AOY winners, losers

So what if Chris Zaldain won the fishing derby at the AOY Championship? Who cares?

Zaldain does.

Sure, there was neither a big trophy nor big check for taking the three-day title on Sturgeon Bay. The event is really more about determining the AOY, settling the final positions and doling out Classic berths.

But it does count as a first-place finish, so Zaldain will take it. It’s his second B.A.S.S. win, the first coming a decade ago in a Western Open. He then missed the next five seasons, returning to the Bassmasters in 2011.

“We’re ending the season with a bang,” Zaldain said. “This is just an unbelievable feeling to fish against the top 49 in the world.”

Zaldain said his goal in the event was to jump as many others in the AOY points standings. He climbed four spots to finish sixth. By catching 53 pounds, 4 ounces and topping David Walker’s 50-11, Zaldain’s cut of the $1 million in AOY prize money increased $4,000. The only other consolation, noted by emcee Dave Mercer, is he goes into the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic with momentum.

The real big winner this week, uh year, was Aaron Martens. But his third AOY  was settled three weeks ago. While Martens admitted that Friday’s crowning was anticlimactic and awkward, there was extreme drama surrounding the handful of anglers battling for the final Classic spots.

Take Mike Iaconelli and Ish Monroe. Both experienced the weirdness of undulating point standings. The top 40 secured a spot at Grand Lake. Both Ike and Ish started the event outside the Classic cut at 45th and 50th, respectively.

Monroe, who thought he had to win or come awfully close, opened strong with 15-3, good for 13th place. Better yet it moved him within 1 point of the final spot.

“It’s interesting,” Monroe said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s a chance. When you’re one point out and there are 12 places to move ... ”

But then it got weird on him. He actually moved up to sixth place on Day 2, but didn’t improve his standing.

“I’m still one point out,” he said. “At that point in time, I’m like, ‘The cards are going to lie where they’re going to lie,’ so I slept really good. But it hurts right now.”

Monroe said he was glad to win the tiebreaker to become last man in and even have a chance here, let alone his $14,000 payday.

Mike Iaconelli didn't have much to say on stage, but he might have known something.Ike, too, was somewhat dumbfounded that he improved his place in the daily event standings on Day 2 but not the AOY points. On Day 3, Ike only weighed three fish and thought he was out.

The final results would not be finalized for another 20 minutes. Not long after hearing the news,  Iaconelli posted a 6-second video on Facebook, with him squeezing a ball, saying, “I’m so stressed out. Am I going to make the Classic? I don’t know. (Cut to him holding celebratory beverage and now screaming). I made it!!!”

Yes, Ike was in. And in 39th place. He'll be going to his 17th Classic, at a venue where he finished fourth last time.

Billy McCaghren, who started the event in 34th, was last man into the Classic at 40th. His wife posted this to Facebook.

“Praise God! After 2 hours of sweating and upset stomach, this guy is Classic bound. It's been a long season.”

Those who began Sturgeon Bay inside the cut but left kicking themselves were Scott Rook (38th to 44th) and Brandon Coulter (39th to 46th). They were supplanted by Ike and Off DeFoe, who jumped from 43rd to 30th by finishing seventh.

Todd Faircloth continued his incredible climb. Three events ago, he was mired with five consecutive missed cuts. A 17th at Chesapeake, a win at St. Clair and 12th at Sturgeon has him going to his 14th Classic.

Gerald Swindle kept his cool despite having things like foul-hooking what would have been his fifth fish.

G as in graceful

Gerald Swindle was graceful in defeat, and he showed why he’s a fan favorite. The quick-quipped Alabamian was all business on the water, trying to get inside the cut for a 16th Classic appearance. It just didn’t happen.

“It wasn’t this tournament that I felt the pressure was on,” he said, noting 94th-place finishes at both St. Lawrence and St. Clair. “You don’t want to put the whole tournament season on one day. One day doesn’t make ya or break ya.

“You had a year to prepare. There’s tournaments I didn’t execute. The biggest thing in this sport, is when you get drilled, you just got to own it.”

And he did. He was on stage telling the world the same things he just said to Rook backstage.

“Honestly, I haven’t fished good enough to be at the Bassmaster Classic,” he said. “I been to 15, I know what it’s like to fish well and you deserve that spot.”

Then G-Man switched gears, piling on the humor. He seems to strike a chord with fans when he offers his take on tales of woe they might also experience. He started with the area weathermen.

“They know as much about the weather as Hillary Clinton knows about politics,” he said to roars. “If they say 5 to 10 (mph wind), it’s 700. This is the only place where I’ve ever watched the weather when the skirt blew up over her head in the studio. The wind blows all the stinking time. I … don’t … like … that. I love Sturgeon Bay. I don’t like six-footers. I like to navigate at 70, not 17.”

One wonders if his mind just works that fast or if he prepares a few lines. Either way, his schtick entertains. He continued in rapid fire on his long, rough ride in.

