Welcome to 2017 and Elite Series season number 12. As a self-proclaimed superfan, I remain extremely excited to see how this one plays out, with a fresh slate of fresh nuances, sidebars and surprises of the types that we encounter every year.
While I look forward to every event on the schedule, a dozen years along there are clearly some that stand out over the others. Sure, I love events on Okeechobee and Toledo Bend where the century mark is a real possibility, as well as mixed-bag northern slugfests on Champlain. I even like the tougher events on fisheries like past years’ tournaments on the Sabine River, where a bit of strategy can go a long way. But those are all venues that B.A.S.S. has visited multiple times and will likely fish again in the future. To me, the most exciting stops on any schedule are the one-offs, places that most of the Elites have never been before.
I love Winyah Bay mysteries as much as I love Mille Lacs pig festivals, primarily because the story is being written from scratch.
This year that means that the one event I have circled most prominently on my calendar is the season opener on Cherokee Lake in Tennessee.
If you want to get technical, B.A.S.S. has visited Cherokee before, in July of 1981. By my estimation, approximately a third of the current Elite Series pros weren’t born then, including both Ott DeFoe and Brandon Card, two of the several Elites most likely to have spent some time on Cherokee. David Walker, an old-timer among the Cherokee “locals,” was just old enough to get a driver’s license.
The things that excite me about Cherokee are the same things that should simultaneously excite the Elites and fill their hearts with fear – it’s the first event of the season, the first time on a new lake for many of them, the first event with the new 10 foot rod limit and it’s likely to be freezing cold. There’s no meaningful tour-level history on the lake, so even if you’re having a decent day doing something conventional, you’ll have to be wondering if someone else is having a much better day doing something out of the ordinary.
Having those great unknowns in any tournament is enough to sink a potential Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) campaign. Last year Keith Combs had a season for the ages, averaging a 12th place finish in eight of nine regular season events. Had the Bull Shoals/Norfork event never occurred, he would’ve entered the AOY Championship at Mille Lacs nearly 20 points ahead of Gerald Swindle. Instead, as a result of that 90th place finish, he entered over 40 points behind and could not make up the difference. His downfall didn’t occur in the first event of the season, but it shows that it only takes one stinker to muck up what was otherwise an exceptional campaign. You never know when you’ll have another shot at an AOY title and realizing that even a half-decent finish would’ve gotten him there may gnaw away at Combs for the rest of his career.
A tough start to the season isn’t necessarily an AOY death sentence. In 2013, Aaron Martens finished 85th at the season opener at the Sabine River and still managed to claim his second AOY crown. In order to make up that ground, though, he finished an average of better than 10th in the remaining seven regular season tournaments, and then sixth at All Star week. That included five Top 12 finishes in those seven regular season events. How many Elites are capable of doing that? How many have finished in the Top 12 that many times over the course of a season, or even two seasons, or even their careers? I’m not saying it’s not possible, just that it’s a lot better not to dig yourself into a hole to start the year.
It would be foolish for me to assert that the first regular season tournament of the year matters more than any other. They all count the same in the standings, and you can “lose” an AOY title just as easily on the last day of the year as you can on the first, the second or the 28th. At the same time, we’ve seen anglers like AMart and Skeet and KVD and Swindle get on waves of momentum, and once the ball starts rolling downhill it can be hard to stop. I have a feeling that when the scales close in mid-February, depending on how things shake out, a few big hitters may be crestfallen and a few others may exhale for the first time since the schedule was announced.