For some, there is a thin line between making the Classic and missing out. While Gerald Swindle took his second Toyota Angler of the Year title on Mille Lacs Lake, there was a heated fight for the final berths into the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro.
Randy Howell was among the dozen or so anglers who sweated it out on the Classic bubble. Some 11th-hour heroics in both of the last two events put the 2014 Classic champ inside the cut and into his 15th Classic.
“I felt like I won the tournament last week,” said Howell, who turned 43 Sunday. “It was just two straight weeks of anxiety and stress, just trying to make things happen. You just have to stay in range to make the moves.”
Howell, mired in the 30s after two pedestrian days at the AOY Championship, needed a top-flight bag if he hoped to make up the deficit in AOY points. He caught 25 pounds, 4 ounces — the third largest of the day — to finish 20th and gain enough points to get inside the Classic cut at 38th.
“On the last day, I was praying specifically for 25 pounds,” Howell said. “I knew that was the only way I had it. And I went out and fished the same water, the same way and I catch 25 — 24 pounds wouldn’t have made it. That’s why I say God really did some miracles for me again. People hear me say that, it don’t make sense to them, but I know it’s pretty amazing.”
His climb was remarkable, and it actually started the week before at La Crosse. Howell’s season was going well, but he checked in late at the Potomac due to a run-in with a mud flat, recorded a zero and suffered a 102nd-place finish. That cost him at least 32 points, he figured, and put him on the outside looking in at 53rd in the AOY points.
Going to La Crosse, where he made the top 12 the last two visits, Howell felt pretty good he could move up a couple slots and advance with the top 50 to Mille Lacs.
“I totally had confidence it was going to happen,” he said. “I didn’t know how, but I knew in my heart. I believed.”
He was 33rd after Day 1 then improved 11 spots to 22nd. If he stayed around that spot, it would most likely have gotten him to Mille Lacs, but his third day was going poorly.
“I had three fish about 15 minutes before I had to lock though and head back,” he said. “In the last 10 minutes, in five casts on a frog, I caught 5 in a row and finished my limit and culled twice.”
Not only that, but after getting through the lock, he had an extra moment and caught a 4-pounder at a bridge to cull up 2 ½ pounds. That flurry bumped him into the 12 cut and gave him added points to increase his chances at the AOY event.
“I thought just making the top 12 there was going to catapult me into the top 40 pretty easily and all I had to do was maintain,” he said, “but so many of the same people did well there, I didn’t move but 12 spots. I was 12 points out (of a Classic berth) and we’re not racing against scrubs. I’m racing against all the other top guys who shouldn’t be down there, and we’re all clawing trying to get back in.”
As it stands, Andy Montgomery was the last man in the Classic via AOY point berths. Ish Monroe, who finished only one point back of him, was the first man out but received a berth Friday when the Northern Open #3 spot went up for grabs.
Keith Poche and Fred Roumbanis are the next two in line, and there are two remaining Bass Pro Shops Opens,
Roumbanis had an especially difficult exit from Lacs, falling 10 spots to 41st after being well within the cut. Chris Lane, the 2012 Classic champ, lost six spots at Mille Lacs and fell out to 44rd.
Through his career, Howell has been on the Classic bubble several times and knows what it’s like when it pops.
“Thankfully, it’s been awhile. I missed it by 1 point years ago,” he said. “Every time I’ve missed, it’s always been a real close call. I’ve fallen out the last event a time or two, and I’ve moved in a time or two. I’m just thankful that it went the right way for me this time.
“One pound or less and I’m not in. It’s 3 points,” he said. “It’s just a miracle how the good Lord let it all work out. Everything happened just exactly right.”
EHRLER SUPER SIZES CLASSIC BERTH
Like Howell, if Brent Ehrler wanted to go to Lake Conroe and Houston, he needed a top finish. He started the event 41st in the AOY standings and went super big to lock up his second Classic berth.
Ehrler’s big fish on Day 3, a 6-10 smallmouth, was the biggest fish landed at Mille Lacs and helped him finish second in the event and 34th in the points.
“It was nuts today,” he said. “It was crazy to think the entire season came down to today. I was on the bubble to make the Classic. If I didn’t catch them, I wasn’t going to the Classic.”
Ehrler actually had a difficult morning, only having three in the livewell at 11:30 a.m. He was leaving his spot when he scanned and found a boulder that held most of his weight, including the big fish.
Bassmaster LIVE viewers watched Ehrler land the 6-10, pleading for it to stay on as he fought it to the boat.
HOWELL SHOOTS FOR HIGH SCORE
Howell had a personal-best score when he landed his 25-4, and he credits the added time with his electronics.
“I became a lot more of a drop-shot, video-game expert than I have in the past,” he said. “I really got a lot better with it each day. I got more comfortable reading the fish and being able to know the size of the fish by the way the arches look.”
The anglers call it video-game fishing because they spend most of their time looking down at their electronic screen. Howell said his Lowrance unit, set up to enhance the images, was key in him being able to pass over the average fish and focus on the 5-plus pounders.
“There’s so many fish there, you have to target big ones,” Howell said. “That last day, I just looked for those big arches of those big fish on the bottom. It’s almost like sight fishing on the bank and you pass 2- and 3-pounders.”
POT OF BRONZEBACKS AT END OF RAINBOW
This image might just stand as Photo of the 2016 Elite season, especially after James Overstreet relayed how he had to scramble for the right filter in his camera bag while the boat driver hurried into the exact right position to capture Seth Feider on Mille Lacs. Rather breath-taking.
LIFE LESSONS WHILE FACEBOOKING LIVE
Last to weigh at the AOY Championship, Swindle had plenty of idle time sitting in line, so he took to Facebook live. His video captured anglers like Jordan Lee, Gary Klein and Todd Faircloth coming by to offer congratulations.
Then a man walked up with his son and told G-Man how coming back from his struggles inspired his 11-year-old boy. Swindle was all in, explaining how fishing offers some great life lessons. .
“It’s part of life,” Swindle said. “Fishing is a lot like life. Some days are tougher than others. You can be the greatest fisherman in the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to catch them every day. (Sounds like this story.)
“You battle back. It ain’t the days you catch them, it’s the days you don’t catch them that makes you.”
KENNEDY PUT WALLET WHERE MOUTH IS
Steve Kennedy expressed just how much fun he’d been having on Mille Lacs when he said on the weigh-in stage Friday, “I missed my 20th wedding anniversary and my son’s sixth birthday. And it was worth it!”
He came back Sunday singing a little bit different tune. Oh, he still admitted he had a great time fishing the lake, and then he topped that first line with a sound marriage lesson that might just involve diamonds.
“Apparently, my wife’s jeweler watches Bassmaster,” he said. “I’m going to be paying for that for a long time.”