Halfway through the Bassmaster Elite Series regular season, the standings for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award are starting to look like a list of the usual suspects: Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Alton Jones, Gary Klein, Todd Faircloth and Aaron Martens are all in the top 10.
Things got shaken up pretty good after the Blue Ridge Brawl on Smith Mountain Lake. Alton Jones was the leader going into that event, but he stumbled — finishing 51st — and opened the door for tournament winner Kevin VanDam to pass him along with 2007 AOY Skeet Reese. Now Jones trails the past two AOYs going into the Southern Challenge on Lake Guntersville.
With four tournaments in the books and another four on the horizon before the two event postseason schedule in September, the race is definitely taking shape.
So who's going to win the Angler of the Year award? It's still anybody's title halfway through the season, but if we look at the history of the Elite Series, we can probably narrow the field down quite a bit.
Through four events in the inaugural Elite season (2006) eventual AOY Michael Iaconelli was in third place. In 2007, Skeet Reese was leading the race, though he would briefly relinquish the top spot before regaining it. In 2008, KVD was in a tie for 13th place before kicking things into another gear and finishing in the top 8 for the next four events on his way to running down his fourth AOY.
If we consider the top 15 or so anglers to be the contenders in this year's race, that gives us four former AOYS (VanDam, Reese, Gary Klein and Aaron Martens) and six anglers who have never finished in the top 10 before (Kevin Short, Matt Herren, Cliff Pace, James Niggemeyer, Stephen Browning and Mark Menendez). The advantage here would have to go the guys who have "been there" before.
And among those anglers, no one is tougher, stronger or more experienced than VanDam. Not only has he won four AOY titles, but he's finished in the top-10, 11 other times. To make matters worse for the group chasing him, he's practically unbeatable on the next two lakes on the Elite Series schedule.
Let's take a look at his record at Guntersville. It's positively intimidating. In seven previous BASS events on the Alabama lake, KVD has never — ever — been worse than 14th … and that was in a field of 307 anglers. In the six Guntersville tournaments since then, he's never finished lower than fourth. And the last time the Elites were on the lake, he won!
What about Kentucky Lake? VanDam has only fished three BASS events on that body of water. In 1993 he was 29th out of 326 anglers. In 2006 he was third. And the last time the Elites were on the lake — you guessed it — he won!
So absolutely no one expects the Kalamazoo Kid to relinquish his AOY lead over the next month. In fact, the guys chasing him might be lucky if he doesn't put the title out of reach for 2009.
But the AOY race isn't just about the hardware and big checks. It's also the biggest path to the Bassmaster Classic, and 36 or more Elite pros will be punching their ticket to Birmingham and Lay Lake on the basis of their Elite Series performance.
With just four regular season events left, lots of big names are in danger of missing the big dance. They need a comeback as big as their collapse in the first half.
Just how much ground can you make up in four events? Kevin Wirth jumped from 57th to 27th in the final four events last year. In 2007, Kotaro Kiriyama moved from 61st to 37th to squeeze into the Classic. And in 2006, Todd Faircloth lifted himself out of 53rd and into 23rd in the last four tournaments.
That doesn't give a lot of hope to Mark Davis (currently 67th), Terry Scroggins (68), Ish Monroe (70), Paul Elias (77), Rick Clunn (80), Ken Cook (88), Scott Rook (93), Zell Rowland (94) or Peter Thliveros (98). They've got deep holes to climb out of in the next four tournaments.
History tells us that with four tournaments left in the season, you're in pretty good shape if you rank in the top 25. Only three anglers in Elite Series history have failed to qualify for the Classic if they ranked in the top 25 with four events to go (Mark Tyler in 2007 and Derek Remitz and Morizo Shimizu in 2008).
History also says you need to be very near the top at this point if you want to win AOY. Michael Iaconelli was the leader at this point in 2006. Skeet Reese and Kevin VanDam were both second with four to go in 2007 and 2008, respectively.