The year of Yelas - Major League Fishing

The year of Yelas

Career balance, swimbaits and last-minute heroics bring Jay Yelas his second FLW Angler of the Year title
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Jay Yelas accepts his 2007 Wal-Mart FLW Tour Land O Lakes Angler of the Year trophy, his second FLW Tour AOY title. Photo by Jennifer Simmons.
July 31, 2007 • Rob Newell • Archives

Three weeks ago at the Detroit River event on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, the 2007 Land O’Lakes Angler of the Year title came down to a fish-by-fish race between two former AOY winners: Jay Yelas and Shin Fukae.

What’s interesting about these two particular pros, who were both vying for their second Angler of the Year title, is that they represent two very different approaches to full-time professional fishing.

There is Fukae, who commits nearly every fiber of his being and every waking minute of his existence to catching bass. His tenacious dedication to each tournament is on par with Lance Armstrong training for a Tour de France.

The Japanese pro leaves one tournament and heads straight to another, often practicing for weeks for each event. Other than his wife, Miyuki, who travels with him, he has no family or home to visit, though his mailing address is technically in Texas. Fukae is focused only on the next tournament.

Then there is Yelas, a 20-year accomplished veteran of the bass wars. Jay Yelas has learned to strike a balance between his quest for bass and other rewarding things in life like family, church, coaching softball and salmon fishing.When Yelas is not at a tournament, he is spending time with his family, spending time at his church, coaching his daughter’s softball team, fulfilling a myriad of sponsor obligations, salmon fishing and, as of late, moving his family across the country from Texas to Oregon.

And while it would have seemed logical to bet on Fukae going into the fish-by-fish duel at Detroit for Angler of the Year honors, it was Yelas who ended up on top with a season-ending total of 1,074 points, edging Fukae by 20 points, or the equivalent of about 3 pounds of bass at any event this year.

“It’s kind of a relief to know that a guy like me can still win a title like this out here,” said Yelas, just days after taking his second FLW Tour title. “It’s so ultracompetitive out here now. The bar has been raised so high. Guys like Shin treat each tournament like an Olympic event. Their discipline and dedication to catching bass is immeasurable.”

And Shin Fukae is not the only one. The FLW Tour is full of young, talented fishermen looking to make it as full-time pros. What these hard chargers lack in experience, they make up for with desire and time on the water.

The only time Yelas works at finding bass these days is when he is on the water at a tournament.Last year’s Land O’Lakes Angler of the Year, Folgers pro Anthony Gagliardi, is a perfect example of the young, hungry anglers who direct nearly 100 percent of their resources and faculties to tournament performance.

The fact that these dedicated young guns are always snapping at the heels of the veterans makes Yelas’ 2007 crown all the more impressive.

“Honestly, the only time I work at bass fishing is when I’m at a tournament,” Yelas said. “When I go home in between tournaments, catching a bass is the furthest thing from my mind.

“I know a lot of these guys out here will fish tournaments for weeks in a row, and the first thing they do when the get home is go fishing or go out in their garage and start tying jigs or painting crankbaits for the next event – I can assure you that’s not me,” Yelas laughed. “I throw all my stuff into the garage, close it up and don’t look at it again until I have to leave for another tournament.”

Yelas is quick to point out that this is not about a love loss for fishing, but rather just where he is in his career is right now.

“Don’t get me wrong: In my younger days, I was a bass bum too. I was completely consumed Yelas was leading the Angler of the Year race after the Potomac River. Instead of working on tackle for the Detroit River event he spent two weeks watching the College World Series of Baseball and moving his family to bass fishing, and that’s all I did for weeks on end. But once you start a family, things change; there are new priorities, responsibilities, commitments and obligations. You realize there’s more to life than catching bass – I think it’s just a natural maturation process.”

Ironically, Yelas contends that striking a balance between fishing and other aspects of his life was critical to his fishing comfort level this year.

“Balance is the key for longevity in this sport,” Yelas offered. “If I maintained the pace I did when I was in my 20s, I’d be burned out by now. Staying motivated in this sport can be a problem after so many years, and the secret to motivation for me is balance.

