Meet the Elites: Jay Yelas

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Laurie Tisdale

Sixteen consecutive Bassmaster Classics and a Bassmaster Angler of the Year title rank Jay Yelas as one of the all-time greats in the sport of bass fishing. During his storied B.A.S.S. career, Yelas racked up five wins, including a Classic title, and a remarkable 53 Top 10 finishes in 201 events.

In 2006, the Classic streak ended when Yelas was just 41 years old. He made the decision to join the FLW Tour, all but ending what was on track to become a history-making B.A.S.S. career. The decision sent shockwaves through the sport, especially when Yelas chose not to pocket $100,000 in cash from Anheuser-Busch for winning 2003 Bassmaster Angler of the Year.

Leaving it all behind wasn’t an easy decision. Yelas was, and is respected by his peers, fans and throughout the industry as a great angler, savvy businessman and articulate family man.

“I grew up dreaming of winning the Classic, Angler of the Year, fishing my entire career with B.A.S.S.,” he said. “I only left because I just didn’t agree with the way ESPN was running it.”

In 2001, ESPN took ownership of B.A.S.S. and made sweeping changes, some of which went against his personal convictions and beliefs.

“It’s like anyone having a fulltime job, and the work culture and business model change, and you just dread getting up and going to work in the morning,” he added. “It was time to find a new place for me to work.”

Yelas continued his hot streak on the FLW Tour, competing in 11 Forrest Wood Cups, winning FLW Tour Angler of the Year and earning $1 million. Yelas already had $1.3 million in B.A.S.S. earnings, so that made him one of the few pros to break the $1 million mark in both leagues.

Now at age 53, he is back — and planning to resume where he left off at Bassmaster.

“The new ownership and management made it appealing to me to rejoin B.A.S.S.,” he explained. “I enjoyed my time on the FLW Tour, but I want to end my career where it all began.”

Yelas has come full circle in his 31st year as a pro in a B.A.S.S. run that began on Lake Mead, Nevada, in 1989. The Oregon native slept in his van in a never-ending road trip, living from month to month on tournament winnings. When not competing, Yelas was fishing, honing his skills on the unfamiliar eastern fisheries.

In 1990, Yelas moved his family to Texas to be closer to the eastern-based tour. The move paid off with a winning streak beginning in 1993 on the Potomac River, followed by a consistent run of wins in 1995, 1997, 2001 and then 2002 at the Classic held on Lay Lake, Alabama.

“The 1990s were the best years of my career,” he said. “I remained consistent for a long time and it was a great run that I hope to pick back up on this season.”

Yelas moved back to Oregon during his FLW Tour years. He also embraced the C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation, which stands for “Catch A Special Thrill.” Formed in 1991, the public charity unites volunteers with special needs children for fishing outings and outdoor field trips. The program has grown to 80 nationwide events with over 3,000 participants and an equal number of volunteers. For 10 years Yelas served on the board, and he is now in an administrative role as executive director.

“Tournament fishing is all about you and what you catch, and there is more to fishing than being self focused,” he said. “Spreading the joy of fishing with other people, especially seeing the smiles on the faces of kids, is what it’s all about to me.”

He continued, “I’m really passionate about the foundation, its goals and making people’s lives better through fishing.”

Yelas is confident of striking the balance between his off-water responsibilities and his renewed goal of excelling in tournaments. At the 2019 Elite Series kickoff meeting for the anglers, he was pleasantly surprised at the infusion of youth.

“I met one bright, young man whom I thought worked for B.A.S.S., commenting how impressive and professional the meeting was going,” he recalled. “He remarked that he was a pro too, and it kind of embarrassed me.”

He added, “But what impressed me the most is I am one of the older guys, even at 53, and B.A.S.S. is obviously doing a lot right when you see so many younger anglers competing at the top level of professional bass fishing.”

The young pro was Tyler Rivet, who coincidentally came up through the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops. 

Yelas is indeed back and even though he’s one of the old guard, his track record proves he is still a top competitor.