Thrills and heartbreaks were center stage on Championship Sunday at the 2015 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) Championship at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Titles were earned, goals became reality and dreams turned to dust at the final Bassmaster Elite Series event of the year.
Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., was crowned 2015 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year and Brent Ehrler of Newport Beach, Calif., wrapped up a very dominant freshman year on the Elite Series and was named Rookie of the Year.
Martens collected $100,000 for winning Angler of the Year. Justin Lucas finished second and earned $55,000, while Dean Rojas, third in points, earned $45,000.
Heartbreak is a big part of this sport, but it is especially pertinent at the AOY Championship. Out of the Top 50, only the Top 40 would earn a berth into the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro on Oklahoma’s famed Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.
Following Thursday’s weigh-in, the Top 24 anglers locked in their positions to fish in the Classic next March, but the Classic cutoff is 40th place, meaning 10 anglers would return home disappointed.
“You just can’t have two or three bad tournaments during the season and expect to appear in the Bassmaster Classic,” said Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala. “I didn’t catch the fish I needed in Sturgeon Bay to earn my spot. I have nobody to blame but myself. It’s easy to look back through the season and recognize mistakes and bad decisions that put me where I was. In fact, I lost quite a few big fish at Lake Havasu because I was in a hurry and tried to force the issue a few too many times.”
Swindle said that the fish he lost on Havasu cost him a likely Top 50 finish in that event that would have earned him the necessary points to remain above the Top 40 Bassmaster Classic cut. He finished in 43rd.
“I learned a lot — the smallies taught me a lesson again. I love Sturgeon Bay, and I’m definitely coming back next spring to even the score,” he said.
Also missing the cut by just a few points were Mark Menendez of Paducah, Ky., in 41st place, Jonathon VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., in 42nd, and Scott Rook of Little Rock, Ark., finished in 44th.
Other anglers benefited from their performance on Sturgeon Bay to move above the proverbial bubble and earn the right to competein the Classic next March.
Brandon Lester of Fayetteville, Tenn., agreed that he’d like a couple do-overs. “I had a great early part of the season, but I think that was mostly because of where we were fishing. I knew those waters and I made good decisions based on my experience and confidence. But, I’ve got a lot to learn about these smallmouth bass.”
Lester was excited to learn that he will be fishing in his second Bassmaster Classic after claiming the 37th spot in AOY points, just three positions beyond the cutoff.
“I’m thankful I caught the right fish at this event,” he said. “Not fishing at the biggest show in bass fishing would have hurt.”
Other anglers who were fighting to make the cut and fished well enough to qualify for the Classic were Billy McCaghren of Mayflower, Ark., in 40th, Michael Iaconelli from Pittsgrove, N.J., in 39th, Brandon Card of Caryville, Tenn., in 38th; and Mark Davis of Mount Ida, Ark., in 36th.
Since the AOY Championship was all about points and a share of the $1 million payout for standings in the AOY rankings, the event did not declare a winner. However, Chris Zaldain of San Jose, Calif., earned 100 points for weighing the heaviest 15 smallmouth bass — a catch of 53 pounds, 4 ounces — of the three days of competition. He climbed to sixth with 616 points, boosting his paycheck for his season’s performance to $30,000.
“All of the bass I caught this week came from a reef littered with large boulders that sat in about 14 to 16 feet of water,” explained Zaldain. “I felt that the fish were kind of spooky, so it was imperative to make long casts with a subtle presentation. I used a small 1/4-ounce round-head jig dressed with a small 3-inch swimbait called a Megabass Spark Shad in an albino pattern.”
Zaldain targeted bass that were feeding on suspended schools of alewives. He claimed the smallmouth were suspended two to three feet beneath the baitfish. “I knew that once I located baitfish and bass on my depthfinder, my next three casts were critical. That approach paid off numerous time throughout the week.”
His primary location was discovered in practice and it produced most of his fish on Thursday and Friday of the tournament. A big weather change and stronger winds on Championship Sunday had the fish few and far between, and he moved to his backup spot where he managed to catch five keeper bass with a Megabass jerkbait.
The 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic will take place March 4-6 on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.
Here are the top 40 pros that made the cut.
Place Angler Hometown Points 1 Aaron Martens Leeds, AL 775 2 Justin Lucas Guntersville, AL 663 3 Dean Rojas LakeHavasuCity, AZ 653 4 Edwin Evers Talala, OK 651 5 Jacob Powroznik PortHaywood, VA 638 6 Chris Zaldain SanJose, CA 616 7 Brent Ehrler Newport Beach CA 614 8 Greg Hackney Gonzales, LA 602 9 Jordan Lee Vinemont, AL 595 10 Brandon Palaniuk Rathdrum, ID 593 11 Matt Herren Ashville, AL 592 12 Skeet Reese Auburn, CA 590 13 Jason Christie Park Hill OK 583 14 Keith Combs Huntington, TX 581 15 Bill Lowen Brookville, IN 581 16 Alton Jones Lorena, TX 581 17 Greg Vinson Wetumpka, AL 581 18 Bernie Schultz Gainesville, FL 579 19 Chris Lane Guntersville, AL 573 20 Clifford Pirch Payson, AZ 568 21 Bobby Lane Lakeland, FL 561 22 John Crews Salem, VA 561 23 David Walker Sevierville, TN 550 24 Kevin VanDam Kalamazoo, MI 537 25 Randy Howell Springville, AL 536 26 James Elam Tulsa, OK 519 27 Chad Pipkens Holt, MI 511 28 Micah Frazier Newnan, GA 509 29 Russ Lane Prattville, AL 495 30 Ott DeFoe Knoxville, TN 494 31 Brett Hite Phoenix, AZ 493 32 Todd Faircloth Jasper, TX 492 33 Boyd Duckett Guntersville, AL 489 34 Josh Bertrand Gilbert, AZ 488 35 Marty Robinson Lyman, SC 485 36 Mark Davis MountIda, AR 479 37 Brandon Lester Fayetteville, TN 478 38 Brandon Card Caryville, TN 477 39 Michael Iaconelli PittsGrove, NJ 476 40 Billy McCaghren Mayflower, AR 475
Bonuses and Contingency Awards.
- The $1,000 award for the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points leader will go to Aaron Martens.
- The Power-Pole Captain’s Cash will award $1,000 to David Walker.
- The Evan Williams Bourbon Heavyweight Award of $1,000 for the angler with the heaviest five-fish limit during the tournament goes to Greg Hackney for his 21-7 bag on Day 1.
- The Livingston Lures Leader Award of $500 for the angler leading on Day 2 goes to Hackney.
- The Bass Pro Shops Big Bass award of $1,500 for the heaviest bass weighed goes to Brandon Coulter for his 5-4 bass weighed in on Friday.
- The Toyota Bonus Bucks award of $3,000 for the highest placing eligible angler goes to Walker. The second highest placing angler, Alton Jones, is awarded $2,000.
- The A.R.E. Truck Caps Top Angler Award of $1,000 will be awarded to Jones for being the highest placing angler using A.R.E. products.
- The Rigid Industries Big Fish Light Jackpot will rollover to the next event with a total of $1,500. An angler must weigh in the heaviest five-fish limit of more than 25 pounds.
- The HUK Biggest Jump Award of $1,000 for the angler who made the largest jump in standings from Day 1 was awarded to Chris Lane.
- The Dick Cepek Tires Rolling Forward award for most placed climbed in AOY between Chesapeake Bay and Lake St. Clair will be finalized and awarded next week.