Over the course of 2023’s nine regular season events, 100-plus Bassmaster Elite Series anglers jockeyed for position to earn hardware, world championship qualifications and cold, hard cash. You only get one chance to win Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, but more chances to win Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year don’t necessarily make that achievement any easier.
Kyle Welcher, who finished 69th in the AOY race last season, reverted to form with a masterful 2023 campaign that saw him duke it out with South Carolina’s Brandon Cobb for much of the season. After six tournaments, it wasn’t quite a two-man race, but neither dropped lower than second overall thereafter. Even with mechanical issues at the end, Welcher still outlasted Cobb by a semi-comfortable margin of 24 points.
The ROY campaign was closer, with Japan’s Kyoya Fujita rising consistently to challenge Joey Cifuentes before ultimately falling short by a single point. Cifuentes won two Elite events and Fujita won one. Their fellow rookie Will Davis Jr., won an Elite tournament and qualified for his second Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota.
Of the five anglers mentioned above, Cifuentes is the old-timer at 35 years old. Fellow competitors Rick Clunn, David Fritts and Larry Nixon no doubt have Wiggle Warts older than all of them. It’s not necessarily a young man’s game — everyone has access to the same information and technology — but it’s definitely increasingly possible to get really good when you’re still really young. When Kevin VanDam burst onto the scene still needing to shave only every other week, that early success was an anomaly. This year five of the top 10 in the AOY race were under 30 years old at season’s end.
Indeed, in some respects it may be an advantage to be young because you don’t have decades of experience holding you back from giving your all to newer paradigms and realities.
Now that we’ve concluded the “get off my lawn” portion of this article, here are a few other factoids and observations that stood out to me when the casting stopped:
The source of Samson’s strength. After decades of conservatively-shorn AOYs, two of the last three — Seth Feider and Kyle Welcher — have had good flow atop their heads. Barbers in bass-oriented communities should look for a backup trade.
Season-long consistency. At no point during the season was AOY runner-up Brandon Cobb outside of the top four in the race. He was leading on four separate occasions and in second three times. Drew Cook was the only other angler never to fall outside of the AOY top 10. Subsequent to the third tournament, he never left the top five before landing in fourth at season’s end.
The birthplace of B.A.S.S. Three of the last six AOY trophies have been won by Alabama anglers, and six of the last 11 if you count the late Aaron Martens, a transplant.
What’s your ride? Welcher was the first angler to win AOY out of the relatively new Caymas brand of bass boats. Second- and third-place finishers Brandon Cobb and Patrick Walters piloted Falcons, another fairly recent addition to the available options.
Rising tides. Four of the top 10 in AOY started slowly and gradually climbed the ladder. Look at the AOY progression over nine events of Jay Przekurat, Kyoya Fujita, Bryan Schmitt and Stetson Blaylock:
Przekurat – 17-38-38-30-15-10-7-4-6
Fujita – 79-32-14-43-39-25-15-8-7
Schmitt – 64-42-37-19-21-16-9-7-8
Blaylock – 47-37-36-23-18-11-12-9-10
No experience necessary. Greg Hackney was the top-finishing past AOY in this year’s points standings at 20th overall. Other past AOYs had varying levels of success: Seth Feider (55th), Clark Wendlandt (40th), Scott Canterbury (28th), Brandon Palaniuk (33rd), Gerald Swindle (50th), Mike Iaconelli (47th), David Fritts (102nd), Rick Clunn (103rd) and Larry Nixon (97th).
Getting healthy up north. Of the top 10 in the AOY race, Kyoya Fujita was the one who climbed the most in the final three events, rising from 25th to seventh. Welcher had nowhere to go but down. Fortunately for him, he entered that stretch in first and left in first.
Struggles in smallmouth country. Multiple veterans entered the three-event Northern Swing in prime position to make the 2024 Classic, or even a run at AOY, and ultimately plummeted. Mike Iaconelli was 12th and over the course of the final three tournaments fell to 47th. Steve Kennedy went from 14th to 54th. Clifford Pirch went from 22nd to 48th. Seth Feider dropped from 29th to 55th. Of the anglers who headed to Champlain in the top 10 in AOY, rookie Will Davis Jr. fell the most, going from sixth to 31st, but with the consolation that he was still inside the Classic cut and had a blue trophy in his possession.
Past Classic champs. You clearly cannot rest on your laurels with this group. The field featured seven past Classic champions. Jason Christie (2022) and Hank Cherry (2020 and 2021) were the only two to finish in the top 40, in 37th and 39th, respectively.
Woo pig sooie. Cifuentes is the first Elite Series ROY from Arkansas since Billy McCaghren in 2009.
Past ROYs. Ten past Elite Series ROYs fished the Elite Series this year. Seven of them qualified for the 2024 Classic, with three finishing in the top 20 in AOY – Jay Przekurat (2022, sixth), Drew Cook (2019, fourth), and Drew Benton (2016, 14th).
Rookies going forward. Of the 17 Elite Series ROYs prior to this season, 2011’s Ott DeFoe and 2013’s Hank Cherry are the only two to have won a Classic. They claimed three straight titles from 2019 through 2021, with Cherry earning the latter two. No past Elite ROY has won AOY.
The international division. While we’ve now seen Classic champs from Japan and Canada, there has yet to be an AOY or Elite Series ROY from outside of the US.
Age is just a number. At 35, Cifuentes is the oldest ROY since Austin Felix in 2020 – Felix had just turned 36. Brent Ehrler won the award in 2015 at 38 – he was technically a rookie under the definition as it existed then, but he had experienced lots of tour-level success at FLW.
Locking it down. Four different anglers led the ROY race over the course of the year. Cifuentes was the leader after four different tournaments, including the all-important final one. Will Davis Jr. led three different times before ultimately falling to fifth. Kyoya Fujita, who missed the title by a single point, never led.
It all starts over again with everyone tied in the AOY race and a new class of rookies in just a few months.