The final stop of the 6-event NPFL season came to a close at Grand Lake with Taylor Watkins taking the crown, but the Progressive Angler of the Year Title was the one that came down to the final minutes in Grove, Oklahoma. When the dust settled on the final weigh-in, Keith Carson took the golden AOY trophy back to Florida, capping off a stellar season that included his first NPFL win at Wright Patman Lake in Texas.
Edging second place angler Brandon Perkins by one point, Carson averaged an 11.17 place finish for the season through six events, cashed a check at every event throughout the season, and his worst finish was 29th at Pickwick Lake where some on the water trouble led to being 6-minutes late to check in, costing him almost 10-places in the standings and $1000 in earnings. In the end, it didn’t matter, as Carson solidified his season by qualifying for the No-Entry Fee Championship at Nickajack Lake in November, and proving to himself that competing at the highest level was something he could do.
“I am a big believer of coming up through the ranks. I fished when I was a teen, then went to ABAs and BFLs, then fished Costas and B.A.S.S. Opens. I had success at every level. When you are able to do well locally and regionally, it’s a good time to fish nationally and it not only solidifies the fact that I can do it for myself, it’s a huge confidence builder. Making decisions on the fly was something I had to trust in myself, and not second guessing anything. The way the weather and the wind change during multi day events, you have to change and adapt every day. Doing it with faith and trust is different than doing it reluctantly.”
There are no shortcuts in fishing, and there is no better way to learn than to do so from experience. There were several times throughout the season where Carson made a decision that changed his entire event. One of those times was at Wright Patman Lake in Texarkana, Texas. Carson was able to follow the moving water to stay ahead of moving fish. A lesson he had learned just a week before at Lake Chickamauga told him rather than staying on the same bushes and catching smaller fish, the bigger ones were moving with the water.
“When we got to Wright Patman, we were in falling water conditions and I think it fell like 3-foot throughout practice and the event. The week before I was on the water and it was doing the same thing. As it was falling, I was able to see new spawning fish that I couldn’t see the day before. It didn’t mean I could catch the, but they were out there and I knew what they were doing during the changing water levels. In Texas, I knew where the fish wanted to be and it turned out to be one of those events you just get dialed. I can’t explain it, but some decisions come easy on the fly.”
Another example was a near victory on Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin. Carson was facing a tough practice and made a decision to put the motor down and fish for hours straight.
“When I don’t know what to do and I am struggling with practice, I’ll go to an area that looks good, decent water clarity, good grass, cover, whatever. I dropped my motor on day two of practice and went 7-miles until I figured out a few key areas. I started on those areas the first day and it kept reloading over and over. It was the perfect recipe.”
After boxing a good limit early on day one, a decision to save fish and work back towards the ramp was in order. During the run, Carson noticed a spot with matted grass way back off the channel. It was another decision to explore that mat that led to the day one lead.
“That mat was way back there, and it was not easy to get to. I had to navigate all back through this stuff, shallow water, laydowns to get back there and make one flip.”
The one flip was a 3.2-pound largemouth and that gave him the lead in the event. Having never been to Grand Lake, Carson explored the standings and decided to go and trust what he does. Finishing 16th, it was enough to cash his 6th NPFL check in a row, cashing at every event, and enough to seal the AOY.
I had heard I could have zeroed and still been in the top 25 in points to make the Championship. I didn’t want to do that, but I had pretty much written AOY off and was able to focus on finding fish to cash a check. Brandon Perkins did what he needed on day one catching over 17-pounds, and Carson knew he had to step it up.
“On day two, I knew I had to catch more weight. I ended up with 14-pounds, but so did Perkins. He fell a couple spots on the leaderboard but I made a big jump. On the final day, with the storms and such, I knew it was going to be tough, but I had to keep catching fish. I had planned before the storm hit where I was going to go to tuck out of it. There was a dock close by that I had settled on. When the time came, I made a last second decision to head to a bridge instead. For, whatever reason, it felt right.”
When the storms passed, Carson started fishing around the bridge and caught 3 keepers. In the midst of catching a ton of bass and striped bass, those 3 keepers combined with the one fish caught earlier in the day, was enough to do what was needed to be in the hunt for a solid check in the event and gave him a shot for AOY. The shot was all that was needed. Perkins was dealing with boat troubles and Carsons decision not to fold on the final day got it done.
To end the year in 2nd place AOY is accomplishment. To make 3 top ten finishes. To win an event on the home body of water. To cash a check at every event. Major accomplishments. Brandon Perkins had a season like he had hoped, checking off all the items on his list of goals, and having himself in position to win the AOY crown, on the last day of the last event of the season. Brandon Perkins is humble. He understands when it’s your time, it’s your time, and you won’t understand why.
