Rookies coming on strong

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Chris Mitchell

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — One already has a Bassmaster Elite Series win and the other four Championship Sundays. Meet the front-runners in the point race for 2017 Toyota Bassmaster Rookie of the Year:

Dustin Connell leads the ROY standings with 527 points. He got there part of the way with a win at the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite at Ross Barnett. Not far behind with 523 points is Jamie Hartman, having fished four of the seven Championship Sundays held this season.

Connell, 27, and Hartman, 44, lead a rookie class that is among the strongest in recent years.

Mark Daniels Jr., with 479 points, has cashed a check in 8 of 13 total B.A.S.S. events on his resume. Jesse Wiggins (469 points) has already fished a world championship, and has two wins from the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens. The most recent victory came in January at the Harris Chain. The fifth place angler, Alton Jones Jr., has 380 points and a lot of skills learned from his famous father.

The leaders are rookies by definition. The resumes of this rookie class already have milestones that take emerging pros much longer to achieve.

Which of these talented anglers wins the race?

For now, the answer could be defined by geography. One angler is a Southerner whose angling strengths are fishing for current-oriented spotted bass on river systems in Alabama. The other, an upstate New Yorker, is a skilled smallmouth angler and expert at catching those fish in offshore conditions.

That makes Hartman the easy choice when considering the schedule coming up. Last week he finished seventh on the strength of a smallmouth bite in his home state on the St. Lawrence River. This week it's at Lake Champlain, another impressive smallmouth fishery. Lake St. Clair is comes next, and then the championship event on Mille Lacs in Minnesota. That makes the sum of the whole tilt in favor of Hartman.

"Before last week I hadn't fished up here for smallmouth," said Connell. "What I'm doing though, is use some of the same tactics that work for me on the Coosa River and elsewhere in central Alabama to catch spotted bass."

Before this season Connell had limited experience fishing with a drop shot. The upside is similar tactics are used to catch the spotted bass in the power generation lakes where he learned to fish. The initial effort at bringing Alabama to New York produced a respectable 21st place finish.

Connell is in his late 20s, but he's fished, and won, numerous tournaments since his teenage years. He's a quick learner that knows the odds facing him over the next six days of competition remaining in the regular season.

On the flip side is Hartman, with the odds tilted in his favor for those days coming up on smallmouth water.

Drilling down and striking success in the Elite Series is the goal. Total immersion is working. Hartman expected nothing less than to be in contention for the ROY title.

"Winning ROY was a goal of mine this year," he said. "Fishing against these guys is pretty amazing, because we all brought some good credentials into the race."

Hartman's quest to claim that honor is well known. Newport is listed as his hometown but he's currently a man without a permanent address. Last December, Hartman loaded all his personal belongings into a rental storage unit and hit the road.

Anything can happen, though. Just ask Ott DeFoe, who led the AOY point race for the first six events. DeFoe now ranks 10th after a meltdown on the St. Lawrence, where he finished 99th.

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