Best of 2023: Elite season analysis

From an infusion of youth to new winners, the 2023 Elite season was different by all accounts.

We spent a lot of time in 2023 watching anglers looking at screens. Forward-facing sonar even produced an unlikely win at grass-laden Okeechobee. Nevertheless, to characterize the 2023 season as “the year when you were either scoping or hoping” is to give the anglers and the campaign too little credit. It distills a bunch of disparate threads – some of which were the symptoms of this trend and some of which were its causes – into a box that’s just a little bit too neat. 

So, what distinguished this season from years past? It wasn’t the schedule. Most of the locations were familiar to the field. Three were repeats from 2022, they last visited Champlain in 2021 and went to St. Clair in 2020. The four others had hosted either past Elites or Classics, albeit in years when many members of this field were not yet on tour. There wasn’t an Oahe or Ft. Madison in the bunch. It wasn’t a paradigm-changing bait, either. There were no late-night parking lot deals to get a rare ChatterBait or Alabama Rig, or makeshift lessons on rigging a drop shot.

What made 2023 novel was the massive injection of unprecedented levels of uncertainty into the standings, both in individual events and over the season-long slog.

Anglers you’re used to seeing at the top took longer to find on the scorecard. You had to double-check spellings of the new guys too. Few things turned out as expected. In a season where Patrick Walters finished third in Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, you’d bet the house he would dominate at Santee Cooper, but it was his worst performance (75th) of the year. Brandon Palaniuk entered the Northern Swing with a real chance to finish up single digits in AOY, and possibly grab another blue trophy, and instead he finished 46th, 56th and 91st and held on for dear life to a Classic spot. Here are a few facts and storylines that stood out to me:

Youth wins: Conventional wisdom has long held that anglers peak in their 40s, when longstanding experience coincides with a still-physically-fit body. That’s been shifted forward, and it’s not just the on-boat technology, but also the rise of college programs and the ability to learn via YouTube and other methodologies. Nine of the 10 top finishers in the Angler of the Year race were 36 or younger, and five of them were 29 or younger. Their average age, including the comparatively ancient Bryan Schmitt (eighth place, 42 years old) was 31.4. That wasn’t much higher than the 30-year-old average age of the Top 10 in Dakota Lithium Bassmater Rookie of the Year race. The average age of Elite Series winners was right around 32 years old, changing slightly depending on whether you included Joey Cifuentes once or twice. Cifuentes and Kyoya Fujita pulled off the Elite Series hat trick of finishing Top 10 in AOY, Top 10 in ROY and winning at least one tournament.

Ripple effect: Part of the impact of the near-immediate success of many young pros is that it displaces some veterans who are used to being near the top. It’s hard to say precisely why an angler moved out of his usual range in the standings in any given season, but many accomplished pros just missed a Classic berth. All of the following hammers finished between 44th and 60th: Scott Martin, Bill Lowen, Mike Iaconelli, Clifford Pirch, Brandon Lester, Gerald Swindle, John Crews, Jeff Gustafson, Steve Kennedy, Seth Feider and Chris Zaldain.

Build a trophy case: Six of the nine regular season events were won by first-time champions, and it might have been seven except for the fact that Rookie of the Year Joey Cifuentes doubled up at Seminole and St. Clair.

Margins of victory: There were lots of nail-biters over the course of the year, with the ultimate margin of victory in four of the nine events landing between 1 pound, 2 ounces and 1 pound, 9 ounces. The smallest gap was Will Davis Jr.’s 2-ounce victory over Brandon Palaniuk at Lay Lake. The largest margin was Luke Palmer’s 14-3 at Santee Cooper. He needed only 11-12 the last day and brought in 25-15.

One he’d like to have back: Brandon Cobb missed the AOY title by 24 points. He finished a season’s worst and Elite career worst 91st at the Sabine River, where he’d finished 15th the year before. Other than that, his lowest finish this year was 32nd at Champlain, and he had four Top 10s. At the Sabine he weighed in nine fish for 9-09 over two days. To move up 24 places, he needed 2-7 more. In other words, one good keeper. With 4 pounds more he would’ve made the cut to Saturday and had an opportunity to grab even more points.

One point: Kyoya Fujita missed the ROY title by a single point in a year where it often seemed like he could do no wrong. Over nine events he won once, had a runner-up, two third places and a seventh. Indeed, but for a bomb at Santee Cooper his worst finish was 34th so he didn’t leave many points on the table. It was just that Cifuentes was equally superhuman. But clearly if there’s one Fujita would like back it would be Santee, where he had three for 11-10 on Day 1 and blanked on Day 2. A single additional keeper would’ve easily given him the points he needed.

Everything but the title: Of all of the dominant young guns, Walters is the most consistent. After finishing a highly-respectable 16th in AOY his rookie season, he’s finished third, fourth, fifth and third over the subsequent four, and in March he’ll fish his fifth consecutive Classic. He’s also amassed four professional wins and is the only angler to earn Century Belts on both largemouth and smallmouth – and he won’t turn 30 for nearly another year. Drew Cook has similarly been exceptional in the AOY races over the past five years, finishing (in order) seventh, 18th, 10th, 12th and fourth. He was also born in 1994, just three months before Walters.

The international side: All four Canadian Elite Series pros will compete in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic. Rookie Cooper Gallant finished 17th in AOY, Chris Johnston was 18th, Cory Johnston was 26th and reigning Classic champ Jeff Gustafson gets an automatic bid. Three of the four Japanese pros qualified, as did Australian angler Carl Jocumsen.

True sign of the new normal: For the first time in Bassmaster history, the season featured more Century Belts built on smallmouth than on largemouth – four to zip. The first 100-pound catches of smallmouth came in 2022, when there were two of them, but that season there were six largemouth-based Century Belts (two at Santee-Cooper and four at Lake Fork).