Will Davis belongs

After the Sylacauga, Ala., native won the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship in 2022 on Pickwick Lake — a lake that many Alabamians consider to be one of their home-state fisheries — I wondered how he’d fare once it was time to travel the country fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series.

I had, after all, watched other anglers qualify largely through events in their home states only to crash and burn hard as they figured out the Elite Series wasn’t for them.

When we all sat down to put together the odds gallery for the annual Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville, I slotted Davis at 100-1 — a normal spot for such an angler since only one Nation qualifier has won the Classic in more than a half century.

But then something funny happened.

Davis went to Lake Okeechobee for his first Elite Series event ever and finished in 14th place, flirting hard with making the Championship Sunday cut. He followed that with a more-than-respectable 26th-place showing at Lake Seminole, and my opinion of him began to form.

By the time the Classic rolled around in March, his odds had improved from 100-1 to 50-1 because he was no longer a “Nation qualifier.” He was an Elite off to the kind of start Angler of the Year titles are built on.

That was actually the beginning of a tougher streak for Davis, as he finished 40th at the Classic, 44th at Lake Murray, 57th at Santee Cooper Lakes and 39th at the Sabine River. That all occurred before a tough Northern swing that saw him place 94th, 82nd and 44th in the final three events of the season.

In between all of those double-digit numbers, however, Davis did what so many big-name Elites have failed to do during long, distinguished careers. During a midseason event at Lay Lake — a place where he and his family have long ruled the tournament scene — he earned a coveted blue trophy and the $100,000 first-place check that goes with it.

Having fished Lay all of my life myself — and having donated more than once to the Davis Family Tournament Fund — I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Davis leave Shelby County with that win.

Afterward, I wasn’t the least bit doubtful about his place in this world of Elite bass anglers either.

Despite a bit of a rollercoaster rookie season, Davis finished fifth in the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year standings and qualified comfortably for his second Classic by placing 31st in the overall AOY race.

But while many anglers were elk hunting or enjoying the sun on some tropical beach somewhere, Davis was preparing to defend his title at the 2023 TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship on Lake Hartwell in October.

The defending champion always gets an automatic berth, but none has ever actually won back to back.

That is, until they turned Davis — a lifelong spotted bass slayer — loose on a fishery filled with spots that are shaped like footballs from gorging themselves on blueback herring.

Davis scored a historic victory that sent B.A.S.S. officials digging into the deepest recesses of the rule book.

The top three finishers in the Nation Championship always earn a Classic berth, and the winner always gets an invitation to fish the Elite Series. But since Davis already had both locked up through his 2023 Elite finish some maneuvering had to be done.

The top three finishers, including Davis, received Classic invitations as always, and the Elite invite went to second-place finisher Tim Dube of New Hampshire.

With social media being what it is these days, there was chatter through the week of the championship that Davis didn’t belong in the event because he had done so well on the Elites. I won’t waste much time addressing that nonsense because, in all these years of the defending champ competing, no one ever complained until the returning champ was someone that could make a genuine run at winning the trophy.

Davis belonged at Hartwell.

He belongs on the Elite Series.

And, after the rookie season he crafted as an Elite, I think you’ll be able to use the phrase “he belongs” in reference to a lot of things down the road.