Part of being a successful Elite Series pro is knowing where you are. It has nothing to do with GPS coordinates (though that helps, too) — but where you are in relation to the other anglers who share the same goals. There's big money to be had with the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, qualifying for the postseason as one of the top 12 anglers in the country and qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic — the ultimate championship.
With an eight-tournament regular season, the importance of each event is magnified. Have a bad tournament and your chances for AOY are gone. Have two bad tournaments and you won't be fishing in the postseason. Three bad events makes qualifying for the Classic a Sisyphean nightmare (look it up!).
Here's how the 2010 season is shaping up.
For starters, it's looking a lot like 2007 for Skeet Reese, when he took the AOY lead after the second California event and rode it all the way to the title. In fact, this year he's even stronger. With three tournaments in the books, Reese is 87 points ahead of his closest challenger. That's the biggest lead after three tournaments in the five-year history of the Elites.
Reese is already a big favorite to win AOY this year. Everyone knows about his drive to win, and the 2009 AOY race (where he led the standings going into the postseason) and 2010 Classic (where he finished a dismal 43rd) seem to have galvanized his determination to take the title. Don't bet against him.
The farthest back in the standings that any AOY has been at this stage of the Elite season is fifth. If that trend holds true, we can expect Reese, Greg Hackney, Dean Rojas, Edwin Evers or Dave Wolak to hoist the trophy this summer in Montgomery, Ala.
Need an obscure stat to dazzle your friends and show them you're on top of all things bass fishing? Tell them that Dean Rojas is the epitome of a fast starter in the AOY race, but only in even-numbered years. After three tournaments in 2006, 2008 and 2010, Kermit's creator was second, second and third, respectively.
In odd-numbered years, however, Rojas isn't nearly as strong. In 2007, he was 35th after three events. In 2009, he was 31st.
Never say never, but Kevin VanDam's chances of three-peating for the AOY title are all but gone. He's currently tied for 30th, and no one that far back in the standings with just five events to go has ever challenged for AOY.
At this stage of the season, with five tournaments to go, the lowest anyone has ever ranked and still finished in the top 12 is 57th place. That's where Gerald Swindle was last year at this point. He came on strong as the season wound down and ended up 12th going into Toyota Trucks Championship Week.
So KVD can definitely get into the top 12 despite his mediocre start and, once there, make a run at AOY. But, you can't like his chances. Even if he racks up the points to get within range, the odds of him leap-frogging over so many talented anglers are not good. You have to bet on a new AOY in 2010.
Beyond the top spot, you might want to take a good look at the anglers currently ranked in the top 12. Odds are that eight of them will still be there when the postseason field is set. That's the average of how many hold on in previous editions of the Elite Series.
And, for what it's worth, the angler leading the AOY race with five to go has always finished in the top 12. That means Skeet is almost certainly in (though no one doubts that). The highest ranked angler to fall out of the top 12 after this point was Stephen Browning in 2009. He was second with five to go last year but stumbled — repeatedly — and finished 30th.
It's a much different group this year. Only two of the 12 anglers currently in the top dozen made it to the postseason last year (Reese and Michael Iaconelli). Of the other 10, only Hackney, Rojas and Evers have never finished in the top 12 in the Elite era. With their experience and talents, they look like good bets to do it again in 2010.