McKinney’s mistake breaks AOY race wide open

Trey McKinney was practicing Wednesday for the next Bassmaster Elite Series tournament when he answered his cellphone. He was bouncing around in rough water, but pleasant 60-degree air temperatures, on Lake Champlain.

That’s a long distance from Alabama’s Smith Lake, where McKinney finished 93rd last week, bringing a halt to the unprecedented accomplishments of the 19-year-old rookie from Carbondale, Ill. And it was an abrupt halt, due to “operator error.”

McKinney caught a five-bass limit weighing 16 pounds, 4 ounces on Day 2 at Smith Lake. Combined with his 12-2, 30th-place limit on Day 1, it would have put him in second place, only 11 ounces behind Day 2 leader Cody Huff.

However, McKinney had made what might be called a rookie mistake, except for the fact it has happened to so many Elite Series veterans. He thought his check-in time was 3 p.m., but it was actually 2 p.m.

Making matters worse, McKinney said he was near the check-in dock, basically just killing time, hoping to possibly upgrade his smallest fish, with plans to go in well before 3 p.m.

“I have never been more confident that my check-in time was 3 o’clock,” he said.

Countless pro anglers have made the same mistake at least once in their careers. That’s why you’ll see anglers with their daily check-in time written in Sharpie on one hand or on a leg or posted somewhere easily visible in their boat.

Shortly after 2 p.m. McKinney noticed that his mother, Kim, was repeatedly calling his cellphone. “She knows she can’t call me during a tournament,” said McKinney, who didn’t have a Marshal that day, so there was no other way to determine if McKinney was okay or not after his uncharacteristic tardiness for check-in. McKinney, fearing some kind of family emergency, finally answered. That’s how he discovered he was late. It took him only seven minutes to get to the check-in point, that’s how close he was. But the phone call violated the B.A.S.S. Official Rules of Competition, and McKinney’s weight was zeroed.

Instead of recording possibly another Top 10 finish, McKinney finished 93rd. Instead of maintaining or possibly improving the 59-point Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year lead he held over second-place Justin Hamner going into Smith Lake, McKinney dropped to second, 24 points behind Hamner. Cody Huff is only two points behind McKinney.

That also tightened up the entire top 10, which is now separated by only 64 points. Before Smith Lake, the top 10 was separated by 112 points. Interestingly, the AOY race is almost exactly where it was a year ago after seven tournaments. The spread from first to 10th was 63 points before the 2023 season closed with back-to-back tournaments at Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River in August. Kyle Welcher was one point behind Brandon Cobb going into those final two events and rallied to win by 24 points over second-place Cobb.

McKinney admitted he’s going to have a hard time forgiving himself if he doesn’t rally to win the AOY title this year.

“If I don’t win AOY, it’s always going to haunt me,” McKinney said. “It would be like proposing to the person you’ve been dating for five years and she says, ‘No.’”

McKinney is trying to do everything he can to finish strong, but his experience on northern waters is limited to one 2023 Bassmaster Open on the St. Lawrence River at Waddington, N.Y., where he finished 88th. That’s why he was on Lake Champlain this week, before it goes off-limits on July 8th, and why he’ll move to the St. Lawrence River for three days of pre-practice before it does off limits on July 15.

“Other than that tournament at Waddington, where I played it safe, I’ve never been up north,” McKinney said. “I fished once at Sturgeon Bay (on Lake Michigan) when I was younger. That’s it.”

Meanwhile, Hamner, the 32-year-old Northport, Ala., resident, is on a roll. His 10th-place finish at Smith Lake was his fourth Top 10 of the Elite Series season in a year which also includes the Bassmaster Classic championship. Hamner also has a track record on northern waters. His surge to 21st place in the final 2023 AOY standings began with a 17th-place finish at Michigan’s Lake St. Clair followed by 21st at Lake Champlain and eighth at the St. Lawrence River.

Cody Huff is in third place in the AOY standings, only 26 points behind Hamner. The 26-year-old, Ava, Mo., pro also finished strong on the Northern Swing last year, posting finishes of 20th at Lake St. Clair, third at Lake Champlain and 14th at the St. Lawrence River.

You can also make a case for Canadians Chris Johnston (fourth, 39 points behind Hamner) and his brother, Cory, (ninth, 64 points back). They have multiple strong showings on Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River, including Chris’ win on the St. Lawrence in 2020.

In the top 10 of the AOY standings, Hamner (33), Chris Johnston (34) and Cory Johnston (39) are the only anglers who are past the age of 30. We will see how much experience counts when the Elite Series wraps up with these back-to-back events in August.

Finally, two notes:  

With McKinney falling off the list, there are now only three anglers who have made all seven Day 2/Top 50 cuts this season – Cody Huff, Jacob Foutz and Hunter Shryock.

Of the top 10 anglers in the AOY standings after seven tournaments last year, only one is back in the top 10 after seven tournaments this year. Jay Przekurat was sixth a year ago, and he’s seventh this year. In fact, only six anglers have been in the AOY top 25 after seven tournaments both years: Patrick Walters, John Cox, Hunter Shryock, Brandon Palaniuk, Cooper Gallant and Przekurat.

See full AOY standings.