CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. – For decades, the ultimate sign that a professional angler had “made it” was to receive a nickname from SportsCenter host Chris Berman. This week at the Bassmaster Elite at Santee Cooper Lakes, brought to you by the United States Marine Corps, two-thirds of the way through his rookie season on tour, Minnesota pro Austin Felix earned angling’s equivalent of that honor when Dave Mercer nicknamed him “The Sleepy Assassin.”
It may not yet evoke the same long-lasting emotions as Oddibe “Young Again” McDowell, Andre “Bad Moon” Rison, or Bobby “Bad to the” the Bonilla, but it’s a step in the right direction.
It might not even be as creative as some past Mercer hits like “Zaldaingerous” or “The Prodigy” or even the absolutely inspired “Golden Ram,” but it’s a sign of respect and of expected staying power.
“I don’t know if he likes the nickname,” Mercer admitted. “But I think it’s perfect for a guy with pajamas on the side of his boat. Giving someone a nickname gives fans a reason to cheer for them other than just their zip code.”
After a strong Northern Swing and a just-inside-the-cut finish at Guntersville, Felix found himself in 14th place in the Angler of the Year standings, well inside the Classic field, but as far as he could tell unlikely to challenge Taku Ito for the Rookie of the Year title. That’s now changed. Ito tapped out early at Santee with a 64th place finish and Felix’s solid performance has seen him go from 3rd after Day One, to sixth yesterday and back up to the runner-up position today. Felix's Saturday’s limit weighed 17 pounds, 2 ounces, and pushed his three-day total to 49-13, less than a pound behind leader Carl Jocumsen and six ounces ahead of Brandon Palaniuk, who led the tournament yesterday. Now Felix is the lead dog in the ROY title.
“I didn’t think Taku was going to slip at all the rest of the year,” he said after weighing in. “Rookie of the year was a goal, right below making sure that I make the Classic, and it’s an important title because you only get one shot at it in your career.” He’ll likely fight both Ito and Kyle Welcher down to the wire, and he expects nothing less than a challenge. “I survived Taku’s smallmouth beatdown. Now I need to survive Kyle’s largemouth beatdown at Chickamauga and Lake Fork.”
With one day left at Santee Cooper, Felix and Destin DeMarion are the only two rookies who are still fishing, and therefore able to gain or lose AOY and ROY points. This is the first Day Four Elite Series appearance for both of them, and you have to get this far to have a legitimate chance to win. So far, Felix believes that his greatest strength – consistency – might also have been an albatross around his neck with regard to claiming a blue Elite Series trophy.
“I’ve always made a point of trying to get as many points as I can,” he said. “Sometimes that means laying off fish to move forward as opposed to putting my foot on their throat.”
Despite his occasionally vanilla routine on stage, there is a slightly eccentric side to Felix. As noted by Mercer, the rookie wears pajama pants in the boat, and has them memorialized on his wrap. Felix said there’s a solid explanation for that sartorial preference. They’re warm under his rain bibs and easy to slip off when he wants to change into shorts.
Less obvious is his extreme affection for Harry Potter audiobooks. He said that he’s listened to the complete set at least a dozen times – “At least once or twice a year” – and uses them to clear his head on the way to the ramp in the morning. “If I listen to the radio, I get headaches,” he said. Just as his boat wrap has an ode to pajamas, so too does it feature a reference to J.K. Rowling’s popular book series: A Golden Snitch. For those fishing fans not aware of what that is, a Golden Snitch is the third and smallest ball used in the game of Quidditch. Felix did not know what sort of actions an angler would have to take to be nicknamed the “Golden Snitch,” but its connotations likely make “Sleepy Assassin” seem as heroic as “Hammerin’ Hank” or “The Sultan of Swat.”
On the road, Felix travels and rooms with three Louisianans: Brett Preuett, Quentin Cappo and Tyler Carriere, making him – geographically, at least – the odd man out. He met Preuett through collegiate fishing competition and the two immediately bonded. When Felix joined the Elites it seemed only natural that he would join their traveling party and laissez bon temps rouler.
“He’s a great guy,” Preuett said. “If there’s anything anyone ever needs --- bait, tackle, anything – he’s always there to give it. I was glad to see him make the Elite Series, but I still haven’t seen him get all that excited. He’s just super-mellow.”
The foursome has one consistent bet: The angler who finishes highest at any given tournament has to buy steaks for the group. So far, Preuett reported, Felix has “had to do it every time.” That seems to be a trade-off he’s willing to make, and no doubt he’ll do it quietly, in a workmanlike fashion. Felix may seem sleepy but apparently he consistently wakes up ready to get down to business.
Now, however, the cat is out of the bag, or the snitch is in the air – whatever analogy you want to use – and the days of silently sneaking up on the competition are over.