Elite prospects run deep

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James Overstreet
Austin Felix sits in 12th place after Day 1 on Oneida.

SYRACUSE, N.Y.— Grae Buck is leading at Oneida Lake after Thursday’s competition at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open. That is the headline news for the leaderboard. Meanwhile, another scoreboard is about to light up.

That board is the angler of the year rankings, which determines the five anglers to receive invitations for the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series. Five anglers will receive invitations, and they will have until a deadline date, soon to be determined, to decide if they want to make the big move.

On Saturday, the scoreboard becomes fluid as invitations are accepted or declined, and the candidate list moves downward until the invites are filled. This year it could take going way deeper to lock in those invites, and here is why.

Among the top anglers, the following are current FLW Tour pros. John Cox (leader), Bryan Schmitt (third), Austin Felix (fifth) and Buddy Gross (sixth). Keep in mind this list was compiled going into Thursday morning before the competition began.

Rumors are swirling about the future of FLW. That certainly will give those anglers incentive to make the move to B.A.S.S. For the FLW loyalists like Cox, they will be doing some hard thinking about what to do next.

Elsewhere on the list are two current Elite Series anglers. Brandon Lester is fourth place in the rankings and is already qualified due to his great season. His spot will be opened up to another Eastern Opens angler. The same applies for seventh-place ranked angler Patrick Walters.

With exception of the FLW anglers, the current prospects include Destin DeMarion (second), Craig Chambers (eighth), and Whitney Stephens (10th).

Should they say yes to the invite, the window of opportunity for making pitches to potential sponsors will be narrow. Normally, that deadline is in early November, leaving them about eight weeks to seal the deals. That’s not much time. In previous cases, the anglers in their position already were prospecting for sponsors ahead of the deadline. Previous strong seasons, or near misses in qualifying, beefed up their resumes when pitching their credibility to sponsors.

That gives even more incentives to the likes of Cox and his FLW peers to make the move. Those anglers, and especially Cox, already have a strong stable of sponsors.

Demarion, of Grove City, Pa., is the veteran of the prospect list, having competed in each Opens season since 2011. He’s not fished a Championship Saturday and has a 13th place season-high finish in May at Lake Chickamauga.

Chambers, of Charlotte, N.C., has two full seasons beginning in 2018. His highest finish is this season at the James River, where he claimed eighth place.

Stephens is playing off the strength of his win at the first event of the season at the Harris Chain of Lakes. His other win came in 2015 at Lake Erie, under the win-and-in format that gave a Bassmaster Classic berth to a tournament winner, should he fish all events within a division. Stephens fished the 2016 Classic.

On the flip side, opportunity awaits on Oneida Lake for nervous Elite Series anglers on the bubble of qualifying for the 2020 Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.

Why are they watching this AOY list?

Because already two anglers have made the cutoff list move from 40th to 42nd place in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year rankings. That happened after two Opens winners did not enter all four required divisional events to qualify for the Classic. Those anglers are Devin Teigen and Michael Iaconelli. The Elite Series bubble anglers have two remaining chances to extend the cut from the Opens two more spots. Those chances are here and next week at Fort Gibson Lake in Oklahoma.

Next week, a similar scenario will pan out. If there was an overall Opens angler of the year, that title would hands-down go to Cox, who leads the rankings in both the Eastern and Central divisions. Second-place angler Wes Logan is an FLW Tour pro, although it’s unknown if he would make the switch. Logan has fished just six Opens, and two of those produced Championship Saturday finishes this season. Kaleb Kuphall has a win at Smith Lake and top 20 finishes at the other two events.

Most notable on the Central prospects list is Taku Ito, one of nine Japanese anglers fishing the division. Ito ranks fourth in the AOY rankings and has only competed in three Opens events. Ito is one of Japan’s top anglers and has a job in the high-profile tackle industry there. Sponsors are interested in seeing the 32-year-old aspiring pro realize his dream as the next Japanese angler to fish the Elite Series.

Stay tuned, the next two weeks should be fun to watch on both sides of the AOY races.