Three more derbies and a lot on the line

It may only be June, but the Bassmaster Elite Series season is reaching the final stretch. I’m sitting in the lead of the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race with two regular season events left to go, and the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk is coming up. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel a good amount of pressure. The AOY lives in my head rent-free all day, every day, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you’re still in the lead when the season ends. When it comes to winning AOY or a Classic title, close doesn’t count.  

Which title do I want more? Of course I want them both. They come with different reward. The AOY is probably harder, but in some respects the Classic is more important. Winning one gives you instant legend status.

So on the whole I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. I’ve improved a lot as an angler over the past few years, and while there are still some holes in my game, I’ve become better at a lot of things that were once weaknesses. In fact, two of my best finishes this year — third at St. Johns and sixth at Sabine — were on waters where I kind of expected to struggle. My success at the St. Johns came because I was finally able to fish the way Florida bass want to be approached — S-L-O-W. I’d fought it in prior years, and I finally learned my lesson.

At the Sabine I got kind of lucky. I made some good decisions the first day, and then on Day 2 I was the last boat out. I’d been under the impression that retreads wouldn’t bite the next day, but I stopped on my spot and caught two or three fish in the first 10 minutes, which changed the whole ballgame. Had I been in an early flight or the middle of the pack I would’ve run 50 miles to my stuff from the day before without stopping, but now I didn’t have to do that. I got a break and made the most of it. 

It’s that kind of upside down, crazy luck that has me a little worried about the rest of the Elite Series season. If I did well at the ones where I expected to do the worst, what will happen at the ones where I expect to do the best? I’m 48 points ahead of my nearest competitor, but just look at the five guys behind me: Jason Christie, Patrick Walters, Chris Johnston, Brandon Palaniuk and Greg Hackney. I don’t really want any one of them in the rearview mirror, but all of them — plus a bunch of great anglers right on their tails — it is an absolute nightmare.

If I had a 200 point lead, I could bomb the last two events and still win AOY, but that’s not the situation. I have a feeling that my good friend Chris Johnston in particular is going to be a problem. I’m sure he’ll be in the top five at St. Lawrence, and I can’t imagine him being much lower than that at Champlain. Obviously, I’m good friends with Chris and his brother Cory — who in ninth place is certainly not out of it — and this is probably going to make it a little weird among all of us. They’ll keep sharing information between them, but for now I’m pretty sure I’m outside the circle of trust.

Despite those slight misgivings, I’d have to say its pretty nice to be in the position I’m in as we head north. I guess it would be OK to be in second and not have the same pressures, but all that would mean is I’d have to struggle to catch up. I’m only nervous because there’s so much on the line.

Meanwhile, Ray Roberts is next up on the radar, and while it’s clearly a big deal, I don’t feel the same kind of pressure. It’s nice to fish a tournament now that’s not for points. I’ve been playing it safe over the past few events, and in Texas I’m going to go out and gamble if the opportunity presents itself.

I can chase true big fish patterns where I may not get a limit, but if I do it could be monstrous. That requires different sorts of calculations, and I hope that whether or not I win it puts me in the right frame of mind for the rest of the season.

There’s a lot on the line and a lot of casts left to make.