NEW ORLEANS, La. — You could make the case that Jay Yelas has enjoyed the most remarkable reign of any champion in the history of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer.
When the 37-year-old Texas pro enters the 2003 Classic Aug. 1-3 in New Orleans, he will have completed a 12-month supremacy that included joining the BASS Millionaires Club, writing his autobiography and winning a prestigious ESPY Award as the best outdoor sports athlete, in addition to becoming just the second Classic winner (after David Fritts) to follow up with the Busch BASS Angler of the Year title.
"It's been a heck of a year," the defending champ said. "I thought I knew what to expect, but it's exceeded my expectations.
"Gosh, I've had a busy year. I've flown a bunch. I wrote the book in December and it was published in February. Since then I've done a bunch of book signings. That's taken some time.
"Of course, I've done a lot for all of my sponsors, especially Berkley. They used me for like 15 days between the Classic and the beginning of the season. Since January first, I fished three tournaments a month, and I've only been home three or four days a month since Christmas.
"It has been a crazy schedule. But I've had fun."
Considering the hectic schedule that comes with being the Classic champion, Yelas' Angler of the Year follow-up is nothing short of amazing.
"The Angler of the Year race has been a great experience and a dream come true," he said. "I've really been pleasantly surprised. Things just clicked for some reason. I didn't expect to do so well.
"Because of my schedule, I've never been more distracted or less focused on tournaments than I was this year. I just kind of showed up and fished. I was very loose and relaxed. I wasn't pressing like I normally do. This year, I didn't do much preparation. My tackle was in total disarray. I hadn't organized my tackle much after the Classic last August. I was running around doing all of these promotions and then showing up for the tournaments. But everything has been working out.
"I'm learning about myself as I go. I never quit learning about myself as a competitor, what makes me click. And that's good. … And I'm learning through the years that maybe my best performance is when I just show up and I'm kind of relaxed and loose, and not pressing too hard. And I just go out there and try to fish in the moment."
After wrapping up the Angler of the Year title, Yelas used the $100,000 prize awarded by Busch Beer to buy an estimated 20,000 copies of his book, "Jay Yelas: A Champion¹s Journey in Faith, Family and Fishing" to donate free to BASS fans.
"People can read it and hopefully it can have a positive impact on their life," he said. "I'm excited about that. There's a lot in that book about getting to the top of your profession and the spiritual life and family. There are a lot of things in that book that make you think."
One of the best perks of the Yelas year was his evening in Hollywood where he and wife, Jill, received the star treatment while receiving his ESPY Award.
"It was fun. It was a unique experience for an old fisherman, going to Hollywood and seeing how people do things around there," he said. "We got the red carpet treatment, and I got to see what all the stars feel like — all the movie stars and the big-wheel athletes.
"I got meet some of the big-time athletes. Everyone was nice. They had a lot of respect for fishermen. A lot of those guys like to fish, and they know all about pro bass fishing. They didn't have any problem at all with a fisherman being there.
"It was an honor to win that title. It kind of put a nice cap on the last year."
Now Yelas' attention turns to defending his Classic crown against 60 of the country's brightest fishing minds.
"I'm looking forward to going back to New Orleans," he said. "My practice (before the Louisiana Delta went off-limits) wasn't very outstanding by any means. It was pretty mediocre.
"I felt like I had a pretty good area, but they weren't biting by any means. I'm fishing in Venice and the Mississippi River was at 10 feet, which made it tough. It's dropped down to 6 feet in the river, so I'm hoping it will be better when I get back down there. They've got to be biting good for me to have a chance to win after making such a long run."
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning over 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Chevrolet Trucks, Yamaha Outboards, Mercury Marine, Skeeter Boats, Triton Boats, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, Kumho Tires, Progressive Insurance, Abu Garcia, Berkley, Diamond Cut Jeans, MotorGuide Trolling Motors, and BankOne.
Associate Sponsors include Bryant Heating and Air Conditioning and G3 Boats.
Local sponsors include the State of Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, and Jefferson Parish.