“Going home for a week or two, completely forgetting about bass fishing, and spending time with my family and experiencing other things in life refreshes me. When I head out for my next event, I’m hungry to fish again. I can’t wait to get to the lake and get out there – it definitely keeps me fired up.”

A perfect example of this happened recently between the Potomac River and Detroit River events when Yelas moved his family from east Texas to Oregon.

“I was leading the FLW Tour points after the Potomac, and here I was, moving across the country,” he chuckled. “At first I thought it might be a major distraction, but then I realized that’s exactly what I needed. Instead of sitting around obsessing over how I was going to fish at Detroit for days on end, we had a big moving adventure. I even took some time to go watch my alma mater, Oregon State, win the World Series of college baseball. And it all completely took my mind off fishing. I didn’t event think about catching a bass until I got into my truck to go to Detroit. And when I got there, I was raring to get on the water and figure them out – it was like I had not fished in years.”

Yelas also noted that part of that critical balance this year was the pace of FLW Outdoors events.

“For a couple of years there, I traveled two tours – BASS and FLW – fishing about 18 to 20 events per year, and that just about fried me,” he said. “Between the FLW Tour and the FLW Series, there are about 10 to 12 professional events per year to fish, and that pace fits me perfectly, leaving me time to do other things.”

From 2002 to 2003, Yelas had a run of success that forever solidified him as a legend in professional tournament fishing. He won the Bassmaster Classic in 2002, captured his first FLW Tour Angler of the Year title in 2002 and then turned around to win the BASS Angler of the Year title in 2003.

“That was a great run, but things have been a little quiet since then,” Yelas admitted. “I’ve made top-10 cuts and championships, but there have been no wins, and I feel I’ve kind of slipped away from that upper tier of competitors in the last few years. So winning this title puts me back up there.”

Yelas' Angler of the Year lures: an assortment of swimbaits and Berkley Gulp! plastics.Swimbaits + Gulp! = AOY

As for the fishing end of Yelas’ winning season, he can sum it up in three words: swimbaits and Gulp!

“That was the one-two punch for me all year,” Yelas said. “The swimbaits played a bigger role at Loudon, Norman and Beaver, but drop-shotting Berkley Gulp at Travis and Detroit helped seal the deal.”

Yelas used several swimbaits throughout the year, but one in particular – a 6-inch paddle-tail model that must be Texas-rigged on a weighted hook – was most definitely the driver in his bag.

Interestingly, Yelas has expressly requested that the company’s name who makes the swimbait not be mentioned in print.

“It’s just one of those things I’m trying to keep quiet for just a while longer,” he said. “Plus, I really don’t have an obligation to the company to promote its product. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on their lures, and I still pay full retail for them. If it was a company that sponsored me, it would be different. I’d certainly be more vocal about it.”

In another odd twist, Yelas actually discovered the swimbait while fishing a PAA event on Lake Fork this spring.

“Every Angler of the Year has that one defining moment where his season takes a drastic change for the better,” Yelas said. “Ironically for me, that moment came in a tournament where I was not even acquiring FLW Tour points.

“I was fishing with BASS pro Jimmy Mason in that PAA tournament, and he had just Yelas pulls out a swimbait before day four competition at Beaver Lake.come from the Clear Lake BASS event where they caught all those giant bass on swimbaits. He pulled out this one swimbait and began clobbering big bass on it. Those four hours of watching Jimmy catch those big bass on that swimbait changed my whole season.”

Yelas immediately ordered some of the swimbaits, and at the very next FLW Tour event on Lake Norman, he personally experienced what a swimbait can produce. After using it on and off during the event to make the top 10, Yelas was in ninth place going into the last day. With nothing to lose, he glued the swimbait into his hands and never put it down. He got just five bites that final day, but the limit weighed 16 pounds, 6 ounces, rocketing him into second place.

“From that point on, that swimbait became an extension of myself,” Yelas confirmed. “And here’s the part I really don’t know how to explain: For some reason, I just inherently knew where and when to throw that swimbait. It just felt right in my hands every time I picked it up.

After his runner-up at Norman, he used the swimbait for four days in a row at the Wal-Mart Open on Beaver Lake to finish second on it again.

