Age and the pro angler, part 2

Editor's note: To read part 1 of this article click here.

If you've followed the sport in the past 30 years, you know Bernie Schultz. He's a nine-time GEICO Bassmaster Classic qualifier and is universally well-respected in the industry, but I don't think most of us were prepared for the year he put together in 2015. Coming into the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) Championship, he ranked eighth in points. Though he slipped in the finale — ending up 18th — he had a strong season for anyone at any point in a career.

But Schultz is 61 years old.

It got me wondering: Who was the oldest angler to finish in the Top 10 of the AOY race? Had anyone over 60 done it? I learned in part 1 that while professional bass fishing is not really a young man's sport, it's even less of an older angler's game.

A professional angler's peak performance typically comes between the ages of 30 and 45. Most anglers turn pro after they've been in the workforce for a while — saving entry fee money and gaining experience in lower level tournaments. Another reason for the late peak is that it takes a few years of fishing all over the country before you become competitive on a wide variety of waters.

If you're a pro angler in search of the big accolades — AOY titles and Classic championships — you're most likely to do it between the ages of 35 and 45. Eight of the last 11 Classic champs were in that age range and two of the other three were in their early 30s.

Every AOY since 2007 has been between 35 and 43 years old, and there hasn't been an AOY in his 20s since 2000 (Tim Horton, 27). The oldest AOY ever was Roland Martin. He was 45 when he won his ninth title in 1985. He also won it a year earlier. Guido Hibdon was 43 and 44 when he went back-to-back in 1990 and 1991. Kevin VanDam won the title four times in a row between 2008 and 2011 at ages 40 to 43.

Only 20 anglers over the age of 50 have finished a season in the Top 10 of the AOY race. Only one accomplished the feat after the age of 60.

Twenty anglers in 46 years of AOY rankings is a small number. It represents just 4 percent of the overall group. To put it in perspective, there were 24 anglers over the age of 50 in the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2015 — more than 20 percent of the field — but none finished in the Top 10 of AOY. Matt Herren was best at 11th.

The last 50-year-old to crack the Top 10 was Mark Davis, who finished fifth in 2014. He's one of just eight anglers to finish in the Top 5 after 50. And Davis made a serious run at AOY. He led through six of nine events before physical problems (shoulder issues) hurt his fishing and took him out of the race.

Of course, physical problems are more likely to strike those who are older and who have been fishing 200 days per year for decades. Knee, back, arm and shoulder problems seem inevitable, and every pro angler in his 50s can tell you stories about pain and discomfort that only go away in the offseason … or after surgery … or not at all. It's tough to maintain the same drive and focus you had earlier, even if you're doing the thing you love. And we haven't mentioned the 14-hour days behind the wheel of a tow vehicle. That can take a heavier toll than the days on the water.

But it's not all physical, either. There are mental hurdles, too. Of the 20 anglers who finished in the Top 10 of AOY after 50, half had already won the award. They had already climbed that mountain, slayed that dragon and gotten that T-shirt. Of the others, only Jim Bitter (second in 1996), Tommy Biffle (third in 2009) and Guy Eaker (third in 1991) made anything approaching a real run at AOY.

And only one angler has finished in the Top 10 of AOY after the age of 60. Here are the five oldest.

#          Angler                        Season        Rank       Y-M-D
1.         Roland Martin             2002               9          62-1-27
2.         Shorty Evans             1971               9          58-8-8
3.         Roland Martin             1998               4          58-1-4
4.         Roland Martin             1995               8          55-2-6
5.         Rick Clunn                 2001               3          54-8-7

That's right. Three of the four oldest to finish in the Top 10 are Roland Martin, who last made the list at 62 in 2002. Shorty Evans — ninth in 1971 — was also the oldest angler ever to win a B.A.S.S. event (65 in 1978 when he won on Kentucky Lake). Rick Clunn's third place in 2001 was not only the strongest run of the Top 5 but represented the last year of his astounding 28 consecutive Classic appearances. Denny Brauer was the most senior to win an Elite event — 62 in 2009 when he won at the Arkansas River.

If history and the numbers teach us anything about age and professional angling, it's that it's not a young man's game … or an old man's game.

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