ESCANABA, Mich. — A stellar field of rookies competed on the Bassmaster Elite Series this season. The 14-angler list included a past Forrest Wood Cup champion in Randall Tharp and a B.A.S.S. and FLW tournament champion in Brett Hite.
That's why Jacob Powroznik felt particularly proud to win the Elite Series Rookie of the Year title that was announced this week. The 36-year-old Port Haywood, Va., resident not only won an Elite Series event this year (at Toledo Bend), but was fourth in the Angler of the Year Standings entering the AOY Toyota Championship.
"Everyone of us could have won rookie of the year," Powroznik said. "This was a tough field. It means a lot. It's something I'll probably remember my whole life."
Powroznik was steady all season, missing only one Top 50 cut, a 77th-place finish at Arkansas' Lake Dardanelle. The highlight was definitely his victory at Toledo Bend, particularly the last day.
"Fishing got tougher after the first two days," Powroznik said. "The last day, I thought I was going to come up about a pound short or something. Then I caught those two big ones at the end."
The two "big ones" were a 7-pound, 13-ounce bass caught off a spawning bed and a 4 1/2-pounder that helped him cull a smaller fish. His total of 79-12 edged Chad Morgenthaler, another Elite Series rookie, by 2 pounds, 6 ounces.
But the best part of that victory would come a couple of hours later, when Powroznik was driving down the road, headed for the Toyota Texas Bass Classic.
"I'm all fired up," he said. "I'd just won $100,000. I had no phone service. Then about an hour down the road, my phone starts lighting up. I hadn't got to talk to anybody. I looked at a text message from one of my buddies. It said, 'Man, how does it feel to win a tournament and qualify for the Bassmaster Classic?'
"I went, 'Oh my gosh. I'm in the Bassmaster Classic.' It had never dawned on me."
In his previous 10 years of pro bass fishing, when he competed on the FLW circuit, Powroznik qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup eight times. But tournament wins didn't guarantee a Cup berth on that circuit. It's strictly based on points accumulated during the season.
"I really got fired up then," said Powroznik of the moment he realized he'd made the Classic.
That's the reason he moved to the Elite Series this year, after qualifying second in the point standings on the BASS Northern Open series in 2013.
"That was my next goal, to qualify for the Classic," Powroznik said. "That's the Super Bowl of bass fishing. I had to go every year and work (the Expo) when I was fishing FLW. Sitting in that arena and watching all those people, it lit a fire under me. I was like, 'Hey, I don't want to be in that crowd anymore. I want to be walking across that stage."
Powroznik wanted to be among his childhood heroes in the sport.
"When I was young, I would stand in line for an hour just to get those guys' autographs," he said.
Powroznik had no idea how he would be accepted as a rookie on the Elite Series. The key moment came in the second tournament of the season at Florida's St. Johns River, when almost half the field was fishing a spawning area in Lake George.
"In my mind, I'm thinking, okay, this is going to tell the tale about how things are going to roll," Powroznik said. "It was the best two days of fishing I've ever had. Everybody was getting along. We were laughing, giggling, but we were serious. We were competitors, but we were all friends. There were no hard feelings.
"I'm like, these guys have really accepted me. It's just a different world, in my opinion."
Powroznik noticed the same thing during BASSfest at Tennessee's Lake Chickamauga.
"Fourteen of us started on one hump," he said. "We were throwing at one spot the size of a swimming pool. Not one guy said anything. In this sport, that means a lot."
To complete a dream year, Powroznik has one more goal, and it doesn't have anything to do with bass fishing. He stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 275 pounds. He has a $1,000 bet with some of the guys at Livingston Lures, one of his sponsors, that he can lose 40 pounds by the Classic.
"I've been the same size the last six or seven years," he said. "It's not like I've just blown up. I wear the same size pants I did in high school."
But living on the road going from tournament to tournament makes eating right difficult. Powroznik will begin his health kick as soon as the AOY Championship is over.
"Fishing and trying to eat right is crazy," he said.
As well as Powroznik has checked off all the goals in his fishing career this year and as competitive as he is, it might not be wise to bet against the Bassmaster Elite Series Rookie of the Year.