Alton Jones, Elite leader on the Mississippi

Jones closing the gap in Angler of the Year race

Alton Jones

 FORT MADISON, Iowa — Perhaps it was too soon to declare the battle for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year a two-horse race.

Alton Jones, in a distant third in the AOY standings heading into this week's Elite event, reminded fishing fans of his versatility by grabbing the lead with a two-day total of 24 pounds, 1 ounce, at the Genuity River Rumble on the Mississippi River.

In what has turned into a grind-it-out event, Jones, of Waco, Texas, has been the model of consistency, weighing 12-1 Friday after posting 12-0 on Thursday. With tough conditions on the mighty Mississippi, many anglers have been forced into wholesale adjustments, causing dramatic changes in the leaderboard from the first to the second day.

"I'm running a long way so I'm pretty much committed to this area at this point and don't have many alternatives," said Jones, who is closing in on $2 million in BASS career earnings. "I think it has the potential to replenish but it's hard to say what is going to happen. If it doesn't carry over into tomorrow, I'll be prepared with an excuse."

A victory for Jones, the 2008 Bassmaster Classic champion, would be worth $100,000, but perhaps of most importance would be the points he would gain in the AOY standings. Heading into the Mississippi event, AOY leader Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., and Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., were scorching hot and each had 100-point advantages over Jones.

But both have cooled off a bit here — after two days, VanDam was 10th and Reese was 30th — while Jones moved into the lead from 11th place.

The three have virtually locked up spots in the inaugural Bassmaster Elite Series postseason, the Toyota Trucks Championship Week. The postseason, set for Sept. 10-18, will be played out on two productive Alabama fisheries. The first of the two postseason tournaments will take place on Lake Jordan out of Wetumpka; the finale, the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph, is slated for the Alabama River from Montgomery. Only the top 12 anglers in the AOY standings will advance to the postseason.

Buoyed by a quick start — Jones landed two 3-pounders within 30 minutes of his first cast — the five-time BASS winner was then able to survive a long period of inactivity, rounding out his five-fish limit late in the day. He is in an area filled with a number of Elite competitors but has etched out a small stretch he and fellow Texan Kelly Jordon (fourth place with 23-2) are sharing.

Like most of the field, Jones is flipping to shallow water. He said his bait selection is similar to most in the field but he has a slight variation in his presentation method that's key to enticing the right bites.

Moving up from fourth position to second place was Billy McCaghren of Mayflower, Ark. The established river angler — McCaghren has been fishing the Arkansas River for years — is just 6 ounces behind Jones.

McCaghren said he lost two fish — both estimated at just under 3 pounds — that could cost him. Like Jones, McCaghren is in an area shared by a number of Elite competitors.

"I'm in one of those dead-end sloughs, so it's tough to say if my area could hold up," McCaghren said. "But I figured out something yesterday that gets them to bite pretty good. I'm just trying to get what I need from the area and leave it alone so I don't burn it out."

Scott Campbell of Springfield, Mo., was third with 23-8 while Jordon of Mineola, Texas, tallied 23-2 for fourth. Thursday leader Randy Howell stumbled Friday to fifth with 23-0.

The pros have been forced to quickly change gears after slugfests in the previous two Elite events at big-bass factories, Lake Guntersville and Kentucky Lake. Perhaps the toughest tournament since the inception of the Elite Series, the River Rumble had only 22 pros land five-fish limits Friday and a number failed to register a keeper-sized fish.

The field was reduced to the top 50 after Friday with notables like four-time Classic winner Rick Clunn of Ava, Mo. (20th) and BASS veteran Zell Rowland (21st) of Montgomery, Texas, qualifying.

The most impressive turnaround has to go to Terry Scroggins, who rebounded from 0 pounds Thursday to land 13 pounds, 8 ounces, Friday and finish in 32nd.

During the 2008 season, the Elite Series had to cancel the River Rumble in Fort Madison because of flooding along the river that affected nearly a dozen states. The river last was host to a Bassmaster Tour event in 2006, when Elite angler Darrin Schwenkbeck won a Bassmaster Northern Tour competition with a three-day total of 42 pounds, 12 ounces.