“And the harder I tried to go, the bigger the waves got. Then the redneck comes out, I started hollering, ‘Yeehaw, let’s just get ‘em all.’ Knocked my shoes loose a couple a times, my cameraman, he ain’t got no teeth left.

“Lo and behold, I stop by here and lose one. I look at it like this, you catch em, you go to the Classic. You don’t, you get to work the Toyota booth at the Classic. I’ll see every one of you there. Come by and get an autograph.”

To that he received a rousing round of applause.

Um, newcomer of the year

Brent Erhler is no rookie.Davy Hite just couldn’t say the R work as he interviewed  38-year-old Brent Erhler for his popular First Look. He preferred the term “Newcomer,” and Erhler was in agreement.

Erhler finished the year seventh in the points, taking the nod over Jordan Lee as the Elite Series Rookie of the Year.

“Being called a rookie is not even fair, I think,” Erhler said. “He’s the true rookie out here. Not rookie, the guy’s insane. To have him come out this year and do that is incredible. He’s going to have an awesome career.”

Lee finished ninth in points, making seven of eight top 50 cuts. Erhler, who established himself in 10 years on the FLW Tour, made six cuts but finished 19 points ahead of Lee.

Lee got emotional on stage, saying he’s living his dream fishing the Elites. He thanked sponsor Carhartt for taking the chance on him and his family for bending over backwards to help his quest.

“I’m sorry to get a little emotional,” he said. “I’m just really humbled to be up here. It’s been a great year.”

Mark of a millionaire

UPDATE: Mark Menendez made a tremendous push for the Classic, but in the heat of trying to climb from 49th to 40th, he weighed a fish he foul-hooked. After re-reading the Wisconsin rules, Menendez disqualified himself and lost his final day catch. It moved him to 50th in AOY points. 

Menendez left the event in 41st, the first man out of the Classic but with hopes of grabbing a spot either left open or via a double qualifier in the final three Opens.

Jonathon VanDam is now in that role hoping for a Classic retrieve, with Swindle right behind him.

Menendez, who went to LaCrosse, Wis., to prefish for next season's final event, made a tough but admirable move in self-reporting the infraction Monday. He returned to the Elites this season after taking two years off to care for his wife, Donna, who died of cancer in March, 2014.

He got emotional on stage Sunday, reaching a milestone he and his wife had most assuredly discussed. “There is one goal I made. I’m a bass millionaire.”

Check out Menendez’s million.

Roll, Packers?

Tournament director Trip Weldon must have experienced a rough night after his beloved Crimson Tide were upset by No. 1 Ole Miss Saturday night.

“I shed my Alabama shirt about 12:30 last night,” Weldon said after walking on the Bassmaster stage in a Packers’ shirt. “I’m all Packers now. Go, Packers, go!”

The anglers are actually fishing the northern section of Green Bay, and the NFL team hosted the Seattle Seahawks in the Sunday night game.

Culling

  • Kind of used the best Photo of the Day above (Swindle’s reaction to foul hooking from Overstreet), so here’s second choice. It’s our Bassmaster.com crew taking in the aforementioned game. Davy Hite (right) scored the tickets, and took (from left) Steve Bowman, Jim Sexton and James Overstreet, who saw a Packers’ win at historic Lambeau Field. That's a great season-ending experience.
  • Ott DeFoe got unexpected celebrations with his Marshal that was probably more akin to a football field. After his fish catches Sunday, DeFoe reported it went further that high fives. “He slapped me right on the rear end,” a surprised DeFoe said, then after another catch. “He did it again.”
  • KVD was voted fan favorite and given $5,000 to donate to his favorite charity. He decided to give it to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to help combat childhood cancer, and he matched it with another $5,000 from his own pocket. No one should ever wonder why he's probably the most respected and liked angler on the circuit.
  • Bassmaster host Mark Zona threw out three names for AOY next season: Jacob Powroznik, Greg Hackney “if he can pry himself away from that beach,” and Randall Tharp (who he added “will catch a fish next year”).
  • As for next year’s Classic at Grand Lake, Zona’s early picks include what he called low-hanging fruit. “First one that is painfully easy – Jason Christie.” Other peachy picks would be Aaron Martens and Edwin Evers, but he said don’t forget about Kevin VanDam or local James Elam.
  • Zona was amazed that Sturgeon Bay turned into “one of the toughest events. I was a little concerned with so many events here the last few weeks. Problem is, fish roam out in the abyss, they get on bait and roam.”
  • Brandon Lester got in his second Classic by the skin of teeth, finishing 37th in points. “This is stressful,” he said on stage. “I’m sweating it pretty bad.” He started the week in 30th and hoped to breeze through but a zero on Day 2 “put those plans in disarray.”
  • Scott Rook knew his fate as he took to the stage. “I’m afraid I’m going to be a little short. I lost two big ones the second day. You have to land every fish you get on.” A number of anglers gave us their regretful performances this season in I want that one back.