we don't know if one or both of the final two winners will be double qualifiers, we can't say whether or not we can move down the AOY list.
Of the four Open tournaments, let's estimate that one or two of those winners will also be an Elite angler, though (again) not necessarily one who ranks high in AOY.
Here's where math meets rampant speculation. I'm going to make an educated (?) guess that after all the dust settles, there will be nine double qualifiers in the Elite Series. That means the top 38 anglers in the AOY race will all earn berths in the Classic.
Exhausted from all the speculation? Me too, but if you've read this far you have my sincere gratitude. We're almost halfway there.