“I don’t understand how things happen or why, but when I was on that boat, making phone calls, trying to figure out how to get back to weigh in, I went through a lot of different stages. When God says it’s not your time, it’s just not. But, selfishly I’m like when is my time. I don’t understand and I won’t understand it as bad as I wanted it.”
On the final day, Perkins stopped his run back to weigh in. Set off pad, put the boat in neutral. Because of a massive storm that had blown through, the rain was coming down. Perkins stopped to get a helmet on to keep the rain from hitting him in the face. The boat would not go back into gear. The shift actuator had quit, and his hopes of AOY were gone.
As bad as it hurt, when the event began on Grand Lake, there were a few anglers who had a shot to win. Perkins was not looking to play to play it safe. Even on the last day of the event, sitting in the top 5. Perkins had located fish near the ramp, and opted to pass on them to hunt for the winning fish.
“I was not going to win with those fish, and my travel partner asked if I was going to play it safe. I said no. He was scuffling for a check and I told him to run to this dock, in the creek by the ramp. In the first 30-minutes, he caught 13-pounds. I knew I wouldn’t be able to win the tournament there and I went to try to win. If I had played it safe all season, I wouldn’t be where I am, so I went to win.”
Keith Carson had caught enough fish after a spectacular season to finish in 16th place. It was exactly enough to win the AOY by one point. Carson had an average finish of 11.17, while Perkins’s average was 11.33. Super close, one single point.
“I just want Keith to know, he 100% earned the Angler of the Year. He was in that position to be there at the end. I had a good Grand Lake tournament; it just didn’t work out for me. When I went live on my way home, I had shut my phone off for 24-hours or so before that. The response helped give me a better understanding of why that happened to me. I might ask Keith sometime, he can keep the money, but can I borrow that gold trophy for a few weeks a year,” laughed the Counce, Tennessee angler.
Perkins understood that he and everyone else needed to hear the message. Someone reached out after and told him they had been on the fence with the lord. His message helped them get back in line and it also helped to better understand the situation.
“I dumped a lot into this season. I have fished everywhere and I have been beat bad. All the hard lessons came into play this season and helped me. I turned adversity from the past into the good fortune this year. That was a tough moment for me. I cried a lot. I asked why. As much work that goes into it, its stinks and hurts. I am thankful for the messages from everyone,” Perkins said.
“My biggest take away, the NPFL is awesome, its growing and moving upwards. Anyone reading this should know, you can work your butt off for something, and you won’t always get what you want. But this. This has increased my faith in God.”
After beginning the season cashing checks finishing 24th at Eufaula, and 28th at Wright Patman, Bryant Smith rallied for four top 10 finishes in a row to end his season on a high note and in the 3rd place spot in points. With an average finish of just over 12th place, Smith earned a cool $74,000 in earnings, and was the only angler in the top 5 to not take home a win in 2021.
“The biggest thing for me was getting that top 10 at Harris Chain. That gave me the confidence to trust my decisions and not second guess anything. My travel partner, Jake Boomer, and I tried not to get outer influence for any event going in. With him having a good tournament in Florida, and me as well, we just rode that wave all season.”
Decisions are key to success on and off the water. When it comes to crunch time, little decisions can make or break your day or entire season. It was leading up to Winnebago where Smith had to make that call, and it continued a string of dominance that carried him throughout the rest of the season.
“In practice I had fished all four lakes but only had one little creek on the main lake that going in I felt good about getting some bites. I went there on day one and caught my 14-pounds by 9am, and then went practicing. I ran the entire west side and never was able to cull. I then fished a secondary pattern of flipping super shallow and also struck out. I thought I was screwed.”
On day two, the creek that had produced the day before had dried up and Smith had one keeper bite to show for it. While doing research before the event, all signs had told him to avoid the east side of the lake. However, on the final day of practice, Smith sampled a small stretch and shook off seven bites on 10 docks.
“I got some bites, but I had no idea if they were bass, or bluegill, or what. After catching one fish in the little creek, and then striking out on the West side, I had no choice but to fish those docks. I rolled in around 10am caught a good keeper instantly. I fished down that strip for two hours and dialed in where I could get bites. That stretched changed mt whole event and my outlook. Having those fish helped me big time and I am glad I sampled them even though the research told me otherwise.”
Coming into the season, Smith wanted to compete and learn. With how things played out, and the lessons learned, and money earned, the California angler has to thank Jake Boomer for lighting the fire.
“Jake got the seed planted. I had thought about fishing (the NPFL), but he talked me along. I had no expectations coming in but it was a good opportunity and I took the shot. The schedule was tough, and on top, guys who can figure fish out extremely well. To end in 3rd, and make some money, it exceeded my expectations, and I can’t wait for the championship in November!”
Winner of the first ever NPFL event at Lake Eufaula, and winner of stop number three at the Harris Chain of Lakes, John Soukup averaged a 15th place finish for the season and pocketed a cook $138,000 for his efforts.
Setting goals at the beginning of the season, The Bass Tank pro reached and exceeded his expectations. Key decisions along the way and trusting himself at every stop, Soukup was consistently finishing near the top and catching them at every lake all around the country.
“The second half of the year, I made some decisions I wish I didn’t. At Pickwick, I decided to fish for more money, and a higher finish paid more than AOY. Same thing at Grand, I went off away from the where the majority of the fish were and pushed into areas where others were not with hopes of blowing it up. I figured to win AOY, I needed to win Grand while others stumbled. 5-minutes into that event I caught a fish and knew I made the championship.”
Soukup admits he fished differently in the second half of the season, and realized he made a mistake. Learning to fish more conservatively when necessary is on the agenda for 2022, but it’s hard to argue with the two wins and top five in AOY – the season was a success.
“Anyone in the top this year will tell you they fished open minded, and a good example for me was at Grand Lake. A voice in my head kept telling me I wasn’t fishing how I needed to. I finally swapped rods, picked up a whopper plopper, and I caught a 3-pounder on my first cast. At 2pm, I had only 4 fish, on the final day I mind you, my gut told me to run 35 minutes in the wrong direction to fish a dock. I finally decided to go for it. I got there, caught two more keepers and filled my limit. For the most part, I didn’t listen to the voices and it worked out well. I learned to trust it, and not fish with a preconceived notion.”
Looking forward to the Championship, Soukup has never been to Nickajack but does bring some Tennessee River experience with him. Some time on Guntersville in the spring, Kentucky Lake in the fall, and of course Pickwick, its setting up to be interesting and enjoyable.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be fishing for 2nd place. I am not going to study much before, I’m done with that. I am going to gear up with fall ledge gras fishing stuff and use practice to figure it out. With two half days, and 2 full days, I don’t know if I’ll even pick up a rod. I may leave them out of the boat actually and see everything I can see. Ill rely on the gut decisions and the key will be getting bigger bites.”
Grand Lake champion Taylor Watkins saved his best for last after a season of consistency on new lakes. Watkins took the win at Grand Lake and earned a solid $99,000 for his season efforts. Averaging an 18th place finish for the year, Watkins worst finish was 33rd place, but he still cashed a check at every event.
“My original goal was to cash a check at each event, and then on top of that, make the championship. That was the biggest goal. If I was able to make that, the no entry fee, I would have made enough money (by qualifying), and I have a shot to win more to get me to next season.
Watkins didn’t spend too much time thinking about the AOY in general, but after Harris, was sitting in 7th, and a little far back. With half a season left, he fished hard and if not for a missed opportunity at Pickwick, the points race would have been a little tighter.
“I had a bad day one. I made an adjustment late and was able to finish a small limit. On day two I started there and cracked them good in the first 3-hours and then while looking for big fish, my livewells quit, and I had 4 dead fish. That’s a 4-pound penalty. Weighed in 12-pounds and was sitting decent, but should have been in the top 10 with one day left. I did get a check, but some unfortunate mishaps caused me to stumble. It was a salvaged event. I fell to 10th in AOY.”
At Winnebago, more unfortunate things caused Watkins his worst event of the season. Finishing in 33rd place, his practice revealed a stellar offshore bite, but unfavorable weather during the event killed all hopes of moving up in the AOY standings. Another event viewed as a survival event.
“Going into Grand, I was still in 10th place and knew I survived. I just needed to catch a few fish to make the championship. I literally put my head down and swung for the fence, not technically, but I went looking for bigger fish regardless. I had no spinning rods, and was able to uncover a dock pattern that revealed some larger fish. “
The move paid off as Watkins was able to seal the victory with a big bag on the final day. With a guaranteed spot in the championship, Watkins played the weather changing game and was able to execute where others were not. A win is huge, but there is still unfinished business.
“I never said this all season, but I still have another goal. I want to win the championship. Nobody ever forgets who wins the championship, especially the first one. I didn’t know where it was going to be, but regardless, it’s no pressure, still getting paid no matter what, I can go out, relax, and fish free. That’s when I am at my best. To top it all off, it’s on a place where I have countless hours on the river in the fall – I cannot wait.”
See the final Progressive Angler of the Year results, at thenationalprofessionalfishingleague.com/aoy-standings/