Congrats to Bill Weidler, who weighed in more than 86 pounds of bronze to win the recent Bassmaster Elite Series event on Lake St. Clair. Winning an Elite event is the sport’s most magical and difficult accomplishment, so I mean no disrespect when I say this, but Weidler is hardly a household name among most fishing fans. Prior to Michigan, his best Elite finish of the year was 49th, and on four occasions he’d finished 75th or worse – but now he has a blue trophy, and that’s one thing many better-known pros cannot say.
For purposes of Elite tenure, the winner was also the longest-tenured Elite among the Top 10. Others had started their B.A.S.S. careers earlier, but the only other one who competed on the Elite Series in 2018, when Weidler started, was that season’s Rookie of the Year Jake Whitaker.
Nevertheless, this was a Sunday to remember, for so many reasons.
Cory Johnston was only 8 ounces behind Weidler. Had he come out on top, he wouldn’t have been the first Canadian to win an Elite Series tournament, but combined with his brother Chris they would’ve been the first set of brothers to win in the same year.
In a tournament with big water where electronics were perceived to be the key, John Cox – the guy with likely the slowest boat in the field and one who more or less rejected high-tech graphs until a few years ago, came in third, and led for three days.
Fourth place? Clark Wendlandt, looking to make his first Classic since 2001. Of course he earned a trio of FLW Angler of the Year awards in his career, and he now finds himself positioned to win one at B.A.S.S., too, as the current Bassmaster Angler of the Year leader.
Next up was Jake Whitaker, Weidler’s fellow 2018 rookie. He’s qualified for two Classics already and had twice finished in fifth place in individual Elite tournaments. He’s still 28, which means he was just 6 months old when Wendlandt made his first Top 10 with B.A.S.S.
In sixth we find another Johnston, the one who won an Elite event already this year. In recent weeks the brothers have vaulted back up the AOY standings, and it appears to be only a matter of time until one or both win a major title.
Number seven: "The Baby Shark" Shane LeHew, who has only finished worse than 49th in one event in his entire B.A.S.S. career. He has been in the top 20 more than half the time.
The eighth spot was occupied by Cody Hollen, the 2019 B.A.S.S. Nation champ, whose finish here represented not only a personal achievement, but also the enduring importance of those Nation roots.
Behind Hollen is another angler with Oregon roots and an Oregon address, albeit one with a lengthier B.A.S.S. resume. Jay Yelas won both AOY and Classic titles before he left B.A.S.S., and now he’s back. Any thoughts that he wasn’t the Yelas of yesteryear should be dismissed on this event alone.
Rounding out the Top 10 is perhaps the most exciting — and, for his competition, terrifying — name of them all. Seven letters: Taku Ito. Two months ago he’d never caught a smallmouth — now he’s knocked out three straight Top 10s catching them. Ten total B.A.S.S. events, eight money finishes, six in the Top 10. Imagine what he’ll accomplish when he actually has some experience under his belt.
It may seem absurdly unfair and reductionistic to knock each of those guys down to a line or two, and I don’t mean to discount the importance of any one individual’s achievements. Nevertheless, in many ways the calling card of the 2020 Elite Series to date has been the topsy-turvy nature of the results, the utter lack of predictability.
There are 80-plus anglers, each with his own story to tell, but each competition week we get a new and potentially unlikely crew vying for valuable airtime. So if you expected to tune in on Sunday and see last year’s St. Clair champ Seth Feider, or returning past AOYs Palaniuk and Swindle, or local favorites like Pipkens and Paquette, I’m sorry you were disappointed. They’ve all had their days in the sun and will have many more. Meanwhile, make way for new stars.
The guys who are there with them every week — Steve Bowman, Steve Wright, Craig Lamb and the exceptional B.A.S.S. photographers — do a great job of telling their stories, but just when we think they’ve reported every possible permutation of facts, a set more unbelievable than the last one happens organically.
From the 85 anglers who started the St. Clair event, there were millions of possible Top-10 combinations, but this was the one we got. Just when you think you can predict outcomes, everything goes out the window. In a season altered by the uncertainty of a global pandemic, a different kind of uncertainty has proven to be the Elites’ greatest selling point.