Ironically, the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) Championship will not have a role in determining the AOY title. Aaron Martens dominated the Bassmaster Elite Series in historical fashion with two wins and seven Top 15 finishes in eight regular-season tournaments. It was the most dominant season since the inception of the Elite Series in 2006 and one of the most impressive in B.A.S.S. history. There's simply no doubt that Martens is the best bass angler on the planet right now.
What the AOY Championship will do instead of deciding AOY is determine a number of berths in the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake in Oklahoma. Thirty-six spots were originally guaranteed to the Elite field, but that number has since risen to 38 (Edwin Evers earned an automatic berth with his win at BASSfest, so he's double-qualified; and Randy Howell added another Elite spot with his Open win at Oneida Lake). So the top 38 finishers in the AOY race will be Classic-bound, and the number may go higher … 39, 40, possibly more.
For now, let's assume the number stays at 38. What does it take to finish 38th in AOY points?
Basically, you must average a 50th place finish in the regular season and finish at least in the middle of the pack at the AOY Championship. If an angler can do that, he'll end the season with roughly 480 points and he'll earn a ticket to the Classic. It could be a little higher or a little lower, but 480 is close enough to the mark for our purposes.
The top 21 anglers in the Elites for 2015 already have 480 points. They're pretty much a lock to make the Classic even if they can't add to their totals at Sturgeon Bay.
With only 50 anglers qualifying to fish the AOY Championship, the scoring works a little differently than in a regular season Elite event. First place still nets 100 points and 50th place still gets 51 points. What's different is that the worst you can do (assuming you weigh in at least one bass — and that won't be an issue at Sturgeon Bay) is 51 points. Thus, everyone within 51 points of 480 (i.e., 429 and up) is "in" the Classic. That's the top 28 anglers — from Aaron Martens down to 2007 Classic champ Boyd Duckett.
Now let's look at the other side of the top 50 — the anglers who squeaked into the Championship. In 50th place is Ish Monroe with 380 points. If my estimate is in the ballpark and it takes 480 points to be in the top 38, Monroe's task is clear. He needs to win at Sturgeon Bay. Anything less will probably leave him short of his goal. And things are only a little less dire for the rest of the group bringing up the rear. Like Monroe, they're not mathematically out of it, but they need a great tournament at Sturgeon Bay to keep their Classic hopes alive.
So it's the anglers ranked from 29th (James Elam) to 50th (Monroe) — 22 anglers in all — that are fighting for 10 remaining spots (and also hoping that the number of berths will grow as anglers double-qualify through the Opens, etc.). Who has the edge? Well, it's obviously the anglers who are closest to the magic number of 480. Elam needs only to avoid a last place finish at Sturgeon Bay. Monroe needs a trophy … maybe more.
Will it change the way these guys fish? It certainly will for those who need a very strong finish (Monroe, Mark Menendez, Jeff Kriet, Jonathon VanDam and Morizo Shimizu). It's time for them to pull out the stops and do whatever they can to win.
For those who are all but guaranteed a Classic berth (Elam, Brandon Lester and Brett Hite, in particular), there's good reason to play it safe, catch a respectable limit that will keep them in the middle of the pack and stay close enough to the weigh-in area so their fish are sure to hit the scales.
Everyone else is already Classic bound. And since AOY is already in the bag, they're just battling for a larger share of AOY money. As long as they don't stumble badly, second place AOY money will come down to Dean Rojas or Justin Lucas, both of whom had fine seasons but ran into the angling buzz saw known as Aaron Martens.
For fans, the real spectacle centers on the remaining Classic berths, and they're a very big deal. Not only is a Classic spot a benchmark of accomplishment, but for many qualifiers there are sponsor bonuses to be earned by qualifying for the big dance. A Classic berth also means a lot when you're looking for a new sponsor. After all, sponsors would much rather back an angler who has a chance to win the world championship than someone who doesn't.
And then there's the Classic itself — the Super Bowl of bass fishing. Winning the Classic is on every pro angler's to-do list, and (like the lottery) you can't win if you don't play. One way or another, the 50 anglers at the AOY Championship will leave it all on the water.