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Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Where does Skeet rank?

By Ken Duke
Senior Editor, BASS Publications

At Toyota Trucks Championship Week, where Kevin VanDam was recently crowned Bassmaster Angler of the Year for the third straight year, several people — all relatively new to covering the sport — asked me where I thought Skeet Reese ranks among the sport's all-time greats.

Skeet Reese
Before he hangs it up, Reese is a fair bet to move into the ranks of the 10 greatest bass anglers of all time.

With everyone within earshot touting VanDam as the best of all time, these newbies felt confident that Reese must be the second best professional bass angler ever. After all, he's been hot on the heels of KVD in recent years.

I think they were surprised when I said that Reese probably didn't rank in the top 10.

So, I decided to take a good, hard look at our sport's all-time greats and determine just where Reese fits.

If you've been around professional bass fishing for a few years, you may recall the ESPN Greatest Angler Debate of 2005. It started with a list of 35 anglers who had all achieved some success in the world of professional fishing. That list was pared to 10 by a "blue ribbon" panel of outdoor writers. Whether the writers were that good or just drinking Pabst is hard to say, but they mostly got it right. Their top 10 was then submitted to the public for a popular vote.

Here's how they ranked when it was over:

  1. Rick Clunn
  2. Roland Martin
  3. Bill Dance
  4. Denny Brauer
  5. Kevin VanDam
  6. Larry Nixon
  7. Hank Parker
  8. Jay Yelas
  9. Gary Klein
  10. Mark Davis

Now, it's five years later, a lot of water has gone under the bridge and any list of the best would necessarily change quite a bit, no matter who's ranking them.

Here's one man's opinion on the top 10 of all time:

(1) Kevin VanDam

VanDam is clearly the king of the hill. He went on a tear after ranking fifth in 2005, winning three tournaments in a row, including the 2005 Bassmaster Classic. Since then, he hasn't slowed down much. He now has six AOY titles, three Classic championships, 19 career wins and more than $4.5 million in career earnings. If you're one of those guys arguing that KVD is not the greatest of all time, you need to give it a rest. No one's listening.

(2) Roland Martin

Second place belongs to one of the greats that VanDam is surpassing, Roland Martin. The "Great American Fisherman" finished second in 2005 but deserved better. True, he never won the Bassmaster Classic, but he did win nine AOYs and 19 tournaments, and he qualified for 25 Classics. He was the most dominant angler of his time (even more dominant than KVD today) and deserves the runner-up position.

(3) Rick Clunn

That leaves third place to Rick Clunn, the man who has made the Bassmaster Classic his personal stage. With four Classic wins, an AOY title and 22 finishes in the AOY top 10, Clunn's mark on the sport is indelible, and he's not done yet. Count me among those rooting for him to win a fifth Classic. Clunn won the Greatest Angler Debate in 2005 because the fans apparently valued his four Classic championships higher than Martin's nine AOY titles. That's interesting, but hardly defensible. The Classic is a launching pad for a career, but it's not nearly as prestigious nor as big an accomplishment as AOY.

(4) Larry Nixon

Larry Nixon was money! He dominated the Megabucks format, where anglers had little opportunity to practice and finding fish in a hurry was critical. He was the first pro to earn $1 million in tournament prize money. He won a Classic and two AOYs and finished in the top five in AOY standings a remarkable 15 times. If his career hadn't overlapped so much with Roland Martin and Hank Parker, those numbers would be even better.

(5) Bill Dance

Bass fishing's first superstar set the bar very high. The three-time AOY won an astounding 9 percent of the tournaments he entered. Only VanDam is close to that record. Unfortunately for Dance and his legacy, there was little money to be made in tournament fishing in the early days, and television pulled him away before he was 40. Nevertheless, he won seven out of 78 tournaments, qualified for eight Classics and very nearly won one.

(6) Denny Brauer

With 16 wins, an AOY title and a Classic championship, Brauer is on the short list of all-time greats, and he's not nearly done. On any given day, he's still among the best in the world. And although he's qualified for 20 Classics, his swing-for-the-fences approach has cost him several appearances on the sport's biggest stage. While Brauer's tournament credentials are impressive, his ability to teach through his books and television efforts are just as strong.

(7) Hank Parker

Parker was one of the great competitors the sport has ever seen. His drive, determination and win-at-all-costs attitude are legendary. Had he not retired at the age of 38, there's no telling how high he might rank. Even so, he won an AOY title, two Classics and qualified to fish the championship every year he competed as a pro. Parker was KVD before KVD came along.

(8) Mark Davis

The first angler to win AOY and the Classic in the same season (KVD has done it, too), Davis had one of the all-time great years in 1995. Since then, he's added two more AOY titles and cemented his place in angling history. Only Roland Martin and VanDam have more AOYs.

(9) Gary Klein

Too many people think of Gary Klein as the guy who has qualified for 29 Classics without ever winning one. They should think of him as a two-time AOY, an eight-time BASS winner and the guy who's eventually going to break Clunn's record for most Classic appearances. He's also the first true career bass pro and a real credit to the sport.

(10) Michael Iaconelli

Ike and Reese are pretty much a tossup for the last spot in the top 10. Although they both have one AOY title and one Classic championship, the 10th spot belongs to Iaconelli for a couple of reasons. First, Ike's won a Federation Nation championship to go along with his other titles. It's not a big difference, but it makes Ike the only angler ever to achieve that triple crown. That has to be worth something, even if the FNC isn't a professional event. Second, Iaconelli has been more influential than Reese. His book, television program and antics on and off the water have given him a platform and notoriety that he's (mostly) used to benefit the world of bass fishing. Love him or hate him, Ike's polarizing persona is probably good for the sport. He's also a few years younger than Reese, so he may have more time to add to his résumé.

(11) Skeet Reese

Before he hangs it up, Reese is a fair bet to move into the ranks of the 10 greatest bass anglers of all time; but it's no certainty. He's young enough (41) to make several more runs at AOY titles and Classic championships, and that's a big part of what it takes to move up. His six career tournament victories are impressive, but they only put him in a three-way tie (with Paul Elias and Mike McClelland) for 13th on the all-time list. The fact that he has both a Classic championship and an AOY title is impressive, but 11 other anglers can make the same claim. He needs multiple titles or to stay competitive at the highest level for another decade before he can move up.

Several things hurt Reese's chances to get into the top 10: (1) Iaconelli is younger than Reese and still competing at a high level. He'll be hard to pass. (2) Davis is only a few years older than Reese, and his three AOYs are going to be tough to catch. (3) Klein, though more than a decade older than Reese, is just a Classic win away from moving up several spots. (4) Finally, Parker is a Classic victory ahead of Reese.

By far the biggest thorn in Reese's side is VanDam. It's tough to win Classics and AOYs when the greatest of all time is your contemporary. It invites a comparison to another sport in another century, when two baseball players were locked in a public debate over who was the better hitter.

Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson were the best of their era. It seemed that every year they squared off for the batting title. Cobb won it 11 times. Jackson never won. Even when Jackson hit over .400 (.408 in 1911), Cobb was better (.420). One year Jackson was leading Cobb going into the last game of the season, and, as luck would have it, their teams were playing each other. Cobb got into Jackson's head that day by snubbing him while the teams were taking batting practice. The two were fellow Southerners and usually spoke before games. Jackson went hitless while Cobb had a big day and won another batting title.

In 2010, Reese had the equivalent of a .400 season, but VanDam came through with a couple of five-hit games late in the year to pass him ... again.

Reese is certainly one of the all-time greats — a first-ballot hall of famer — but right now he's on the outside of the top 10 looking in.