The format for the Bassmaster Elite Series Classic Bracket event was tweaked after its debut in 2016. The changes made the two events as different as ice cream and hot sauce. By including eight anglers with one last chance to make the 2018 Bassmaster Classic, the Classic Bracket became a pressure cooker unlike any format seen on the Elite Series, certainly, and, arguably, in professional bass fishing’s history.
“That’s the worst pressure I’ve ever fished under, I mean ever,” said Jacob Powroznik as the time clock hit all zeroes on his final round matchup with Ish Monroe at Minnesota’s Pokegama Lake last Friday. “It’s been a grinder. But I’m thankful.”
Tears of relief and joy were rolling down Powroznik’s face as he said those words. When Bassmaster emcee Dave Mercer reminded Powroznik that he’d promised to do a cannonball into Pokegama’s mid-60-degree water if he won, the 39-year-old Prince George, Va., angler hesitated only long enough to hand Mercer his cellphone and sunglasses before taking the plunge. The 5-11, 220-pound Powroznik, who is built like an offensive lineman, can move some water.
“I was fine until that last hour (of competition), then it felt like I had two 800-pound blocks on my shoulders,” Powroznik said. “When the clock had 10 seconds to go, it felt like the whole world had come off my shoulders. Relief!”
The final count for the six-hour day was Powroznik, 16 pounds, 11 ounces, and Monroe 14 pounds, 8 ounces. Monroe had caught 16-7 the day before in eliminating Mike Iaconelli. That’s another reason the last hour was such torture for Powroznik.
He knew Monroe had the potential to pass him in the final minutes. Another feature of this format is that you’re given regular updates on your opponent’s weight. Powroznik continued to catch bass. He finished with a total of 20 on the day that weighed a total of 50 pounds, 6 ounces, but he didn’t upgrade in the final hour.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable,” Powroznik said of the new Classic Bracket format. “You don’t want to ever have to go through that.”
But it sure was drama-packed entertainment.
“Oh yeah, it’s a good deal,” Powroznik said. “You talk about exciting TV.”
Maybe, just maybe, Powroznik prevailed because he put so much pressure on himself. He hadn’t been in anything close to this kind of position in his four years on the Elite Series. Powroznik earned Rookie of the Year and finished third in the final Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings in 2014. He was fourth in the AOY standing in 2015 and 2016. And here he was, fighting for a Classic berth.
“We fish all year to do two things, win Angler of the Year or qualify for the Bassmaster Classic,” Powroznik said. “That’s it.”
Not only was he in jeopardy of missing the Classic, it was one he desperately wanted to fish. Powroznik’s mother, Cindy, has family near South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell. It’s where she grew up, and Powroznik fished the lake as a kid. Plus, he finished fifth at the 2015 Classic on Hartwell, and felt like he had a chance to win it. A delayed start on the first day due to frigid temperatures prevented him from taking advantage of the early bite he’d found in practice. He weighed only 9-2 on Day 1, then jumped to fifth place with bags of 15-0 and 18-15 the final two days. Casey Ashley’s winning weight was 50-1; Powroznik finished with 43-1.
“I know that lake like the back of my hand,” Powroznik said. “That’s the fishing part of it. But that’s where my mom is from. One of my aunts lives in Greenville. My mom recently found some relatives there we didn’t really know we had. They told her they planned to come to the Classic and meet Jacob.
“I wanted to do this for myself, or I wouldn’t have put so much effort in to it. But my family has been so supportive of me. For me to be sitting on the sideline, when I know I should have been fishing, that would have been really, really tough.”
Powroznik’s family extends to his girlfriend, Sherry Elmore, and her young son, Talan. Tears streamed from Powroznik’s eyes yet again when thinking about Talan.
“This is for you, Talan,” he said. “He’s special. He told me the other night, he wanted me to put the trophy in his room.”
This has been an unusual year on the Elite Series, when some accomplished anglers – both young and old – are probably not going qualify for the Classic. There are few opportunities left, all based on the remaining Bassmaster Open results. Iaconelli’s streak of 16 Classics in a row – the longest currently – is in jeopardy. Monroe has qualified for 10 Classics. You can add another dozen names to the list, anglers who’d usually qualify for the Classic but won’t be there at Hartwell in 2018.
The mental puzzle of tournament bass fishing will never be solved. You hear the Elite Series anglers talk about it in one word constantly – decisions.
“This sport is unforgiving,” Powroznik said. “There is nothing guaranteed, other than you’re going to get out and have a chance to catch your best five bass. It’s all about making those right decisions.”
Powroznik gave an example of the first tournament of the year, at Tennessee’s Cherokee Lake, where he knew he’d found the right spot in practice, but weighed only four fish on Day 1.
“The next day, I wrecked ‘em,” he said. “I knew that bass was going to haunt me. Those fish were there the whole time. I just didn’t fish for them right the first day.”
Ironically, Powroznik and Monroe finished tied with 25-1 after two days at Cherokee, both missed the Top 51 cut by 3-1.
“It’s all about making those on the water decisions,” Powroznik said. “I guess the biggest thing is, if you think about it, you better go do it. Something is telling you to do that. So many times I’ve thought I ought to be throwing, say, a spinnerbait. You don’t, and you look at the guys at the top of the standings, and they slaughtered ‘em on a spinnerbait. I’m thinking, ‘I had it. I reached in the box to tie it on, and I put it back.’”
Powroznik admitted he hasn’t had his usual positive attitude most of the season, beating himself up before a tournament started. He cited the AOY Championship at Mille Lacs Lake as an example. He finished 43rd, when a good finish there would have put him among the Classic qualifiers without having to fish the Classic Bracket.
“I knew better than to stay around those same stupid spots,” Powroznik said. “I didn’t have any bites. I knew they weren’t there. A smallmouth – he bites. Or at least you’ll see him chasing something. I wasn’t seeing them. I never fished right.”
Powroznik made a conscious effort to change his negative thinking when he left Mille Lacs at 4 a.m. Monday for the 90-minute drive north to Pokegama Lake.
“I turned everything off,” he said. “I just sat there and said, ‘Listen, this is your last chance. It’s either you’re working the (Classic Expo) or you’re going to be fishing. It was a deal where I had to get mentally focused. And I hadn’t been like that in awhile.”
Finally, out of the eight anglers who just missed qualifying for the Classic based on AOY points, Jacob Powroznik was the last man standing. That’s how you spell “relief.”
“It’s a fresh start now,” Powroznik said. “I’ve loved (Lake Hartwell) since I was a little kid.”
The man who’d felt like 800-pound weights were on his shoulders was suddenly as giddy as a little kid.