BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Half-way through the season, the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race is shaping up to be one of the closest and most competitive in the 50 years since Bill Dance won B.A.S.S.’s first AOY title in 1970.
With five Bassmaster Elite Series events under their belts and five more to go, young-gun professional anglers led by 24-year-old Patrick Walters have moved to the head of the pack of Elite anglers battling for one of the most coveted trophies in all of bass fishing — and the $100,000 first-place prize that goes with it.
Walters leads with 432 points, which are awarded based on anglers’ finishes in each Elite tournament. That gives him a tiny, 6-point margin over Drew Cook, 25, of Midway, Fla., and Stetson Blaylock, 31, of Benton, Ark., who have 426 points each. Blaylock is a third-year Elite Series pro, but Walters and Cook are rookies who began their careers as college bass fishing standouts and qualified for the Elites through the Basspro.com Bassmaster Opens last year.
“It’s tremendously gratifying to see that our Carhartt Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops and other college tours are turning out such outstanding young professional anglers,” said Bruce Akin, B.A.S.S. CEO. “Patrick and the other college anglers have proved in short order that they are able to compete at the highest level of bass fishing competition.”
Out of 15 college-fishing alumni who are now competing in the Elite Series, five rank among the Top 12 in the AOY rankings. In addition to Walters and Cook, Brandon Cobb of Greenwood, S.C., is seventh, Shane LeHew of Catawba, N.C., is eighth, and veteran Elite angler Brandon Card is 11th.
“College fishing didn’t make my career, but it certainly propelled it,” said Walters, who won a college national championship title while fishing for the University of South Carolina bass fishing team. “I learned how to travel and practice and fish different lakes. And I got an education at the same time.”
Walters, whose best finishes this year were fourth at the St. Johns River, Fla., and seventh at Winyah Bay, S.C., is most optimistic about the next stop on the Elite circuit, the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite at Lake Guntersville at Scottsboro, Ala. Competition will be Friday through Monday, June 21-24.
“I love Guntersville,” Walters said. “I love all the Tennessee River lakes.”
The South Carolina pro said he is not changing strategies with Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year in mind, and he’s not worried about the very capable Elite anglers just below him in the standings.
“In every tournament, I’m shooting for the win,” he said. “I try not to look in the rear view. I’m in the lead now, which is good, but I have a small margin and will have to catch as many big bass as possible.”
After Guntersville, the 75 Elite anglers head north to Waddington, N.Y., for the Berkley Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River Aug. 15-18, and then to Union Springs, N.Y., for the SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at Cayuga Lake Aug. 22-25. They’ll gather at Tahlequah, Okla., for the final regular-season event, the Cherokee Casino Tahlequah Bassmaster Elite at Fort Gibson Lake Sept. 19-22. That tournament was originally scheduled for mid-May but had to be postponed because of severe flooding in Oklahoma.
The postseason finale, the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship, will be held Saturday-Tuesday, Sept. 28-Oct. 1, on Lake St. Clair, near Detroit, Mich. The Top 50 in AOY points will qualify for the championship, where they will compete for $1 million in prize money as well as berths in the 2020 Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.
The New York and Michigan tournaments should give pause to Walters and the other front runners because those fisheries are so familiar to some of their closest rivals. Newcomer Cory Johnston of Cavan, Canada, is fourth in the AOY standings, just 10 points behind Walters, and Johnston’s younger brother Chris of Peterborough, Canada, is 43 points down, in 10th with 389 points. With 100 points awarded for first place in each event, those deficits will be relatively easy to make up should the leaders stumble.
Others to watch include Scott Canterbury of Odenville, Ala., fifth with 412 points and fifth-year pro Micah Frazier of Newnan, Ga., sixth with 409. Other veteran Elite anglers in the running include Bill Lowen of Brookville, Ind., ninth with 395; Card of Knoxville, Tenn., 11th with 389; and Seth Feider of New Market, Minn., 12th with 383 points.
“All season, we’ve been emphasizing the tagline, ‘Big Bass. Big Stage. Big Dreams.’ to describe the Elite Series,” said Akin. “Maybe we should add the phrase, ‘Big Drama.’ This is going to be an exciting race to the finish.”
Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Standings At Midseason
1. Patrick Walters, Summerville, S.C. 432
2. Drew Cook, Midway, Fla. 426
3. Stetson Blaylock, Benton, Ark. 426
4. Cory Johnston, Cavan, Canada 422
5. Scott Canterbury, Odenville, Ala. 412
6. Micah Frazier, Newnan, Ga. 409
7. Brandon Cobb, Greenwood, S.C. 408
8. Shane LeHew, Catawba, N.C. 397
9. Bill Lowen, Brookville, Ind. 395
10. Chris Johnston, Peterborough, Canada 389
11. Brandon Card, Knoxville, Tenn. 389
12. Seth Feider, New Market, Minn. 383
13. Cliff Pirch, Payson, Ariz. 383
14. Drew Benton, Panama City, Fla. 381
15. John Crews Jr., Salem, Va. 381
16. Luke Palmer, Coalgate, Okla. 379
17. Mark Menendez, Paducah, Ky. 377
18. Matt Herren, Ashville, Ala. 375
19. Clent Davis, Montevallo, Ala. 374
20. Brandon Lester, Fayetteville, Tenn. 368
21. Lee Livesay, Longview, Texas 367
22. Chris Zaldain, Fort Worth, Texas 364
23. Matt Arey, Shelby, N.C. 359
24. Jamie Hartman, Russellville, Ark. 349
25. Hank Cherry, Lincolnton, N.C. 347
26. Keith Combs, Huntington, Texas 347
(NOTE: Ties are broken based on each angler’s heaviest daily limit during full-field days of competition.)