To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this week's final Elite tournament of the 2009 season, the Ramada Champion's Choice at Oneida Lake, is that only 12 anglers have something to lose while the remaining 86 each have something to gain. We have finally reached that point at which all the marbles are on the line.
It matters not what you may think of determining a title as important and as prestigious as the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year with a four day fish-off for 12 fishermen after a full field competed in eight events stretching from Texas to Alabama to Tennessee to New York. The fact is, as one of those top 12 told me weeks ago, everyone has been playing by the same rules all season and knew it would come down to this.
And now we're there. The best part about finishing on Oneida is that it can be challenging, but it will produce a lot of bass — both largemouth and smallmouth — and that helps even the field for movement in the standings. No one who follows the Elite Series will forget what happened here last season, either.
Even though Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Alton Jones, and Gary Klein are virtually assured of qualifying for the final 12 if they catch just a handful of fish, it's still important that they have strong finishes because of the way the points will be adjusted once they get to the finals in Alabama. Today, for example, VanDam has 1,812 total points and Reese has 1,795, a difference of 17 points. When they get to Alabama, the adjusted points difference (disregarding Oneida) would be just two points, 181 to 179. Even 12th place Cliff Pace, currently with 1,526 points and 286 points behind VanDam, gets a new chance as the difference would be cut to 28 points.
That's why these 12 have so much to lose and everyone else has so much to gain. My guess is several of those in the top 12 heading into Oneida will not stay in the top 12. Look who's behind Pace: Tommy Biffle (13th), a former winner here and 16th in 2008; and Casey Ashley (19th), 7th at Oneida last year. Right now, Biffle is just 16 points behind Pace, and Ashley is 57 back. Brent Chapman is 22 points behind Pace, and indomitable Shaw Grigsby is 44 behind. I assure you, they're all coming to Oneida with both barrels loaded.
This is not to say Cliff Pace can't hold his own at Oneida and even gain ground on VanDam. Not only was he 29th at Oneida last year, he's keenly aware of what's at stake this time. I first saw Cliff years ago when he smoked the Open field at Sam Rayburn and ushered in the plastic frog era down there, and we've visited often since. He's relaxed and fishing well, and I'll be surprised if he doesn't do well, regardless of the pressure.
Kevin VanDam very much wants a fifth Angler of the Year title, so he'll fish hard to keep from losing ground to those behind him. He loves smallmouth and Oneida, of course, has them in abundance. He's also had a long time since the Mississippi River event to get his mental game re-sharpened, and hardly anyone beats him in that department.
I especially like Mike Iaconelli's chances here, too. Michael has had an excellent season thus far, and his recent runner-up finish in the FLW Forrest Wood Cup (after his runner-up finish in the Classic), may just set him on fire. Besides, he was 3rd here last season.
Alton Jones does not want to let KVD gain too much ground in the Angler of the Year chase, so he'll be playing his "A" game, too. He's already computed that if he weighs in maybe two fish a day he'll stay in the top 12, but he's too serious to slack off now. He was 6th here in 2008 and he's already pre-practiced on the Alabama waters.
I spoke with Gary Klein last week, and I think he'll have a good tournament. The reason is, as he explained to Ken Duke and myself on "The Bass Reporters," is that he's fishing more relaxed this year. In fishing terms that means he's adjusting easier and faster to whatever the conditions throw at him, and in his long, storied career the Texas veteran has seen just about everything. Oneida hasn't been particularly good to him — he was 53rd last year — but this is a new year.
I also believe Mark Davis could do well this week. Mark finished 12th last year, but he's had a dismal season thus far and he's long overdue for a good finish. I don't think we're going to see a repeat of the frog bite this year like we did in 2008 because it's been a lot cooler this summer and that may keep the fish a little deeper where a crankbait pro like Mark can catch them.
Finally, I know Aaron Martens can do well this week. If the smallmouth will bite a drop shot, he'll be tough because few do it better than he does. He's 5th in the Angler of the Year standings, and he finished a very respectable 27th at Oneida last year.