Swindle could win big without winning

There’s a lot of water left to cover in the Bassmaster Elite Series season, but if today’s standings hold true through September, current leader Gerald Swindle will take home his second Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year trophy and his first since the dawn of the Elite Series format.

It would be another feather in the cap of one of fishing’s best talents on and off the water. In addition to his 2004 AOY trophy, his accomplishments include:

  • 15 Bassmaster Classic appearances;
  • 2011 Bassmaster Southern Open on Kissimmee victory;
  • Over $1.8 million in B.A.S.S. prize money
  • Four Forrest Wood Cup qualifications;
  • 1998 FLW Wal-Mart Open on Beaver Lake victory; and
  • An additional nearly $500,000 from FLW.

All of that pales in comparison to his skill as a marketer. On the promotional side of things, no one has done as much with their talent and their resources as the G-Man.

There’s one thing that Swindle does not have, though: One of those big blue Elite Series trophies.

One problem with being at the top – whether it be the AOY standings or the marketing food chain – is that everyone else wants to kick you off the hill, and right now there’s a murderers’ row sitting behind him. Of the next 11 pros in the AOY race, all of them except one have at least one Elite Series victory on his resume, with the lone outlier, Matt Herren, having recently conquered the Toyota Texas Bass Classic. Looking back over the AOY races since 2006, when the Elite format debuted, during his AOY season each title holder has won either a regular season event, an All-Star event or the Classic, with the exception of Aaron Martens in 2013 – although he made up for it in 2015 with two Elite Series wins in his next AOY campaign.

The truth is that you don’t have to have a win to claim our sport’s version of the MVP. You could finish second in every tournament over the course of the year and your margin in the AOY race at season’s end would be massive. To borrow an old bowling adage: “Strikes are for show, but spares are for dough.” Yes, the big Happy Gilmore checks come out when you’re the best competitor in a given week, but to win the title that most pros hold in highest esteem, you have to keep your foot steadily on the gas and not make a single miscue.

It’s not that Swindle hasn’t come close to a tour level or championship win.  In the 2002 Forrest Wood Cup, he finished second to John Sappington by 5 ounces. In the 2005 Classic, he finished third to KVD and A-Mart by 18 ounces, while weighing in 11 out of a possible 15 bass over three days. In Elite competition he’s had similar close brushes with victory. Among his 18 Elite Series Top 10 finishes in regular season events and Majors (not including All Star events), he finished second to Jason Christie at Dardanelle in 2014 by 4 ounces. In 2011 at Toledo Bend it was even closer, as Dean Rojas edged him out by a single ounce.

So if Swindle maintains his lead in the AOY race through Mille Lacs, but doesn’t get a signature win for this campaign, does it merit any kind of asterisk or “yes, but” qualification? On first thought, I have to admit that it feels weird to provide the crown to someone who seems not to have touched every rung of the ladder on the way up. Upon further consideration, however, you have to ask what the guys below him in the AOY race would do to surpass him – would they trade one of their previous big wins, or even two of them, for the AOY crown? In other words, would KVD give back the Toledo Bend and/or Cayuga trophies for the AOY title? I haven’t quizzed any of them on it, but I can most assuredly say that every one of them would at least consider it, if not jump at the chance.  

Right now the 11 anglers immediately following  Swindle in the standings include multiple Bassmaster Classic winners, Forrest Wood cup champs, TTBC winners, Bassmaster Anglers of the Year and an FLW Angler of the Year – every member of that group is a certified hammer and a deadly competitor and every one of them wants to be where Gerald sits right now. If he maintains his lead, he will become one of fewer than a dozen pros to claim multiple Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles, and every one of those guys is a steel lock first ballot Hall of Famer. It would give him more Bassmaster AOYs than Hackney. More than Skeet. More than Clunn, Ike, Yelas, Hank Parker or Denny Brauer.

While I’m sure that it still eats at Gerald, with that in perspective, the “missing” Elite Series win starts to seem awfully inconsequential. With another title, regardless of the route he takes to get there, he’ll put an exclamation point on an already exceptional career of casting for cash.