Yelas readies a swimbait before day one on the Detroit River.“I purposely began looking for water that was suited for it. In practice, instead of pulling up to good-looking water and thinking, Well, what should I throw here? I drove around with that swimbait strapped to the deck saying, `I’m not going to stop and fish until I find water that’s right for the swimbait.’ And I did that for the rest of the year.”

What still puzzles Yelas is whether the swimbait’s effectiveness was real or perceived.

“Did the fish really like a swimbait that much more than other baits?” he questioned. “Or is it all in my head? Did the confidence I exude when I fished with that bait make the difference? That’s one of those mysterious things about fishing I don’t know if we’ll ever understand.”

Yelas points out that by Beaver Lake, a lot of his competitors had the exact swimbait he was using, but no one seemed to score on it like he did the rest of the season.

Although he did not use it at the Potomac – opting for a jig instead – he did pick it back up at the Detroit River.

“I caught some nice ones on it at Detroit,” he said. “And I didn’t hear about anyone else catching fish on it there. So that leads me to believe that it’s not so much the actual lure, but rather the amount of confidence I have in it that gave me the edge this year. It’s been a long time since I’ve had that much confidence in a single lure.”

Yelas’ swimbait kind of blows a hole in the “Theory of Versatility,” which states that an angler needs to be versatile to win a season-long points title.

But as Yelas points out, each time he has won an AOY title, he has been dedicated to one bait for an entire season.

“When I won the BASS Angler of the Year in 2003, that was a spinnerbait year for Yelas had a swimbait epiphany at Lake Norman when he caught over 16 pounds on the soft paddle-tail lure and finished second,” he said. “And then when I won the FLW Tour Angler of the Year in 2002, that was spinning-rod year – I fished light line and finesse plastics that entire season. Then this year it has been the swimbait that dominated my year.”

In Yelas’ reflection of the season, he sees his fishing as being a small business.

“Just like in any business, you have to keep up with the new trends and techniques to make your business more efficient,” he related. “If a guy runs a big hotel over there in downtown Detroit, and he does not have the capability to reserve his rooms online or does not have a credit card machine to guarantee reservations, he’s going to lose business.

“I see fishing the same way. If there is a better, more efficient way of doing business – such as using a swimbait instead of a spinnerbait or using Berkley’s new scent technology with Gulp on a drop-shot instead of regular tube on a leadhead – I’m going to use it to get an edge on my competition.”

Fishing still a passion

Though Yelas spends less time on the water these days and does not organize and prepare tackle with the same obsessiveness as he did in years past, he still has a love for the game of tournament bass fishing.

“I love the strategy of tournament angling; to me it’s an art form,” Yelas expressed. “It’s like a big chess match. I really love patterning fish, assessing fishing pressure and managing water accordingly with various lures. After all these years, that’s the part that still gets me excited.”

Yelas used the swimbait at Beaver Lake to finish second again.Over the last few years, Yelas has acquired a taste for being in a rather precarious position during tournament hours.

“I’ve now gotten to the point where I welcome those times when it’s noon and I don’t have but maybe one or two fish in the box,” he revealed. “I know that soundd really strange, but for years I used to get so stressed out about not catching a limit in the first hour of the day, and mentally I was toast. Now I’ve grown so calloused to not catching fish in the first two or three hours of the day that emotionally it does not bother me. And the more I back myself in a corner during the day, the more my focus and intensity grow.”

Several times this season, Yelas pulled out some of his best heroics in the closing hours of an event.

“After day one in Detroit, Shin got ahead of me in the points,” Yelas recounted. “And the next day I only had three fish in my livewell at noon. I only had two hours to fish, and during that time I boated the three biggest fish I caught during the tournament, culled up to 18 pounds and took the lead back. To me that is really satisfying to have my back up against the wall like that and still pull it out. That’s been one of the fun parts of this season.”

So how was the 2007 FLW Tour Angler of the Year preparing for the Forrest Wood Cup two weeks before the event?

“I should probably get a few lures ready for Ouachita,” he responded. “But you know what? Spending my time doing other things that I enjoy before fishing major tournaments has worked for me all season, and I’m not about to change it now. I’ll think about Ouachita when I get there.”