A season like no other

A few weeks ago I wrote that we’ve gotten to the point where no Bassmaster Elite Series Top 10 should seem unbelievable, and yet with each new tournament the field works tirelessly to disprove that claim. 

The just-completed event at Guntersville is the latest and perhaps the best example. In claiming the trophy, Elite Series sophomore Frank Talley not only made the Top 10 in an Elite tournament for the first time, he also effectively doubled his lifetime earnings with B.A.S.S.

Indeed, the top six was a smorgasbord of up-and-comers, with tournament runner-up Randy Sullivan the longest tenured angler in the Elite Series. He joined for the 2018 season. Meanwhile, Kyle Welcher, Wes Logan and Bob Downey are all rookies. Luke Palmer and Talley are sophomores. Combined, they’d previously earned a total of two Top-10 finishes in Elite Series competition. That’s one fewer than rookie-slash-smallmouth-virgin Taku Ito claimed during this summer’s three event Northern Swing.

Guntersville, of course, has been a frequent tour stop, yet experience on the Big G did not necessarily translate into success this week. The two anglers in the field who’ve won Classics at Guntersville – Hank Cherry and Rick Clunn – finished 19th and 72nd, respectively. Near-perennial Bassmaster Classic qualifiers Brandon Palaniuk, Brandon Lester, Keith Combs, John Crews, Clifford Pirch and Bill Lowen all finished below the cutline.

None of this is meant to denigrate those who perhaps unexpectedly did well, or those who surprisingly did poorly. The difference between the top of the field and the bottom of the field is gradually inching towards being negligible. Furthermore, everyone is entitled to, and expected to have, a bad tournament or two.

Nevertheless, we are seeing long-held expectations being upset with increasing regularity. It’s not quite a youth movement – after all, Talley is 45 years old, which makes him older than the likes of Palaniuk, Lester, Combs, Crews, Pirch and Lowen (even if just by a month in the latter case). Rather, it’s an upending of the notion that the best fishermen are always those with the most solid track records. 

In just about every other sport, analytics and seemingly unending data points make outcomes more predictable each year. Meanwhile, in professional bass fishing, it seems that the more we learn, the less we actually know. In no other televised competition, save perhaps professional wrestling, are the storylines this unlikely. And while we know wrestling to be scripted, it’s hard to believe that even the most creative scribe could write a script as seemingly unbelievable as what we saw live at Guntersville.

Yet despite the fact that last week’s “Super Six” might not have been pre-derby or preseason favorites, as the season enters the home stretch they are all in contention for a spot in the 2021 Bassmaster Classic. Welcher is 12th in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. What makes that particularly amazing is that he’s not even in the lead for Rookie of the Year, as he sits 46 points behind Ito. Talley, this week’s winner, is in 26th, and Palmer and Logan are likewise inside the current Classic cut. Downey is just outside, a mere 2 points back. Sullivan is further behind, in 58th, but at 56 points out he is far from hopeless with three tournaments left to go. The final event in Sullivan’s home state of Texas. 

What makes this both great and nerve-wracking is that there’s still a lot of fishing left to go, starting with what may be the greatest unknown on this year’s schedule – an October event at Santee Cooper. Every hour of competition comes with both a chance to gain ground and a threat that your position will be usurped. For those of us on the sidelines, it’s time to crack a beer and pop some popcorn while doing our best to resist just going with the favorites.