We now have seven years of the Bassmaster Elite Series in the books. That's 65 tournaments in 17 states covering parts of three seasons on natural lakes, rivers, impoundments and even some tidal waters.
One hundred seventy-eight different anglers have fished the Series — 55 of them from the very beginning in 2006, a handful of them for less than a full season. And while there's no magical reason to isolate the Elite Series to the exclusion of the old Bassmaster Tour or the Invitationals that preceded them, it offers a range of tournaments that represents the peak of B.A.S.S. competition over the past few years.
It may surprise you to hear that these Bassonomics columns don't usually start with my thinking about numbers. They start with a question — two questions, actually. The first is usually something like "Who is the best Elite angler at catching big bass?" or "Who is the best at catching a limit each day?"
The second question is always pretty much the same: "How do you prove it?"
You see, it's easy to get into a discussion — even an argument — about who's the best at this or the worst at that, but quite a different thing to back it up. And since I hate being unarmed in one of these discussions, I usually force myself to dig in, get the data and put it together in a way that (I think) answers those questions.
This time I was asking myself a very straightforward question that comes up a lot. It's a question you may have debated with some of your fishing buddies. The question is this:
Who's the best angler in the Elite Series?
Pretty simple, right? And the answer is pretty simple, too, right? It's Kevin VanDam, of course.
But wait a minute. Before you run off and proclaim KVD the best in Elite history, let's consider a couple of factors.
First, the Elite Series does not include the Bassmaster Classic, so VanDam gets no credit for his championships in 2010 and 2011 (or 2001 and 2005, for that matter).
Second, the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award (which VanDam won four years in a row during the Elite era), while strongly indicative of who's best in a particular season, is an accolade and not a measurement.
To get to the answer I needed to evaluate performance across 65 tournaments, treating them as equals and evaluating angler finish not by place in the standings but by something that would work whether there were 109 anglers in the tournament (most in Elite history) or 93 (the fewest).
The ideal way to do this would be to grade everyone on a percentage of what they brought to the scales relative to the winner. If the winner had 80 pounds and Joe Schmoe had 40 pounds, I'd give the winner 100 points (a perfect score) and Joe would get 50 points (since he had 50 percent of the winner's total).
But that doesn't work because the full field doesn't fish all four days of an Elite event. It's cut in half after two days and to 12 after the third.
The best I could come up with was to score each angler's performance as a percentile of where he finished. If he was first in a 100 angler field, he scored 1.00. If he was 50th, he got 50.00. The lower your score, the higher your percentile finish. It's not perfect, but it's the best we have.
So, in this system — which does not factor in the Classic or postseason or AOY points or anything like that — is Kevin VanDam still number one?
Duh! Of course he is! No matter how many different angles you approach him from, King Kong is still King Kong. I'll find the numbers to show that KVD is not the best of the Elites right after I establish the existence of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster using an abacus and Post-It notes.
The best of the best
What's interesting is not where KVD ranks (at the top), but who else is on the list and where. Here are the top 10:
# Angler Percentile
1 Kevin VanDam 19.44
2 Ott DeFoe 22.25
3 Skeet Reese 25.38
4 Todd Faircloth 30.11
5 Edwin Evers 30.66
6 Aaron Martens 31.14
7 Michael Iaconelli 34.47
8 Alton Jones 34.70
9 Randy Howell 34.77
10 Steve Kennedy 34.87
To me, this is easily the best method we have for assessing performance across Elite seasons. Sometimes the best proof of that comes in looking at the results and giving them the sniff test.
Does the list smell about right? I think it does. Look at those names. Who else should be there?
Terry Scroggins? He's 11th at 35.35.
Greg Hackney? He's number 12.
Gerald Swindle? He ranks 17th.
In retrospect, the only adjustment I might make would be to establish a minimum number of tournaments. Ott DeFoe ranks second after just 16 events. Is his track record really better than Skeet Reese's? Certainly not yet. Reese is a superstar who's fished all 65 Elite events. As great as I think DeFoe is going to be, he still has some proving to do before we can put him in that category.
Of the top 10, DeFoe and Randy Howell posted the best numbers of their Elite careers in 2012, while Michael Iaconelli and Steve Kennedy posted their worst.
The most consistent angler in the group (again discounting DeFoe, who has fished just two seasons), is Aaron Martens. The Natural's best year was 2006 (21.40) and his worst year was 2011 (36.74). There's not a lot of variance there. KVD has been just about as consistent, but his scores are better (13.88 on the top end and 29.70 on the low end). Martens also takes a hit because the Elite Series started in 2006, a year after he won AOY.
For what it's worth, you usually need to score 20 or better to have a shot at AOY, and anything over 42 is probably going to keep you out of the Classic. This year, Brent Chapman scored 17.50 on his way to AOY.
The best score ever posted was 13.88 by VanDam in 2006 and Reese in 2009. Ironically, neither won AOY with those numbers. In 2006, KVD lost to Iaconelli (20.06) after being disqualified at the Santee Cooper tournament. In 2009, Reese had the AOY lead at the end of the regular season only to have VanDam claim the title with a couple of strong postseason performances.
So, how did your favorites stack up? Any surprises?