In search of 546

Every year at about this time — hopefully earlier — Elite Series anglers start taking a hard look at what it's going to take going into the stretch run to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic. Some are already in or practically in. Others are all but eliminated. In between are those who may need to strategize in order to qualify for fishing's biggest championship. The stakes are pretty high.

When trying to figure out just how many Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points will be needed to make the 2015 Classic, you need to start with a very different number — the number of Elite anglers who will be competing in the Classic.

B.A.S.S. guarantees that at least 29 Elite pros will earn Classic berths — it could be more, but it won't be fewer.

The first qualifier for any Classic is the defending champion. That's Randy Howell, who's having a pretty good year in the Elites. He currently ranks 16th in AOY. Also, there's Cliff Pace, the 2013 Classic champ who was unable to defend his crown earlier this year after breaking his leg in a hunting accident. He's guaranteed a berth in the 2015 championship though he's sitting out the Elite season with a medical exemption.

Now take a look at the current AOY standings and scroll down to 29th place. It's Rick Clunn with 388 points. If the season ended today, Clunn and everyone ahead of him are in the Classic. Several more Elites will make it because of "double qualifications."

An angler double qualifies when he satisfies more than one of the criteria for making the Classic. For example, Elite winners are in if they fish the full season. That includes Brett Hite, Chris Lane, Mike McClelland, Jacob Powroznik and Jason Christie. Jacob Wheeler won BASSfest, but he's not in the Elite Series. He'll need to fish the remaining two events in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Opens to lock up his Classic spot.

Opens winners are also in if they fish the full division schedule. Two Elites have won Opens this year: Stephen Browning and Ott DeFoe. They'll almost certainly qualify for the Classic via that route, but could double qualify through the Elite Series. Browning is currently 46th in AOY and DeFoe is 28th.

And since Howell, Hite, Lane, Powroznik, Christie and DeFoe currently rank in the top 29 of AOY, they'd be double qualified if the season ended today. That's a big deal for the anglers who rank just outside the top 29. For every Elite angler who is double qualified, another gains entry to the Classic via the AOY standings, starting with number 30.

So right away you'd expand the number of Elites fishing the Classic from 29 to 35. And because McClelland is the first of those (30th in AOY and he's won an Elite event this year), we can bump that number up to 36.

Again, this assumes the season ended today. A lot can change between now and the end of the year.

Now it's time to look at the remaining "win-and-you're-in" events. That would include Elite stops at the Delaware River and Cayuga Lake and four Open tournaments. Naturally, the two Elite events will be won by Elite Series anglers and it's unlikely that an angler who has already won will win again this year. Now we're up to 38 Elite qualifiers, but since we don't know if one or both of the final two winners will be double qualifiers, we can't say whether or not we can move down the AOY list.

Everybody loves a double qualifier, and 2014 Classic champ Randy Howell will almost certainly be one.

Of the four Open tournaments, let's estimate that one or two of those winners will also be an Elite angler, though (again) not necessarily one who ranks high in AOY.

Here's where math meets rampant speculation. I'm going to make an educated (?) guess that after all the dust settles, there will be nine double qualifiers in the Elite Series. That means the top 38 anglers in the AOY race will all earn berths in the Classic.

Exhausted from all the speculation? Me too, but if you've read this far you have my sincere gratitude. We're almost halfway there.

Now, it's time to break out the calculator and figure out what an angler will need to have in the way of AOY points to finish 38th or better.

Traditionally, and I'm going back to 2009 here — the first year the Elites had an eight event season — you need to average about a 46th-place finish to end up 38th in the final AOY standings. That's right. If you finish 46th every time out, you will not end up 46th for the year; you'll be about 38th. Doesn't make sense? Think of it this way: You don't need to win every tournament to finish first in the AOY race (if you average 15th or 20th, you should be right there) and you don't need to finish last every time to end up last in points.

If you finish 46th in an Elite event, you pick up 55 AOY points. Seven events have a normal points structure, and 55 X 7 equals 385.

Then there's BASSfest, where all the anglers earned 100 points (everyone's a winner, right?): 385 + 100 = 485.

That brings us to the season finale — the AOY Championship on Bays de Noc in Michigan, which is a regular points tournament but with a field of just 50 anglers. It's pure speculation to figure out where our imaginary bubble boy will need to finish in that reduced-field event, but let's guess that he'll need to step it up a bit and finish a little higher than normal — maybe around 40th, just to be on the safe side. Fortieth place nets you 61 points.

But wait! Before you can even get to the AOY Championship, you have to be in the top 50 of the AOY standings. The Championship is not a tournament where you can realistically expect to make up ground; it's an event where you hang on and hope for the best. Of the 50 guys there, nearly 80 percent are going to the Classic. The AOY Championship is not going to make the AOY standings volatile and wacky and "anybody's game." It will do the exact opposite. It will stabilize the standings and make a big surge extremely difficult.

So what will it take just to qualify for the Championship?

Probably around 450 points.

And to finish the season (and the AOY Championship) in 38th place, you'll probably need around 546 points. If you asked me right now how many points an Elite angler will need to qualify for the 2015 Classic via the AOY standings, that's my number.

What does it mean?

Well, for starters, it means that the top 10 in the AOY race are practically in already. That's no surprise. In fact, if you go back to 2009, only three anglers in the top 20 at this point of the season have missed qualifying for the Classic. No one inside the top 17 has ever fallen out.

Second, it means that the anglers ranked 89th and worse are just about mathematically eliminated from qualifying on points. They must win one of the remaining events to get to the 2015 Classic. Nothing less will do. Unfortunately, they also need to factor in re-qualifying for the Elite Series in 2015. To do that, you want to be in the top 85 of the AOY standings at the end of the year. Anything lower than that could spell trouble. Do you pull out all the stops and try to win in a desperate effort to get to the world championship, knowing you could crash and burn in the process? Or do you scale back your aspirations, play it safe and try to ensure that you live to fish another day? Those are questions no one wants to face.

Josh Bertrand came from way back in the pack to qualify for the Classic last year.
Third, the anglers ranked from about 61st to 88th are in trouble if they plan to fish the Classic. They need a major turnaround. The farthest back an Elite angler has come with two events left to qualify for the Classic was 64th, and it happened last year for Josh Bertrand. He finished 8th and 26th in the final two tournaments to get there. This year, though, things are a lot more promising for the anglers who have been struggling. Thanks to everyone earning big points at BASSfest, there's less of a gap between the Classic bubble and the anglers in this group.

For the anglers ranked 21st to 60th, it's all about points and the race to 546. Almost all of the guys currently in the top 30 will get there. One or two guys in the 50s will probably make it, too. The real battle takes place between the anglers currently ranked 30th to 55th. That's where the fireworks happen at this point in the season.

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