Elite Analysis: Lake Fork – Day 3

I was just a few years into my writing career when the record-setting Elite Series tournament took place at Falcon in 2008, and while I wasn’t working for B.A.S.S. at the time, I had the good fortune to fish it as a co-angler. It was one of the most memorable fishing events of a lifetime that’s had a lot of good ones.

Clearly, fishing itself has changed since then. That starts with the names. In 2008, no one outside his immediate household could likely pronounce Brandon Palaniuk’s last name. KVD had “only” won two Classics. More than that, though, we’ve seen a change in tackle and tactics. In 2008, the Chatterbait was still relatively new and it wasn’t widely believed that big glide baits and swimbaits would work outside of the west. And, most significantly for purposes of this exercise, forward-facing sonar wasn’t a thing.

But the biggest change, to my mind, is the coverage of these events and the technology used to make that happen. We’ve seen Live coverage in particular come so far, to include integrated sonar views, that there are no secrets. That’s just the tip of the eventual iceberg – between various forms of AI and enhanced technology, we’ll be able to know and see much more well before Trey McKinney turns 30. Most of Rick Clunn’s professional casts are lost to history, never to be seen by anyone but Rick himself, and maybe his partners. There’s a very real chance that every cast McKinney ever makes as an Elite will be recorded – to be broken down, analyzed, and fed into some database.

It’s certainly debatable whether that reduces the mystery and wonder of the game. It’s furthermore debatable whether any such reduction is a good thing or a bad thing. But it cannot be disputed that we as fans are spoiled. We’ve gotten what we’ve always wanted – a chance to be in the boat with the best of the best.

That makes it hard for those of us who write. By the time this gets published, most of the hardcore bassheads have seen the day’s events in real time and living color. I’m glad that B.A.S.S. gives me an opportunity to flex my creative muscles by trying to find a way to add to the historical understanding of those events.

So with that statement of gratitude (for Falcon in 2008, for Fork in 2024, and for the fact that someone cares about my thoughts) as a backdrop, here’s what I saw, thought and pondered as this historic derby headed into the home stretch:

Youth Movement – Pundits and fans, myself included, have been marveling over (or, in some cases, lamenting) the surge of younger pros, led by just-turned-19-years-old rookie Trey McKinney. Yes, it’s unusual for fishing, but wouldn’t be out of line in other sports. In his first NBA game as an 18-year-old, LeBron James had 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. Joe Nuxhall pitched in Major League Baseball before his 16th birthday. Tracy Austin won the US Open tennis tournament at 16. Similarly, at 16 Mary Lou Retton became the first American woman named Olympic all-around champion. While there may be numerous differences between professional fishing and those other sports, I believe the biggest one historically has been the infrastructure available to youth. They’ve had AAU basketball, gymnastics and tennis academies, private coaching, travel teams and so on in those sports. Only recently have we seen the rise of college and high school fishing, and other support and development systems are just starting to emerge from the woodwork. Someday it may not seem so unusual.

Taking Care of Business – One of the things that has seemingly been overlooked in the mass assault on the leaderboard by this rookie class goes beyond their skillset on the water – it’s how incredibly polished they are off the water. They’re generally well-spoken, able to promote their sponsors without hitting you over the head with doubletalk, and aware of how to play the sponsorship game. There are plenty of 40 and 50 year-old veterans who’ve been coasting in some of these regards for years, and could take a lesson in comportment, attitude and business sense from this new generation.

Tackle Sales Boost – Opponents of forward-facing sonar have argued that it will inhibit tackle sales, limiting most purchases to a few jigheads and minnow baits. After watching this week’s Fork event, manufacturers and retailers of $20+ jerkbaits across the globe are likely rejoicing.

Never Give Up – At a little bit before 2pm, JT Thompkins had only three bass for 12-8. Then he set his jerkbait into a true goliath. With one swing of the bat, that 9-1 brought him up to 21-9 with one fish left to go to complete his limit. It also appeared to vault him from 25th up to 12th, less than a pound out of the cut. At nearly the same time, Kyle Patrick caught a 6-1, Justin Hamner caught a 6-14 and Jonathan Kelley caught an 8-12. That little bite window opened up. They might not have known it, but those of us online saw something amazing. Even though Thompkins later filled out his limit, it was too little, too late. He fell 2 pounds short of the cut.

Maine Event – Trying to learn about Tyler Williams (2nd place, 94-11), our first Elite pro from Maine, I looked up his hometown of Belgrade. Wikipedia lists eight notable people from Belgrade (not including Williams – yet), one of whom was Harold Alfond, the founder of the Dexter Shoe company. He was also an investor in various sports interests such as the Boston Red Sox and an Olympic sailing medalist. His successors would seem to be a perfect sponsorship opportunity for Williams, except for the fact that the dude rarely if ever seems to wear any shoes.

The Fine Line – To show just how competitive the Elite Series has been over the past few years, it’s worth noting that both Justin Atkins (7th, 90-0) and Matty Wong (11th, 85-12) have recently been in danger of getting knocked off tour – but based on this week alone it’s clear that they’re world-class talents. Likewise, Kyle Patrick (6th, 90-5) needed to catch a few breaks to be the last angler from last year’s EQs into the Elite Series – and now he’s not letting that opportunity go to waste.

Home Team Struggles – Through two Elite Series tournament, both held in Texas waters (recognizing that Toledo Bend straddles the TX/LA border) we’ve had one top ten angler from Texas, transplant Ben Milliken (9th this week 87-3), both times. Meanwhile, we’ve seen seven top tens from rookies (including Milliken, twice).

What’s In a Name? Uno – It appears that “Kyle” is the hot new name on tour, with 2023 AOY Kyle Welcher (14th, 84-7) now joined by Kyle Patrick (6th, 90-5) and Kyle Norsetter (32nd, 72-10) on tour. Recent years have also seen the likes of now-departed pros like Kyle Monti and Kyle Fox. Notably, most were born around the time that “South Park” debuted and contributed to making it more of a household name. All of this makes me wonder: Is “Kyoya” the Japanese translation of “Kyle,” just like John and Juan have similar derivations?

What’s In a Name? Dos – For much of the day, we had two Tylers, two Justins and two Kyles in the top 10. Since Forrest Wood passed away, we’ve only had one Stetson. Mr. Blaylock sits in 4th place with 92-7.

Additional Kyle Note (sort of) – Do you remember Mark Kile, the Arizona pro who had the start of a great career on tour in 2003 and 2004? He finished in the money in nearly 60% of his BASS events, won Rookie of the Year in 2003, made three Classics (finishing 6th in 2003) and then quit the tour to become a rep for Skeeter.

The Names Don’t Remain the Same – The record-setting Falcon tournament took place just under 16 years ago. That’s a lifetime in many other sports, but it doesn’t feel that long in the angling landscape. Nevertheless, while many pros who competed in that tournament were at Fork this week, none of them made the top ten, and only Greg Hackney, Mark Menendez and Jason Williamson made the top 50. JWill is the only one of those three who got paid both times. He made the top ten last time and came in 43rd this week with 63-10.

Admit It –You’ve checked out real estate prices in Yantis, Texas this week.

Lee Livesay – “I got Forked this week.”