As the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on Toledo Bend Reservoir was winding down, I started thinking about writing this midseason report. If you've been following the action, you know it's been an interesting season for a lot of reasons — Mark Davis' historic run, the "rookies," and the usual mix of surprisingly strong starts by some and remarkably disappointing starts by others.
Then I realized, we're not actually at the halfway point at all. There are nine events that count toward the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year point standings, and although only four events are in the books, we're way more than halfway through this season.
Hear me out on this.
In addition to seven conventional tournaments on Seminole, the St. Johns, Table Rock, Toledo Bend, Dardanelle, the Delaware River and Cayuga, there's a special event on Lake Chickamauga (BASSfest in June) and an AOY championship in September — the last event of the season.
BASSfest is different for at least two reasons: (1) the Elite pros will be fishing alongside and against a small field of Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens anglers and (2) they're only fighting for money there; each Elite angler will receive 100 points in the event whether they finish first or last (as long as they participate).
The AOY championship is limited to the top 50 anglers in the AOY standings going into that last tournament, so it's a small field. That event will use the same scoring system as regular Elite tournaments — 100 for first, 99 for second ... 51 for 50th. As a result, it's actually going to stabilize the standings and make it tougher for anglers near the bottom to move up. Don't expect a big shakeup in the standings at this tournament. It's going to have exactly the opposite effect.
So the season has an extra tournament, but two of the events will serve to solidify what happened before them — not add to the mayhem.
Fastest Out of the Gate
Mark Davis is not just leading the AOY race to this point, he's been outrageously strong. His worst finish so far this season is fourth, and his lead over Jared Lintner is considerable though certainly not insurmountable. If Davis can keep it going, he'll claim his fourth AOY crown and become the oldest angler in history to win the sport's most prestigious award.
Linter has been on fire, too, ranking 11th to 18th in every event so far — a big comeback from his 78th-place finish in last year's AOY race. He made a nice run at the title in 2007, when the season started out west, before finishing fifth. This season, he's fishing relaxed and playing to his strengths. It could be his breakout year.
Todd Faircloth is currently third in the AOY race and no stranger to the season-long grind it takes to win. He's versatile, at his best when the fishing's tough and has all the tools to claim the title. It seems a foregone conclusion among students of the sport that he's going to win it one day. Maybe this will be his year.
Jacob Powroznik is largely unknown to those who follow B.A.S.S. exclusively, but he's been an AOY challenger with FLW for several years. He certainly has the skills to win on the B.A.S.S. side, too, and he just might do it as a "rookie." Currently in fourth place, he needs Davis to stumble if he's going to make up ground.
I'll never call Chad Morgenthaler a "rookie." He fished the highest level of B.A.S.S. competition back when it was called the Tour. He even qualified for a few Classics that way. He's in fifth place now and is definitely in contention for AOY.
In fact, anyone in the top nine or 10 has a shot, though that number diminishes with every passing tournament. Anyone more than 100 points behind the leader is running on fumes, though, and better start notching Top 12s at every stop from here on out. With only three regular events left, every point could be critical.
If you want to examine the greatest AOY comeback in Elite history, you only have to look back to last year. Aaron Martens was 15th at this stage. (I'll bet you thought he was a lot farther back, right?)
After a couple of bad events to start the season, the Natural righted the ship and went on a tear. He was 85th after the first tournament, 60th after the second, 39th after the third and 15th at the halfway point. More importantly, he was just 58 points back of the leader, Edwin Evers. Only two anglers are that close to Mark Davis right now, and the tournament season is even farther along as a practical matter.
The current crop of Elite rookies (and I'm not including Morgenthaler or Brett Hite here because it makes no sense to call them "rookies") has been impressive. Sure, there are a few mired near the bottom with no chance of getting to the Classic without winning one of the remaining events, but there are also anglers like Powroznik and Tharp challenging for AOY and others like Justin Lucas, Mike Kernan and Glenn Browne who are still in the Rookie of the Year hunt and in good position to claim Classic spots. No matter how the rest of the season goes, this looks like the strongest rookie class ever.
There's a real chance that six legitimate rookies will earn Classic berths this year (plus Hite, who's already in, and Morgenthaler). That would obliterate the old record of four set in 2011 — probably the best rookie class before this season.
The worst year for Elite rookies? It would have to be either 2008 (there were 11 rookies, but only Bobby Lane remains) or 2010 (seven rookies, but none qualified for the Classic, and they've only tallied four career Classic appearances between them — about half of what Bobby Lane has done all by himself).
The Usual Suspects
Every Elite season has the same story that goes something like this: Look at all the great anglers who are struggling!
This year is no different.
For every Mark Davis (1st), Todd Faircloth (3rd), Aaron Martens (9th), Kevin VanDam (14th) and Skeet Reese (17th) — stars who are doing well — there's an Edwin Evers (58th), Tommy Biffle (78th), Michael Iaconelli (82nd), Ish Monroe (88th) and Boyd Duckett (101st). It happens every year. Only the names change.
Is it shocking that these guys are struggling? On an individual basis, yes it is. They're talented and perennial Classic qualifiers. But again, it happens every year — some stars struggle, some rookies excel, some previous also-rans get off to good starts.
Should the anglers who are struggling push the panic button? Maybe not just yet, but they should definitely lift the protective cover from the button and loosen up their button pushing fingers.
In the past five seasons (when the Elite Series went from an 11-event to an 8-event schedule), only one angler that ranked worse than 63rd after four tournaments has qualified for the Classic on points. It happened last year. Randy Howell was 77th after four, and we know how that turned out. He not only qualified for the Classic, he won it!
Right now there's someone ranked in the 50s or 60s — maybe worse — who will qualify for the 2015 Classic. I certainly like Edwin Evers' chances (he's easily one of the most talented anglers in the world, and 58th is not all that bad), and don't count Tommy Biffle out (he always seems to get off to a slow start and finish strong).
One thing that might make a second half surge less likely this year is the new points structure and the new blood in the league. With 108 anglers in the field but only 100 earning points at each event, that will drive down the number of points you need to be in the top 36 or 38 (approximately the number of Elite anglers who will be going to next year's Classic). And with so many quality rookies in the field, the Elites are working closer to a sort of parity. Only eight anglers have finished in the money at every tournament this year, and we're just four events in.
The Series is tougher than ever. Maybe it should adopt the old slogan of "Any Given Sunday," that Bert Bell used to describe the NFL many years ago, saying "On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team." It's certainly true in fishing and truer than ever on the Elite Series.
But if you're an Elite angler ranked 80th or worse right now, you need to win if you plan to fish the 2015 Bassmaster Classic. Getting there on points is going to be nearly impossible.