If you want to know what makes Gerald Swindle’s AOY title so impressive, don’t look to the other anglers in the top five. Yes, he beat out a quartet of world-class hammers in Keith Combs, Randall Tharp, Jacob Powroznik and Greg Hackney, any one of whom would’ve been a worthy champion, but there has always been a small upper tier among the tour level pros. Even dating back to the early days of B.A.S.S., for every Roland Martin, there was a Bill Dance, Jimmy Houston or Hank Parker knocking on the door.
No, the true measure of what makes the title so hard to attain lies not in the top five but in the next six.
Lost in the exceptional seasons of Swindle, Combs, Tharp, Powroznik and Hackney, there’s an important story of slightly lesser lights – lesser not because they’re any less talented, but only because they haven’t been around quite as long. But those next six – Jordan Lee, Chris Zaldain, Justin Lucas, Ott DeFoe, Jason Christie and Drew Benton – have a lot of miles and a lot of trophies in front of them. What’s scary about them is not only their near-robotic mastery of the sport, but the fact that they average less than 32 years old. If you take the Methuselah of the group, the nearly 43-year-old Christie, out of the equation, their average age sits right at 29. Gary Klein and Rick Clunn have crankbaits older than most of them.
Jordan Lee, the baby of the group at 25, may yet shine the brightest. In just his second year on tour, he earned five Top 10 finishes in regular season competition. In the latter half of the season, a time when many sophomores might hit a wall, he just seemed to get stronger, making the cut to Sunday in the last four regular season tournaments.
Next up was Chris Zaldain, who just turned 32. He didn’t win this year’s AOY Championship as he did in 2015, and he actually slipped a place in the overall standings to seventh, but the newlywed only missed two checks. More importantly, he never bombed. When he missed the money, it wasn’t by much. It’s just another top 10 spot in the AOY race that seems to be on permanent reserve.
Justin Lucas, like Zaldain, couldn’t match his 2015 AOY finish of second, but he didn’t fall far, and notched his second Elite Series victory in as many years just a few months after his 30th birthday. He’s the complete package, a marketing-ready machine who’s shown not only an ability to win, but also a remarkable consistency. He’s finished in the money over 80 percent of the time in his career while finishing 60th or worse a mere 14 percent.
Ott DeFoe may not be as old as Christie, or even as old as Zaldain, but he’s fished the Elites the longest of any of them (six full seasons), and he has hasn’t missed a Classic since 2011. The mild-mannered Tennesseean closed the regular season out with his first full field Elite Series win.
Jason Christie, like DeFoe, doesn’t miss Classics, and he doesn’t miss many opportunities to earn a check, either. He’s made the money in well over 70 percent of his B.A.S.S appearances, and he can win with a drop shot in smallmouth territory as easily as he can with a squarebill or a swim jig in chocolate milk.
Drew Benton is the member of this sextet about whom we know the least, and about whom there may be the most to be scared about. The 28-year-old stick from FLW – who won the first FLW Tour event he fished – showed no sign of rookie jitters or an inability to compete outside of his home state of Florida. He’s finished in the money in nearly two-thirds of the B.A.S.S. tournaments he’s fished, and only seems to be getting stronger. The only checks he missed in Elite competition this year were at Wheeler and La Crosse, and he earned Top 10s at the St. Johns, Cayuga and the AOY Championship at Mille Lacs.
None of these six pros were around when the Elite Series commenced in 2006. In fact, none of them were on the tour before DeFoe joined in 2011, yet despite the comparative inexperience they seem to have the bass world by the short hairs. They’re check grabbers and every one of them is a threat to win from Florida up to Minnesota and across to California. If their emergence doesn’t scare the heck out of long-term mid-tier pros, it should.
The hammer time parade doesn’t stop after Benton. Somewhere between his position and the Classic cut line sit KVD, Skeet, Ike and A-Mart, winners of eight of the prior 11 AOY titles in Elite Series history. The top 11 doesn’t include Bill Lowen, who could catch a competitive limit out of a parking lot mud puddle, nor does it include reigning Classic champ Edwin Evers. The bottom line is that breaking into the upper, upper echelon of this field is ridiculously hard, and these millennials made it look surprisingly routine.
Pundits like me frequently talk about the “best angler never to win a Classic” or “best angler never to win AOY” as if it’s a foregone conclusion that eventually those named will someday hoist those trophies. Occasionally, they prove us correct, as Edwin Evers did in March by winning the Classic at Grand Lake, but increasingly it’s possible to have a stellar career, one weighed down with accolades, and never get a sniff of one of the major titles. These guys should make it that way for years to come.