Three tournaments into the Bassmaster Elite Series, the race for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award is now well underway. Leading the pack is 2008 Bassmaster Classic champ Alton Jones, but not far behind are some of the usual suspects: Gary Klein, Skeet Reese, Todd Faircloth and, of course, Kevin VanDam.
As the Elites move on to Smith Mountain Lake, Va., next week and Lake Guntersville, Ala., next month, it's a good time to take stock of the race and speculate as to just who might be in the driver's seat going into the stretch run.
Alton Jones is obviously looking good. He's fished every day but one this season (barely missing the final cut at Lake Wheeler) and deeply wants an Angler of the Year award to go along with his Classic title. It would cement his position as one of the greats in the sport and give him the only major title he's missing.
Can he do it?
Of course he can, but he's got some hurdles. First of all, he was dismal the last time the Elites came to Smith Mountain Lake, finishing 94th. So he'll have to improve on that finish dramatically. The better news for Jones is that he's very strong at the next stop Guntersville finishing 8th in 2007 and 2nd in 2006.
Another thing Jones has on his side is experience. He's been in the heat of the AOY race before, finishing second in 2003 with three other Top 10 finishes to his credit. He's not going to wilt under the glare of the prize.
And what about the anglers trying to keep up with Jones? They're pretty good, too.
Stephen Browning leads the way, and some think this will be his breakout year. If so, he'll have to post a better performance at Guntersville than he has in recent years. He was 16th at Smith Mountain two years ago, and, if he can repeat that performance, he'll be looking good headed to Guntersville.
Browning's best performance in the AOY race was 14th in 1999, so he's not accustomed to the pressures of fishing's most prestigious title. If there's really no substitute for having been there, it'll be interesting to see how Browning holds up.
In third place is Kentucky's Mark Menendez, winner of the Elite event on Lake Dardanelle. His switching to an aluminum boat for that tournament is a testament to just how far he's willing to go to win, but he's had even less time in the AOY spotlight than Browning. Menendez has never placed in the Top 25 in the AOY race. The last time an angler who had never been in the Top 25 jumped up to win the title was in 2000 when Tim Horton won as a rookie. The only other time it ever happened was in 1992 when Kevin VanDam won when he was essentially a rookie.
Two-time AOY Gary Klein is in fourth place, and he's a tough guy to bet against. He was 20th at Smith Mountain in 2007 and has been mediocre at Guntersville over the years, but he definitely knows about the pressure of challenging for AOY honors. In addition to his AOY titles in 1989 and 1993, Klein has finished in the Top 10 on seven other occasions. He's likely to be right in the thick of things all year long.
Fifth place belongs to perennial AOY contender and four-time AOY winner Kevin VanDam. He was leading this year's race before a disappointing finish at Wheeler, and he's also the defending AOY. He'd love to join Roland Martin and Guido Hibdon as the only anglers to win AOY back-to-back.
How does VanDam fare at Smith Mountain? Well, he was 39th in 2007, so he'll need to improve on that. The good news for KVD fans is that he's absolutely invincible on Guntersville. He won the 2007 Elite event there and finished fourth in 2006. If he has a good tournament at Smith Mountain, it would be tough to bet against his taking the lead after Guntersville.
In sixth and seventh are two anglers who figure to be in the mix for at least the next two tournaments. Mark Tucker had middling success on Smith Mountain in 2007, but he's consistently solid at Guntersville. Skeet Reese is just the opposite strong on Smith Mountain but mediocre at Guntersville. Don't expect either of them to drop out of the Top 10 after the next couple of tournaments.
And the rest of the field? They're still in it, too, but they'd better get their acts in gear if they want to catch the likes of Alton Jones, Gary Klein, Kevin VanDam and Skeet Reese. There are just five more tournaments before the "postseason" begins.
How the Postseason Will Work
After the eight "regular season" tournaments, the Top 12 anglers in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race will be invited to fish in two postseason events. These postseason events, which should conclude in September, will determine the Angler of the Year.
This is the first time that BASS has held such postseason events to determine Angler of the Year. To make the race even more exciting and add more drama to the mix, the Top 12 will have their AOY points adjusted going into these two tournaments and the two postseason events will have special scoring systems to ensure that each of the Top 12 anglers will have a fighting chance to take home Angler of the Year honors.
Click here to view the 2009 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings.