AOY: The beginning of the end

MUSKOGEE, Okla. — When BASS announced that the AutoZone Sooner Run would be held in Muskogee, Tommy Biffle, who lives just a long pitch away from the Arkansas River, no doubt smiled. On a scale of one to 10, his grin might've registered a 7.

When the tournament was moved to Fort Gibson Lake, his home body of water, with only a day of practice for everyone, it might've jumped up to an 8.

Now that he's finished the first day of the tournament in first place, and garnered the bonus points that come with that, the relatively non-emotional Oklahoman is likely pushing a 9.

If he's in the same position when the scales close on Sunday, he may hit a perfect 10 ... or even an 11. He's known for late-season charges, but this one couldn't have set up any better if he'd drafted the plot lines himself.

Biffle's tournament leading 19-pound, 11-ounce limit of Fort Gibson bass vaulted him from a four-way tie for 17th in the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year (TTBAOY) standings all the way up to eighth place. If the regular season ended today, he'd be in the two-event postseason.

The other two 19-pound plus sacks also came from anglers who were outside of the top 12 coming into Thursday. Russ Lane, second after Day One with 19-10, moved from 15th in the TTBAOY up to seventh.

While a spot in the postseason would be meaningful for any Elite Series angler, Lane, who calls Prattville, Ala., home, might be a prohibitive favorite to win either or both July events. Mike McClelland caught 19-08 and moved up from 23rd to 12th.

For every angler who moves into the post-season cut, another has to fall out, and while 10 of the top 12 heading into Day One weighed 12-13 or more, two produced comparatively paltry single-digit weights which made it possible for Biffle, Lane and McClelland to capitalize.

Brian Snowden, previously in fourth, weighed in 7-2 and dropped to 15th. John Crews, previously in fifth, finds himself in 88th place in the tournament and dropped to 16th in the TTBAOY list. Bill Lowen was the third angler to fall out of the top 12. Even though he weighed in a strong 14-4, good weights in front of him and behind him forced him down three places to 14th.

Of course all of these standings are temporary. While Biffle's bonus points for leading Day One cannot be taken away, everything else is dynamic. An angler who caught 19 pounds might blank Friday.

An angler with a single-digit catch could bust a 25-pound sack and come back from the dead. This is further complicated by the bell-curve nature of the scoresheet. Seventeen anglers had 16 pounds or more and 19 had less than 10 pounds.

The other 58 are within one good bite of one another. To illustrate how closely they're bunched, Gary Klein, the last man inside the current top 12, weighed 16 pounds even. Wade Grooms and Bradley Roy, tied for 47th, are just over 3 pounds behind at 12-12 apiece. Another 2-11 separates those two from Guy Eaker in 73rd.

At the very top of the list, Nos. 1-3 remained constant, and in the same order — Skeet Reese, Edwin Evers and Derek Remitz. Reese, who's suffered a mini-swoon over the past two tournaments, is in 19th overall while the other two are in 43rd and 44th, respectively. If the tournament ended today, Reese would have extended his pre-tournament lead over Evers from 62 points to 110 points and his lead over Remitz from 148 to an even 200 points.

Combined with the bonus points from his two wins, that should make Reese feel pretty good, even though the differences will be reduced by the postseason points adjustment.

One thing that should have all three feeling less than chipper is the angler who has moved into fourth place, only 41 points behind Remitz. Apparently the rumors of Kevin VanDam's demise were greatly exaggerated. With a win at Kentucky Lake last week and a 17-10 bag Thursday, he seems to be peaking at the right time. Reese led the TTBAOY standings at the end of the 2009 season only to see VanDam wrest the title from him in Alabama. It can't be comforting to know that KVD and his magic cookies may get to take their mojo on the road for two extra small field events.

Terry Butcher, Cliff Pace, Aaron Martens, Greg Hackney and Gary Klein all held onto spots in the top 12 for another day. For Pace and Klein, this would represent repeat appearances in the postseason. Martens, on the other hand, would like to avoid the late-season collapse that prevented him from fishing the Alabama River and Lake Jordan last summer.

One other angler who improved his lot with respect to the post-season today was Mark Davis, who was stuck in the four-way tie for 17th with Biffle and two others but weighed 16-1 to move into 13th. On the other hand, Dave Wolak, previously the first man out, weighed a pedestrian 11-0 and dropped to 22nd. He's not out of the hunt by any means, but he'll have to have a better day if he's going to hit the 26 pounds or so it'll likely be necessary to have to fish on to Saturday.

With Kevin VanDam's spot in the top 36 in the TTBAOY all but assured, the Elite Series Classic qualifiers will go at least 37 deep, more if there are double-qualifiers. Kelly Jordon, sitting on the bubble in 37th, held onto that position with an unremarkable 11-4 limit. While there was movement all around him, most of it was not consequential, at least for the time being.

Clark Reehm, aiming for his second Classic berth, weighed in 4-3 and dropped from 35th to 43rd in the TTBAOY standings. Balancing him out was Jared Lintner, whose 18-5 moved him up from 39th to 30th and therefore from the outside to the inside of the Classic cutoff.

Another drop of note was Denny Brauer, looking to qualify for consecutive Classics for the first time in over a decade. He sat just outside the cut heading in, in 40th, 48 points behind Jordon, but his 8-5 limit knocked him back 14 places, to the bottom half of the standings sheet.

Around the Classic cut line, several anglers faltered but did not fall out: Shaw Grigsby fell from 25th to 31st; Jason Williamson, who has finished in the 40s in the TTBAOY all three years he's fished the elites, fell 11 places from 21st to 32nd; Terry Scroggins fell from 30th to 34th; Bobby Lane dropped from 26th to 35th; and Greg Vinson, another Alabamian who'd love to fish the postseason, also moved in the wrong direction, plunging from 28th to 36th.

On the flip side, the four anglers who are now just behind Jordon all moved up in the standings to get there: Former Classic winner Paul Elias, who hasn't fished a Classic since 2004, moved up from 44th to 38th; Mark Tucker, who was the final angler to make the Classic through the Elite Series last year, qualifying only when James Niggemeyer double-qualified, moved up two spots to 39th; Niggemeyer also moved up, from 47th to 40th; and Davy Hite, currently in 13th place in the tournament, jumped a remarkable 14 places, from the bottom half of the TTBAOY list into 41st.

Absent a miraculous comeback tomorrow, fan favorite Guy Eaker, who announced before the 2010 season that this would be his last on tour then started the year with a bang over the first several events, will not qualify for his first Classic since 1992. While his 10-1 catch doesn't definitively preclude him from making a comeback, it dropped him 15 places overall today, from 58th to 73rd. The chances that he'll overcome that deficit seem slim.

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