One might think that picking the final winner of this year's Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year title would be easy, since only a dozen anglers remain eligible. The problem is, none of the 12 has anything to lose anymore, and everything to gain; that means each will be fishing very hard to win, not simply to get a check.
While only 31 points separate AOY leader Kevin VanDam and 12th place Gerald Swindle, I think it's time now to look at the season as a whole and remember that VanDam, Skeet Reese (second) and Alton Jones (third) have been at the top of the leaderboard virtually all season. I just can't imagine any of these three throwing it all away now, after being so consistent all year. Even though there are only four actual competition days left, no one understands better than these three pros that having one bad day will eliminate them from winning the title.
Alton Jones, especially, has geared his entire season around winning AOY, and he knows how close he is now to winning it. Skeet and Kevin? Don't doubt for a moment they don't want it, too, despite their already illustrious careers. All three are fishing very well now, all have seen Lake Jordan and the Alabama River and they're going to be hard to beat.
Kelly Jordon, now in fourth, obviously has the best chance to move up, even though he's 16 points behind Jones in third. I know him well, and I love his pure love for fishing — he was chasing tarpon off the Texas coast when I interviewed him recently — and he's really fishing well right now. He could have won this year's Classic, and with three top 10s this season, he's fishing at the top of his game. Had he not crashed and burned so dramatically at Lake Wheeler, the AOY standings would look a lot different now.
In these two events, however, consistency will be a double-edged sword for everyone else between fifth and 12th. For these pros to truly close the points gap, it also means each of the four pros in front have to have bad tournaments, and the chances of all four stumbling at the same time are slim. I sure wouldn't bet on that happening.
Could Lake Jordan itself be the real spoiler here? I doubt it. At less than 7,000 acres, these 12 pros should have it solved after their first practice day, especially at this time of year. What they're all going to be looking for is big spotted bass, and I'm sure they'll catch some, though not nearly as many as at other times of the year.
The Alabama River, then? Not in my opinion. VanDam & Co. will figure it out just as quickly, and most of the 12 have had prior tournament experience somewhere on the river anyway. These pros are really that good; even now they already have their basic game plans in order. One can only dream about what might have happened on larger, more productive fisheries, or making the pros compete without any practice time at all.
I'll pick Skeet Reese to win it all by a narrow margin. In my conversations with Skeet throughout the season, I've heard a level of confidence from him I haven't always heard before. Winning a Classic does that for you. At dinner one night, he also confided how strongly he wants to win AOY, and his strategy all year has been to take what the conditions give him each day and adjust as needed. It resulted in his winning the points lead at the end of the regular season, and it should work for four more days.
Kevin VanDam also wants the title very badly, and he's not going to hand it to Skeet or anyone else on a platter. I honestly have never seen anyone read fish behavior as well and as quickly as Kevin does, or figure out how to trigger strikes the way he does. He's going to be a formidable competitor as he always is.
Even though he's in fourth now, I think Kelly Jordon may move up in the standings, and he is certainly capable of winning the title, but making up the points difference will be difficult. For Kelly, the key is going to be big fish, and, as a former Lake Fork guide, he's caught a few of them. He's also very good on river systems.
I have been very fortunate to have spent time fishing with Alton Jones several times in recent months, and he's told me how this year's schedule really suited his style of fishing and propelled him on his AOY quest. He's only seven points behind Kevin, and as long as he has plenty of Yum Dingers in the boat with him, he's a major threat to win.
If there's a long shot, I'd watch Mike Iaconelli. He's had a season of almost-wins, and if the pros ahead of him start struggling, he could slip away with his second AOY title. I will be very surprised if he doesn't move up from 11th, where he is now.