MONETA, Va. — With the conclusion of the Advance Auto Parts Blue Ridge Brawl, the 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series regular season is halfway done, and while none of the remaining competitors is conceding anything — not even to the seemingly superhuman Kevin VanDam — some patterns and probabilities are starting to take root with respect to the end-of-year standings.
It seems that there's something for everyone to shoot for. Pros near the top of the heap are starting to think about the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year race.
Those in the middle of the pack are racking their brains to find a way to qualify for next February's Bassmaster Classic.
And for those anglers at the bottom of the heap, the ones who seem to be barely treading water, the surge is on to requalify.
But there's one category that exists this season that hasn't been an issue previously: At the end of the eight regular season events, the top 12 anglers in the standings will fish two more tournaments, at sites yet to be announced, for all the marbles. They'll carry over some of their positioning in an adjusted points formula, but the way it works means that any of the 12 will likely have a shot at the sport's biggest season-long prize.
Heading into this week's tournament, Skeet Reese was in seventh place overall and will likely improve as the result of his ninth-place finish here at Smith Mountain Lake.
The good news is that all but one of the anglers ahead of him in the season-long standings finished worse here than he did, so he'll make up some ground. The bad news is that the one who bested him here was one Kevin VanDam.
An AOY battle against VanDam doesn't intimidate Reese as much as it might play with most other anglers' minds. He went mano a mano against VanDam in 2007 and came out on top. To some extent, he would relish another chance to duke it out in the trenches.
"If I have an opportunity to battle KVD for Angler of the Year, you can't script it any better than that," Reese said. "I want to beat the best and if you beat him, it doesn't get any sweeter than that."
But Reese cautioned himself against presuming that it would come down to the two of them, or even that either or both would make it to the last two events.
"I just have to keep myself close," he said. "The last 7 or 8 years Kevin and I have both done our job and consistently been in the top 10. You can't win it if you don't make it to that top 12."
While Reese and VanDam improved upon already solid positions in the standings this week, several anglers who needed the boost even more also helped themselves out substantially. Five of the 12 anglers who fished on Sunday entered the tournament between 21st and 31st in the standings. Now they'll be knocking on the door of the post-season team's clubhouse.
Aaron Martens, who entered the Advance Auto Parts Blue Ridge Brawl in 21st overall, claims to be aware of the standings, but said that he doesn't follow them obsessively.
"I kind of know where I am and this might put me real close," he said. "But I haven't been on a computer in over a year. My wife checks them for me. I'm too busy for that type of stuff. I've got the kids to keep me busy and computers take too much time."
Like Reese, Martens has also outlasted KVD in an Angler of the Year race and would like to add another to his trophy case.
"It's not as important as the Classic, but I'd like to get a second one," he said.
For anglers who have neither a Classic trophy nor an Angler of the Year award to their credit, looking too far forward may be an unnecessary distraction. After a subpar season in 2008, James Niggemeyer has rebounded admirably this year with an Open win and three Elite Series top 20s, including a seventh-place finish this week. He said that making the top 12 hasn't entered his mind.
"I haven't been thinking about it," he said. "All my focus is on making it back to the Classic."
But unlike Martens, he has applied his math skills to the points race.
"I watch what it takes to make it to 36th and multiply that by eight. Usually that'll tell you what you need to make the Classic and you go from there," he said.
But Louisiana's Greg Hackney has his eyes firmly focused on getting into the post-season. He respects the efforts of Reese and VanDam, but noted that "all of this runs in cycles — Rick Clunn, Denny Brauer and now Skeet and Kevin. But I can remember when they didn't catch them this well. The field is full of great fishermen."
For Hackney, who hopes that his fourth-place finish here will vault him up from 25th place in the Angler of the Year standings, closer to or inside the top 12, the struggle is getting to those extra events.
Despite the fact that VanDam and Reese seem to be world-beaters, Hack believes that "this is going to work out so it comes down to four or five guys for Angler of the Year. It doesn't matter to me where they hold the tournaments. I just want to be there."