There were plenty of murmurs and questions about the new Elite Qualifier format entering the 2023 St. Croix Bassmaster Opens season. But a year that started with a certain amount of scrutiny turned out to be one the most competitive and compelling Opens seasons ever.
That sounds like a lot of bluster until you look at the numbers.
JT Thompkins won the overall points race with 1,659 points, the highest total since the Opens began an overall, nine-tournament race in 2019. For comparison, Jacob Powroznik has the second highest point total for an Opens season in that time frame at 1,547 in 2021.
South Carolina’s Kyle Austin, who has fished the Opens full time for several years now, just missed out on an Elite qualification, finishing 12th in points with 1,403 points. Had Austin achieved that point total in 2022 and 2021, he would have finished fifth in the overall standings. In 2020, he would have won the points race.
Had long-time pro Bobby Lane entered the Opens race last season, he would have been safely inside the cut with 1,403 points. Instead, he was first man out of the cut.
All of that is to say, year one of the Opens EQ format seemed to bring out the best in every angler in the field. Very few anglers were safely inside the cut until the final event of the year at the Harris Chain of Lakes.
Here are some of the interesting themes that made 2023 so interesting.
Youth invasion continues
An influx of young talent has entered the Bassmaster Elite Series in recent years, and the new crop of anglers arriving in 2024 are some of the youngest yet. All but one of the anglers moving to the next level are under the age of 30 while six of those anglers are under the age of 25.
Trey McKinney is only 18 years old — the youngest Elite Series qualifier ever — while Thompkins and Maine’s Tyler Williams are just 21.
What’s more impressive is they excelled in a field of veteran anglers, many of whom are former and current Elite Series and FLW pros, anglers who have seen just about everything when it comes to tournament bass fishing.
Three different rookies won tournaments during the 2023 Elite Series season. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more tournaments were won by this group of rookies in 2024.
While the Opens visited many of the fisheries on the schedule at the best times of the year, hardly anything went exactly to plan. Weather played a major factor in nearly every tournament. The first day of the season, in fact, was postponed by strong winds and severe thunderstorms at Lake Eufaula, Alabama.
Then, anglers had to deal with fluctuating water levels at Toledo Bend before moving to a totally flooded Buggs Island. Weights were still impressive at the St. Lawrence River, but they could have been even better had sunny conditions prevailed instead of rain and clouds.
As the season reached its conclusion, a major cold front gave competitors a curveball at Lake of the Ozarks, and a normally clear Harris Chain was as dirty as many anglers could ever remember.
Milliken’s roller-coaster journey
One of the hot button topics entering the season was YouTube sensation Ben Milliken. Milliken quickly silenced any doubts about his tournament prowess by finishing fifth at the opener on Lake Eufaula, and then winning Toledo Bend in dominating fashion.
The summer wasn’t exactly easy for the New Caney, Texas, pro with a 93rd-place finish at the St. Lawrence River and an 83rd at Watts Bar. Those finishes had the potential to be a lot worse, but Milliken essentially saved his season in both events.
On Day 1 in smallmouth country, Milliken found himself in 130th with 14-6, but he rebounded nicely on Day 2 with 17-10 to make up a ton of ground in New York. A similar scenario unfolded in Tennessee, as the Nebraska native caught just two bass for 4-4 on Day 1, but he once again salvaged the tournament on Day 2 with a limit weighing 10-14.
A 46th at Lake of the Ozarks kept Milliken within striking range before he finished the season with a top-three finish at Harris Chain.
While known for the big baits he loves to throw, Milliken proved he is a well-rounded angler and will have plenty of opportunities to excel on the Elite Series. He may even win the Classic.
Risers and faders
Williams was one of the anglers who rose through the standings during the course of the season as well as Wesley Gore, Austin and Lane.
While it wasn’t much, Brett Cannon and Jamie Bruce faded as the season drew to a close, finishing 13th and 15th respectively. After winning at Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma, it seemed like it may finally be time for Joey Nania to earn an Elite berth, but the back half of the season was not kind to Nania as he dropped to 18th in points.
It was déjà vu for Sam George, who came close but couldn’t secure an Elite berth in 2023 with a 16th-place finish in points.
Matt Henry spent much of the season towards the top of the EQ standings after a strong start, but he ended the season in 27th.
Ode to the jig
With the increased use of forward-facing sonar (FFS), many traditional techniques aren’t being utilized quite as much as they used to be. It’s a conversation that will rage on for years.
The trusty jig, however, continues to be a staple in the arsenal of anglers and that was evident in the Opens top lures galleries this season. It is directly responsible for three wins. Those were for Justin Barnes at Lake Eufaula, Williams at Watts Bar and Kyle Patrick at Lake of the Ozarks.
Barnes used a football jig in a more traditional sense by dragging it on offshore ledges. Williams, meanwhile, used his living rubber jig at almost every event and watched his forward-facing sonar to locate pieces of cover and bass to throw to.
At Lake of the Ozarks, Patrick used a jig in three different ways. He watched how the bass reacted to his jig on forward-facing sonar and then adjusted his cadence from there.
Other top presentations
After reviewing the Opens top lures galleries, which highlight the top presentations of the Top 10 finishers, several baits and presentations stood out. Some of them may surprise you but make sense when analyzing the events.
Given there are close to and often more than 200 boats in these events, this is a small percentage, but is indicative of how the tournaments played out.
Of the 205 baits shown in the galleries throughout the season, a drop shot of some variety was displayed 23 times, the most of any bait. Deep or shallow; largemouth, smallmouth or spotted bass; dragging or with the assistance of FFS — a drop shot is proving to be extremely versatile.
Second most were bladed jigs, which were displayed 19 times. Several events featured some type of aquatic vegetation and bladed jig usage was elevated during the Harris Chain event.
At several events, a shad spawn was occurring in some capacity. That elevated the classic spinnerbait, which was displayed 17 times in top lures galleries. Considered a lost art by many old timers, it was proven by Opens anglers that the spinnerbait still warrants a spot in the rotation.
As mentioned earlier, jigs were a popular choice and were displayed 16 times. Deep-diving crankbaits were shown off 15 times as well as creature baits, which came into play when there were bass on bed in March at Eufaula, Toledo Bend and then with flooded conditions at Buggs Island.
Surprisingly, glide baits were shown off nine times, while jerkbaits were only shown six times. Very few topwater baits were displayed in the top lures galleries.
Hats off to tournament director Hank Weldon for putting together a compelling schedule in 2023. While volatile in instances, it featured a good mix of new fisheries, familiar faces and historic lakes that haven’t seen much love lately.
Next season looks even better. It’s been a long time since Bassmaster has visited Lake Ouachita in Arkansas, Lake Logan Martin in Alabama and Leech Lake in Minnesota. Expect slugfests at Okeechobee, the Santee Cooper Lakes and St. Clair. Lake Hartwell and the Upper Mississippi River always put on a good show, and Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma will have another opportunity to kick out big bags.