Heading into the bell lap in the AOY race

Take another look at the standings after now

Bradley Hallman
Bradley Hallman

With three tournaments to go in the 2009 Elite Series season, the pros with a shot at making the big curtain call in the Toyota Trucks Championship Week Sept. 10-18 in Montgomery, Ala., are preparing for their final run.

Beyond the familiar names of VanDam, Reese and Jones, there are a number of anglers who don't have a rock-solid hold on berths in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Top 12. And there are those who still have a chance of nudging out somebody ahead of them.

The dozen who make it will compete in the Trophy Chase on Lake Jordan, Sept. 12-13, and then the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph on the Alabama River Sept. 17-18. The winner collects $200,000.

If a "do-over" were allowed in the Elite Series this year, a lot of the younger pros waiting for their time in the spotlight would be at the head of the line. Bradley Hallman knows which tournament he'd like to take back.

"Amistad," he says without hesitation. In the first tournament of the season, The Battle on the Border at Lake Amistad near Del Rio, Texas, Hallman went two-and-out, finishing in 82nd place with 20 pounds, 12 ounces. That he's currently 15th in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, a couple of hundred points behind leader Kevin VanDam, tells the story of what he's done since.

All pros make mistakes, but the best ones learn from them. In Hallman's case, his wrong move at Amistad was chasing the big bite that anglers like tournament winner Jason Williamson landed on.

"A few fishermen came in with some big bags and I thought I could get some, too," Hallman said. "I had a place where I probably could have caught 16 or 17 pounds a day if I'd just stayed with it. It took me about an hour to catch my limit, and then I'd leave instead of trying to cull a bigger stringer. I'd tie on a football jig and a big swimbait and go out into the deeper water and waste the rest of the day trying to catch the bigger fish that Jason and some of the others were on."

The Oklahoma angler hasn't taken another gamble of that sort this year, and instead is sticking with the game plan that emerges for him in practice rounds. Except for a hiccup in the Southern Challenge on Lake Guntersville, where he placed 41st, Hallman hasn't finished lower than 22nd and was sixth at the Blue Ridge Brawl won by VanDam.

Likewise, James Niggemeyer seems to have learned from his experience in the Dixie Duel at Lake Wheeler, where his choice of fishing waters resulted in a 78th-place finish, that after placing 15th at Lake Amistad. The Texas angler is currently tied for 10th place with Kevin Short heading into next week's Tennessee Triumph on Kentucky Lake.

"I made two mistakes at Wheeler," Niggemeyer said, "although one wasn't so much a mistake as a lack of information about the lake.

"That time of year [early April] the better fishing on Wheeler is down toward the dam. I didn't know that, but I was also stubborn about leaving the places I had found in practice, even though there weren't any good keepers on them."

Niggemeyer refusing to budge at Wheeler; Hallman too quick to hunt for greener pastures at Amistad: two diametrically opposed strategies, but each with similarly huge affects. No doubt other fishermen who are still in the hunt have similar memories.

In an odd sort of way, Lake Guntersville was the winnowing event that defined the season for many Elites. The fishing was so incredible for some, including champion Aaron Martens, that those anglers with an average or even "good" tournament were left out in the cold.

Cliff Pace, currently in 17th place, rose to as high as eighth in the AOY standings, but he then finished 62nd at Lake Guntersville. Matt Herren, still leading the Rookie of the Year standings, was seventh in the standings before Guntersville, and then dropped to 22nd when he could only muster 83rd place in the Southern Challenge.

It's reasonable to assume that any angler in the top 30 has a crack at making that final 12, but it will take a trio of solid performances. The Elite Series doesn't tolerate inconsistency.

VanDam hasn't finished lower than 45th this year (at the Diamond Drive on Lake Dardanelle) and has two top 10 finishes beside his win in the Blue Ridge Brawl on Smith Mountain Lake. Skeete Reese's poorest showing was 24th place in the Dixie Duel. Except for a 51st place finish at Smith Mountain, Alton Jones hasn't wound up any lower than 14th place.

One bad tournament might not wreck an AOY run, but having two or more spells disaster.

"There's something about those top guys that gives them the ability to make the right decisions almost every time, regardless of where we're fishing or how bad the fishing is," Niggemeyer said. "I guess it's something the best pros learn over time.

"I don't exactly know what it is, because if I did, I would be doing it now. When it comes to making decisions that really matter, when the top guys are confronted with certain situations, they don't seem to think twice about it. They do it, and it works out."

Some pros have moved from back in the pack to challenge the current leaders, proving they have taken some lessons to heart.

Alabama's Randy Howell has managed to stay in the teens in the standings since a 39th-place finish on Amistad. He's now crowding 12th-place Mark Tucker and is 1 point ahead of Kansas angler Brent Chapman. John Murray of Arizona is in 20th place with 1,037 points and between him and Howell are such luminaries as Denny Brauer (1,060), Tommy Biffle (1,048) and Dean Rojas (1,058).

With Kentucky Lake, the Mississippi River and New York's Lake Oneida to go, here's how the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race stands:

1. Kevin VanDam: He won at Kentucky Lake this time last year in the Bluegrass Brawl. New York's Oneida Lake, where the 2009 Elite Series winds up, is VanDam's kind of water, his kind of test. Hmmm ...

2. Skeet Reese: Five points behind VanDam and closing. The 2009 Classic champ finished a strong second at Lake Guntersville in the Southern Challenge. Is his momentum peaking?

3. Alton Jones: Jones is more than 50 points back, mainly because he stuttered on Smith Mountain Lake with a 51st-place showing. Otherwise, he's been as predictable as the mail.

4. Aaron Martens: Since a 26th place at Lake Amistad, Martens' graph line has made a sharp vertical assent. Martens' win in the Southern Challenge was his first BASS championship outside California.

5. Gary Klein: Klein is a top-notch river fisherman, and if he has a good Kentucky Lake tournament, the River Rumble on the Mississippi River might help the old pro seal his Top 12 bid.

6. Todd Faircloth: He did OK at Kentucky Lake in 2008 (18th), but must focus all his skills to finish strong on unfamiliar waters in the last two events.

7. Greg Hackney: After a slow start, two strong back-to-back finishes on Smith Mountain Lake (fourth) and Lake Guntersville (13th) have the Cajun back on track for another stellar year.

8. Mark Menendez: Is this the year Menendez buries his Kentucky Lake jinx? You have to like his chances on the Mississippi River, which is similar to the Ohio River's Smithland Pool where Menendez cut some of his fishing teeth.

9. Michael Iaconneli: After the 96th-place disaster at Lake Dardanelle, the New Jersey fisherman has been able to reapply himself. He finished third at Oneida last year, so if he stays in contention until then, watch out.

10. (tie) James Niggemeyer: Is this his breakout season in the Elite Series? Heretofore, he's done well in Opens close to home but now is showing he can hack it with the big boys on the national stage.

10. (tie) Kevin Short: This quiet-spoken fisherman from Arkansas has gone up and down in the standings, but was in sixth after the Blue Ridge Brawl. No more finishes out of the money; he'll need two strong showings heading to New York to stand a chance.

12. Mark Tucker: Like Short, this affable Missourian has yet to win a BASS title, but he never seems to be out of the chase. After four top 50 finishes, he stumbled at Lake Guntersville at 68th. Can he recover?