The amazing race for AOY

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Ronnie Moore

It’s a bad time to be an underachiever on the Bassmaster Elite Series.

For that matter, it’s a pretty bad time to be a reasonably competent achiever.

The stakes have been raised. Guys who used to get checks just occasionally are on the verge of getting pushed out. Pros who used to finish in the money more often than not now frequently find themselves going home empty-handed. Most jarringly, those who expected to contend for an occasional title are now being left in the dust by a new breed of seemingly infallible super-pro, the type of angler who is a threat to win every time out, the type who catches 20 pounds when 15 is considered exceptional.

Nowhere is the grade deflation more evident than in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, where merely making a Top 12 no longer guarantees making up any ground. I assume that the sellers of ice and Gatorade made the most money in the 95 degree heat and 95 percent humidity of the Potomac River, but Gerald Swindle is the one who had the best week, mostly because he had no choice but to keep his foot on the gas if he wants to win a second AOY title. By finishing 10th overall, he gave the anglers in his rearview mirror little room to advance on him.

The ones I feel kind of sorry for are Keith Combs and Randall Tharp. They both had exceptional weeks, finishing sixth and seventh respectively, and all they got for it (other than nice checks) was a few measly points. One bite at a time may be the best way to eat an elephant, but when you’re trying to make up 30, 40 or 60 points, twosies and threesies don’t get the job done.

Greg Hackney, coming off the disappointment of the DQ at Cayuga, finished 13th at the Potomac and actually lost ground. How do you beat 90 guys and feel like you’ve lost? And poor Jacob Powroznik had the misfortune to follow up two good days of competition with a one-fish stinker on Day 3 that dropped him from third in the tournament to 35th. He beat 70 guys who would’ve given their last Wiggle Wart for that same finish and took home $10,000, but people were still tiptoeing around him like somebody had run over his dog. It might be the most bittersweet five-figure check in the history of the sport. The “poor” finish didn’t mathematically preclude him from winning the end-of-year title, but it’s going to be tough to leapfrog those other four with only two events left.

Lost in the shuffle of this compelling and unsettled AOY race are some of the other exceptional performances on tour: Marriage apparently agrees with Chris Zaldain, because he’s earned six checks in eight events, including two Top 12s, and he sits in sixth in the AOY race. Right behind him is Jordan Lee, who is about as far removed from a “sophomore slump” as you can get. In fact, he only seems to be getting better with Sunday appearances in his last three Elite events. The only question is whether it’s Lee or Justin Lucas (currently eighth) who is going to become the sport’s next mega-star. Lucas had a banner week, and has a hundred large burning a hole in his pocket, but even with six checks, including two Top 12s, one of them a victory, he still probably won’t be able to make up the AOY deficit in the last two events.

The only race that’s not close is the one for Rookie of the Year, where leader Drew Benton has a 156 point lead over second place competitor Adrian Avena, and he has at least doubled the point total of seven of the nine anglers behind him. Benton, currently ninth in the AOY race, probably doesn’t have a legitimate shot at AOY, but he’s a lock for Mille Lacs, for the Classic and to be a thorn in the side of many established pros for many years to come.

At this time last year Aaron Martens had just won the Elite event on the Upper Chesapeake Bay and had a 69 point lead in the AOY race. Then he finished sixth at the regular season finale – despite missing his alarm and oversleeping on the last day – to extend the margin to 102 points. That meant, in theory, he could’ve skipped the AOY Championship on Sturgeon Bay and still easily claimed the title. It was an incredible season, but by that point the drama was gone. For good measure, he extended his lead at Sturgeon Bay, too.

Swindle will likely have no such luxury this year. The way the likes of Combs, Tharp and Hackney are fishing, any finish other than a win leaves him open to losing ground. I talked to Swindle and Powroznik at the Potomac, and I’ve talked to Combs and Tharp since the tournament ended, and none of them would meaningfully indulge my questions about the race for AOY. “It’s too early,” they said, or perhaps, “I can only control what I can control.” I have trouble believing that in the nearly four weeks between the end of the Potomac and the beginning of the Mississippi River that they’d be able to think about anything else.