Points count the same throughout the Bassmaster Elite Series season, yet chasing them seems to take on more significance in the final events, where the pressure amps up for those fighting to make the Bassmaster Classic.
Austin Felix and Chad Pipkens are on the outside looking in, but the smallmouth aficionados hold high hopes to finish strong in the last two tournaments and qualify for next year’s championship.
“I need to catch me some fish,” said Pipkens, 49th in Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year Points and looking to climb at least six spots. “You’re flirting with fire, relying that the five or six guys in front of you don’t do better than you. If they do, you have to hope other guys really drop.”
The top 39 in the AOY standings receive automatic berths to the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic on the Tennessee River out of Knoxville. There are currently four double qualifiers, making 43rd the cutoff to make the Classic.
It’s a live-and-let-die scenario — some inside the bubble will drop and have it pop, while others will get on a late run and fill their dreams. There’s at least a dozen anglers within a 30-point range around the bubble, but someone even higher could bomb while a Top 10 or two could catapult another from farther back in the standings.
Pipkens, who has two events to make up around 18 points, holds great hope in reaching his sixth Classic in his 10th Elite season.
“If I average a couple top 40s, I make it,” he said. “I would love to come out of Oahe with a top 20 to give myself a little wiggle room.”
At 46th, Felix is back in range after some major “scratching and clawing.” The 2020 Rookie of the Year started the season with a sixth at St. Johns but then fell into an abyss, falling as far as 75th in AOY points. Felix had bad event after bad, adding that negative momentum is real.
“It seems like I had little things go wrong and I’d make a bad decision, and I just seemed to keep making wrong turns,” he said. “I just blame it on Zona, too, because halfway through the first tournament he crowned me Angler of the Year. It took me half a year to get out from under that.”
Felix said it’s fun to joke that Bassmaster LIVE analyst Mark Zona predicted he’d win AOY, especially now that he’s regained his mojo. Last year, Felix finished strong, making four Top 10s in the last five tournaments. He’s started what he hopes is a similar run, posting 11th-place finishes worth 90 points each in the past two events to climb 29 spots.
“It’s twisting the dagger a little bit to miss the Top 10 by one spot, especially after having big bags at St. Lawrence,” said Felix, lamenting the extra $5,000 and added points in making Championship Sunday. “But I’ve got the momentum going again. I expect to do well. I’m hoping I can bang out a Top 10 on Oahe, and if I can I should have a little breathing room.”
Felix had a four-event drought where he wasn’t close to the cut. His best was 64th at Chickamauga, and he fell precipitously down the standings. In a hole with four events left, Felix pointed to the 500-point mark to qualify for the Classic, figuring he needed to average around 30th.
To reach 500 points over the nine events, an angler needs to earn 56 points per event, or an average finish of 45th. Felix’s past two finishes put him ahead of his estimates.
“It gave me more of a cushion, but I need to keep the gas on,” he said. “I need to cash two checks realistically.”
Felix has 388 points and would reach 500 with two 40th-place finishes.
Pipkens was contacted heading home from a day at Lake St. Clair to tune up for Oahe’s smallmouth. He was hoping wife, Mel, survived his first time away since she gave birth to their second daughter, Ellie James, on July 26.
“It’s a different game, not two on one anymore,” he said. “The baby is no work. She just sleeps a lot. Emmy (2 1/2) is like 100 miles an hour all the time.”
Pipkens needs to go just as fast to get 124 points to reach 500. While he’s made four cuts without a super high finish, Pipkens laments leaving points at several events. He said he’s lost several important fish, and none bigger than at Santee Cooper Lakes, where he posted his worst finish of 77th.
“I was right around guys who really crushed them — I was just a second behind everything,” he said. “I only weighed four fish the last day, and I lost a 5, a 4 and a couple of twos. Gah, that’s the worst finish of the year there.”
Filling out his limit with a 2-pounder would have bumped Pipkens up about 20 spots. If he had landed the big ones he hooked, he’d have made the cut and be inside Classic contention now.
“I had the bites to finish in the 30s. That was one I left too much on the table,” he said.
Pipkens is among the Elites who fished Oahe in the Elite Series’ only visit in June of 2018, finishing 28th. He wasn’t able to pre-practice last summer and hopes low winds allow him a productive practice before the first day of competition Aug. 18.
“I wish I would have gone up last August to look around because it’s going to fish identical,” he said. “If we get some decent weather, I hope to get on track, but we could have three windy days like at Ontario and not get to see what you need to see.”
This year’s event is based in Mobridge, about 100 miles north of the 2018 launch in Pierre. The fishing should be better on that part of the lake, Pipkens said, and the winner should eclipse 2018’s winning weight of 69 pounds, 9 ounces.
“We’re launching where I never saw,” he said. “That’s where everything goes down. That’s where the big ones live, and I think the weights are going to be a totally different ballgame because of the time of year and where we’re launching. It’s going to be really good and a lot of fun.”
Felix was able to scout Oahe last summer, and he’s feeling pretty good about his chances. He said he found fish in a number of areas and believes he’ll be able to make up his six-point deficit on a Classic berth.
“I feel like I should excel at Oahe. If I don’t, I’ll be pretty disappointed in myself,” he said. “I feel like I have an advantage over most the field because I’ve been and it’s smallmouth.
“I’m going to try to win Oahe, that’s the goal.”
Well, that would be rather significant and make the finale on the Mississippi River a bit less stressful.