As we get ready to begin the tenth season of Elite Series competition, we’ve finally reached a milestone of sorts – during this season, for the first time, more than half of the Elite field will likely be composed of anglers who weren’t there when the deal kicked off in 2006.
Fifty four of the original 106 competitors who launched at Lake Amistad that March were still competing (or were out on medical hardship) when the Elites kicked off the regular season at Seminole early in 2014. As I’ve written about previously, some of them will not be back in 2014. Every sport features turnover – caused by retirements, injuries or the ever-euphemistic “leaving to pursue other opportunities” – but fishing does not quite have the same age or physical limitations as many other major sports. In the NFL, the average running back has a career of three or four years and when it ends no one blinks an eye or calls him a failure, but in bass fishing we gauge many of our heroes not just by how well they do, but also by how long they last.
The reasons for the departures of the 52 original Elite Series anglers who did not last are varied. For some it was a choice, for others there was no choice. For someone like me in his mid-40s, 2006 doesn’t seem like that long ago, but as I start to think about it, a lot has changed since then.
Some of the departed, like Denny Brauer and Ken Cook, left graciously, their legacies of achievement intact. Others, like Kevin Langill, left in a huff.
Since that time, we’ve lost two anglers named Rogers (Mark and Brooks) and gained a third Lane (Bobby).
One angler, Kurt Dove, departed and then came back.
With deepest apologies to all of them, I’d forgotten that guys like Conrad Picou, Doc Merkin and Charlie Youngers ever competed, even though I probably met and interviewed all of them at some point in time. Maybe with a break or two they might’ve been Angler of the Years (AOYs), but with the way things played out they seem to be only Elite Series footnotes. Then again, I’d also forgotten that living legend Jimmy Houston ever fished in Elite Series competition. He’d openly disagreed with the requirement that anglers wear a patch with the Busch Beer logo a few years earlier, and I’d wrongly assumed that he’d parted ways with BASS after that. Apparently my mind is not the steel trap that I thought it was. Either that or the passage of time between 2006 and today is more significant that it seems at first.
Looking back at that Amistad tournament, the first of Ish Monroe’s four B.A.S.S. wins to date, the event serves as something of a microcosm of what was to come. While a single event can’t necessarily predict how anglers will fish over a complete season or a career, to some extent the writing was on the wall. Eight of the top 10 and 16 of the top 20 were still around in 2014. Meanwhile, only three of the bottom 10 and seven of the bottom 20 held on for that same duration.
Every AOY in Elite Series history was at that Amistad blastoff. Meanwhile, six of the eight Bassmaster Classics since then have been won be anglers who were there, the exceptions being Boyd Duckett (2007) and Cliff Pace (2013). Of course, those are somewhat self-fulfilling factoids – if you win, you tend to stick around. Then again, it surprises me that we haven’t had a new AOY or more than one young gun, post-2006 rookie Classic champ.
My greatest takeaway from this back-of-the-napkin analysis is not only that I’m getting old in a hurry, but also that despite the fact that the field has remained more or less the same size, the talent pool continually gets deeper. It started the following year, when rookie Derek Remitz seemingly came out of nowhere to win the first event and finish second at the next one. He won the Rookie of the Year award, but Casey Ashley also won a tournament and has subsequently earned two more Bassmaster wins. In the meantime, for every past Elite Series winner like Chad Griffin, Preston Clark or Ben Matsubu who leaves the Elites, we seem to gain two like world-beaters Jason Christie or Keith Combs from another tour. Furthermore, the born-to-fish rookies like multiple-time winner Brandon Palaniuk seem content to permanently occupy what was previously a spot in a big game of musical chairs. We’ve even doubled the number of VanDams out there.
When we look back at the 2015 crew in 10 years, or perhaps even in five, there will of course have been some more attrition. That’s only natural. Anyone who hangs on for the duration has something to be proud of – there’s no one to hold your hand along the way. Now that less than half the field consists of old guard bassers, being able to say “I was there” is really starting to mean something.