An AOY battle for the ages

One of the nice things about professional bass fishing is that there’s not necessarily a ticking clock threatening the expiration of an angler’s career. Unlike baseball, where eventually your arm gives out, or basketball, where you lose your hops, or football, where you can get your bell rung one too many times, it’s possible to continue to fish at a high level well into your Social Security years. Rick Clunn’s performance earlier this year in Florida proved that beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Of course the potential downside to long-lasting careers is that things have the potential to get stagnant. Pros fall into pre-defined roles – top 20 guys, bottom 20 guys, grinders – and they experience the occasional gulp of air in another sector before returning to their assigned spots. But after years where it seemed like just about anyone who wanted back in and who could afford the entry fees was granted readmittance, over the past few years some willing but poor performers have been cut from the Bassmaster Elite Series roster – and they’ve been replaced by a new generation of hammers.

Being the new kid in school, no matter how precocious, can be a tough deal, particularly in the rough world of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. Based on results alone, the odds would seem to be against them climbing to the top in a hurry. Since the dawn of the Elite Series in 2006, all 10 Angler of the Year winners have been one of the original 106 Elite anglers from that inaugural season. Of course, the math is skewed somewhat by the fact that Kevin VanDam and Aaron Martens have claimed six of those 10 titles, but the point is the same: It’s a long road to the top if you want to rock and roll.

If you just look at the top of the AOY standings at this halfway mark, it seems like that trend is going to continue. Greg Hackney, an original Elite and the 2014 AOY, sits atop the heap. Right behind him is Gerald Swindle, another original Elite and the 2004 AOY. Third place is held down by Takahiro Omori, a third original Elite and the 2004 Bassmaster Classic champ.

After Tak is where the tide swings, though, because eight of the next nine are relative newcomers, with Steve Kennedy (sixth) the lone additional original Elite in the Top 12.

Matt Herren is the longest-tenured of the bunch, having joined the Elites in 2009, while the other seven had no more than five years of Elite Series competition under their belts heading into the 2016 campaign. To put it starkly, six of them – Hank Cherry, Chris Zaldain, Randall Tharp, Justin Lucas, Dave Lefebre and Jacob Powroznik – have never been there as competitors when KVD was crowned as Elite Series AOY.

It’s not like they’re complete beginners. Tharp has won a Forrest Wood Cup, Lefebre and Herren have won the Toyota Texas Bass Classic and Combs has won every competition in the state of Texas except the Cotton Bowl and the Battle of the Alamo. Nevertheless, when and if one of these competitors steps up and wins the AOY trophy, it is going to be a big deal. Even if the KVDs of the world still have lots of tread on their tires, it will amount to a changing of the guard.

Sixty percent of those original Elite Series competitors are gone, but the remaining 40 percent have been winnowed down to the best of the best, and each year they’re supplemented by fewer donors and more hammers. It might still be possible to qualify for the Elite Series on a fluke basis, but it’s no longer possible to even scrape by if you don’t have the talent and stamina to compete every day – and judging by the results of the just-completed Southern Open slate, the competition’s likely to get even tougher next year.

At some point, there will be a “newbie” AOY, and this could be the year. It’s evident that the Tharps and Lucases and Powrozniks of the world have it in them to claim the crown, but the AMarts (currently 20th) and KVDs (27th) of the world aren’t going anywhere fast. With five events left to go, we’re about to witness a stretch run and a battle of generations for the ages.