In early June, the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race stops at Kentucky Lake for the Tennessee Triumph, the sixth event in the Bassmaster Elite Series 2009 season. It's unlikely there will be as many mint juleps served as were quaffed at Churchill Downs a few weeks ago, but the tournament is just as important to the Elite angler as was the run for the roses to that special group of 3-year-olds.
Going into the tournament, Kevin VanDam would have to be considered twice blessed by the bass fishing gods. Not only is the reigning Bassmaster Angler of the Year and current leader in the points race for 2009, but he's also the defending champion on Kentucky Lake. When the Elites were last here a year ago, VanDam emerged victorious with more than 84 pounds of bass over four days. If he can do it again, he'll open up a little breathing room for the final two regular season events on the Mississippi River and Oneida Lake.
VanDam is strong on Kentucky Lake. Not only does he have an Elite Series win there in 2008, but he also has a third place finish in 2006 Elite tournament and a 29th place finish in 1993. What's more, both Elite events came in June, so KVD is probably already dialed in for his next visit to Kentucky Lake.
Skeet Reese, who is currently second in the AOY race and fighting to earn his second AOY title, has had success on Kentucky Lake, though it doesn't compare with VanDam's run. In the 2006 Elite event, Reese was fourth (just behind KVD) and in 2008 he was 29th. The reigning Bassmaster Classic champ, however, is fishing with tremendous confidence and should be expected to have a good showing next month.
In third place in the AOY standings is 2008 Classic champ Alton Jones. Jones was 49th in the 2006 tournament on Kentucky Lake and 13th two years later. According to early practice reports, Jones found the fishing to be "out-of-control good" and predicted a winning weight in the 90-pound range. If he's catching them like that, the rest of the AOY challengers better watch out.
And speaking of anglers who are "hot," no one's hotter than Alabama's Aaron Martens, fresh off his 100-plus pound victory at Lake Guntersville. Martens was 38th at Kentucky Lake in 2006 and 14th in 2008. If momentum means anything, he could me moving up from his spot in fourth place in the AOY standings.
Gary Klein has been fishing at the highest levels of the sport for more than 30 years now, and it's been more than 16 years since the amiable Texas pro had any success at Kentucky Lake. In an April 1993 Invitational, he was fifth, but since then he's placed 85th (2006) and 38th (2008). He'll need to turn things around to stay in the hunt for his third AOY title.
Rounding out the top sis is last year's AOY runner-up, Todd Faircloth. He's had middling success on Kentucky Lake over the years, finishing 40th in 2006 and 18th in 2008, but he's versatile and learned a lot from last year's title chase with Kevin VanDam. It's unlikely that he'll falter at the end the way he did in 2009.
The other six anglers in the top 12 have yet to really distinguish themselves at Kentucky Lake. Mark Menendez (currently 8th), has the most experience there with four previous BASS events. Menendez was 12th and 17th in an Invitational and Open, but 51st and 53rd in the two Elite events. Another finish like those won't help him.
And rounding out the top 12 is longtime pro, Mark Tucker of Missouri, who would like to play the role of Mine That Bird at Kentucky Lake. That's the name of the long shot horse that claimed the Derby title and very nearly took the Preakness two weeks later. If Tucker can come on like that, he'll give VanDam and Reese a run for their money.
But for now, the regular season is into the last turn and just about to straighten up for the final sprint.