As soon as Chad Pipkens was out, he was right back in.
Pipkens was the first man out of requalifying for the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series, but his finishes in the Bass Pro Shops Northern Opens puts him in the 111-man field that opens the season Feb. 9-12 at Tennessee’s Lake Cherokee.
Pipkens finished 102nd in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings last year, and he would have been the first of nine 2016 Elites not invited back had he not finished first in the Northern Opens point standings.
“I like fishing up north, that’s for sure,” said the Holt, Mich., resident. “I felt like this year in the Elites, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I made little mistakes, like not doing the right thing on Day 1, or going to the right section of the lake.
“Sometimes you can recover, sometimes you can’t.”
Pipkens had a miraculous finish to 2015, climbing from deep in the AOY standings with several late top five finishes to make the AOY Championship and subsequently the Classic. But his momentum didn’t continue as he was 50th at Grand Lake then made only two cuts in the Elite season.
“I was bummed out about that a little bit,” he said of losing his momentum. “When there’s no lapse, you can 100 percent keep rolling, and eventually it might fizzle out. Mine just got dropped. It was the end of the year and I just had to go sit on it for four months.”
His great finish didn’t result in a great 2016, but he can take away lessons from the season. Anywhere up north, he can pretty much figure out how to catch smallmouth, and he’s getting to where he’s solving things down south. Last year gave him experiences he hadn’t really encountered.
“For the sake of fishing, I feel like I learned a bunch,” he said. “I’m not a great shallow water fisherman, but I do a good job of figuring it out. I’m still working on that down south, and what I hadn’t had a lot of experience in is high, flooded water. Everywhere we went last year, it was like that.”
Adding the Southern Opens is in Pipkens’ plans to help continue learning fisheries below the Mason-Dixon line. He hopes to work on breaking things down quicker and knowing when to move.
It’s a crucial season for him because he believes he’s nearing the peak of the hill, where you either get over the top or roll backward.
“I feel I’m one year away from having to re-qualify, or one good year from having some good points and locking it up,” he said. “If you can make it over that hump, you can make a career.
“The way I finished this year, it makes me feel like I know I belong. I know I can do it. And the big thing is it secured my spot so I wasn’t having to wait on getting sponsors.”
Getting that spot early helped Pipkens work on sponsorships. He said he’s already made some deals he can’t divulge yet, but he’s thrilled because it might not have happened if he had to wait to see if he would fish the Elites.
“Some good financial security, it equates to good fishing,” he said. “When you’re not stressed, when you have other things working well, you seem to fish better.”
COMING BACK AS LEGENDS
Paul Elias, who’s been an Elite since the series began in 2006, missed on qualifying for 2017 as he finished 105th in AOY points, but he is one of two former Classic champs taking a Legend invite. The new path to the Elites was instituted this year.
Elias will be joined in that manner by David Fritts, the 1993 Classic champ on Logan Martin. Fritts, among the few to win a Classic and a Forrest Wood Cup, captured his most recent title in the 2009 FLW Guntersville event. In B.A.S.S., Fritts was a regular from 1986 to 2005, winning five titles, but he has fished several Opens in the past few years.
Other news is Nate Wellman will return from a hardship exemption, and FLW anglers Stetson Blaylock and Jacob Wheeler will move over to the Elites but won’t be considered rookies because they have winnings of over $750,000.
To see a photo gallery of the newcomers, click here.