The inaugural Toyota Trucks Championship Week needed to start with a bang, and the Bassmaster Elite Series pros have made sure of that.
At Sunday's conclusion of the regular season at Oneida Lake, the top 12 Elite Series pros in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings officially qualified for BASS' first two-event postseason. And before the postseason begins, there's already a shootout at the front of the pack.
Reigning 2008 Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., is just one point ahead of 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., and the two highly competitive pros look to ignite the first Elite Series postseason with a battle royal along with 10 other pros for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year trophy and its accompanying top prize of $200,000.
Although Reese was ahead of VanDam in the regular-season Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, VanDam earned two points by virtue of his Smith Mountain Lake Elite win, moving him ahead of Reese. Each competitor who scored an Elite victory earned two bonus points after the top-12 field was set.
Right behind them is 2008 Bassmaster Classic winner Alton Jones of Waco, Texas. The field also includes 2006 AOY and 2003 Classic winner Mike Iaconelli of Runnemede, N.J. (11th); 1989 and 1993 AOY Gary Klein of Weatherford, Texas (seventh); and, squeaking in at the last second, 2004 AOY Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala. (12th).
"Even Iaconelli and Swindle, being in 11th and 12th, have got a great shot," VanDam said. "The drama is definitely going to be there. All through the season it's been different because we knew about this postseason coming. The intensity was there from Day 1, the first day of competition.
"Everybody's talking about Skeet and I making it so close, because the last couple of years we fought it out to the end. But the other 10 guys in this are just as able to win it as we are, and that's the thing about it that's so much different. This right here is going to be a shootout. These guys are the best anglers in the world. You look at the field and they're all guys with a lot of wins, a lot of Classics, a lot of AOY titles. It's going to be awesome."
The inaugural Toyota Trucks Championship Week kicks off with The Berkley Powerbait Trophy Chase, set for Sept. 12-13 on Lake Jordan out of Wetumpka, Ala.; the finale, the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph, is slated for Sept. 17-18 on the Alabama River from Montgomery.
VanDam said he's looking forward to getting started with practice on Lake Jordan, a fishery he has visited only once. He likes the manageability of it in size and predicts that two practice days will give everyone a solid read on the lake.
He has fished a few BASS tournaments on the Alabama River, and he said the two fisheries are extremely different and should prove an excellent test of the world's top 12 bass anglers.
"The big thing there is — I've fished the Coosa River a lot — I know how important current is to the activity level of the fish. That's going to be critical. If we get some rains in the fall, we'll get some current and it'll be a full-on shootout. If it's hot and slick, it's going to be a grind.
"You want to go in and get off to a good start. And I'm not exactly sure how I need to compete different, because this is new territory. But I'm excited to get going. There's several people in the field who have a lot of experience on those lakes and the rest of us don't who may have an advantage — but that can be a disadvantage, too. You just never know."
Someone who might know is Swindle, an Alabama native who had to wait until the last day of the regular-season finale, the Ramada Champion's Choice, to find out that he would be fishing in his home state for a shot at his second AOY title.
"This was a ninth-inning rally here," Swindle said Sunday. "I just got momentum, I fished well this year in the early tournaments — I just didn't have any high finishes. A little later in the year, it seemed like I was getting the bigger bites, getting in a rhythm physically and mentally."
Swindle was 17th in the AOY standings coming in to the event at Oneida and had a lot of ground to cover to make the postseason. He punched his postseason ticket with a ninth-place finish and an overall four-day weight of 56 pounds, 4 ounces.
"I can't even put into words what it means to come back," said Swindle, who had a rough time coping in the offseason with the fact that he didn't fish well enough in 2008 to make the 2009 Bassmaster Classic. "I know the 2004 Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle is still there. He just had a rough year — and the year before that wasn't my best year, either.
"I think I'm back, and that's what you're looking for, freedom on the water and peace of mind."
Swindle said being among the stacked postseason field of 12 is an honor, but that the AOY trophy does have a Swindle bull's-eye on it.
"I knew better than to pre-fish," he said, "but fishing at home will give me a lot of confidence.
"When we get there, it's man on man and even if I go in at 12th, I'm going to be trying to rally. Hey, if you're going to have a fight, have a good one."
2009 Bassmaster Elite Series Toyota Trucks Championship Week standings
Name, Hometown Postseason Points
1. Kevin VanDam, Kalamazoo, Mich. — 205
2. Skeet Reese, Auburn, Calif. — 204
3. Alton Jones, Waco, Texas — 198
4. Kelly Jordon, Mineola, Texas — 182
5. Todd Faircloth, Jasper, Texas — 180
6. Randy Howell, Springville, Ala. — 180
7. Tommy Biffle, Waggoner, Okla. — 180
8. Mark Menendez, Paducah, Ky. — 180
9. Gary Klein, Weatherford, Texas — 179
10. Cliff Pace, Petal, Miss. — 177
11. Mike Iaconelli, Runnemede, N.J. — 175
12. Gerald Swindle, Warrior, Ala. — 174