BAY CITY, Mich. – Two days before Matt Becker landed on the smallmouth motherlode that carried him to victory at Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki, he was scrambling. Becker had a couple hours to find one more quality largemouth to keep his event, and 2023 season, alive.
Needing to rally from his 26th on the first day of qualifying in order to make the Knockout Round, Becker pivoted from chasing Saginaw Bay’s smallmouth to power-fishing shallow grass for largemouth. Despite only spending about two hours of his two-day practice looking for green fish, he got off to a strong start, catching more than 14 pounds in the first 90 minutes. But when he slipped to 20th place in the third period, he knew he’d have to upgrade to stay above the Toro Cut Line, and his spot had dried up.
So, Becker ran about 10 miles across Saginaw Bay to an area he hadn’t fished all week. He’d marked it weeks ago, during pre-practice, and like the spot he started on, it was near where a river flows into the bay. After finding only a few non-scorable bass, he considered running to a new area, but something in his gut told him to keep fishing. With less than an hour left before lines out, he landed a 3-pound, 3-ounce largemouth.
The clutch cull proved to be just enough to get him to the weekend. Without it, Becker would have missed the Knockout Round by 2 ounces.
Looking back, Becker points to that fish, even more than the five smallmouth of 4-plus pounds he boated during his epic Championship Round performance, as the one that won him not only Stage Seven, but the Bally Bet Angler of the Year award.
“That fish jumped me up the leaderboard and saved the whole tournament and the whole year,” Becker said. “I mean, it’s crazy to think about. Without that fish, we wouldn’t even have made it, wouldn’t be here at all. Really, that one clutch 3-pound largemouth turned into 40 pounds of smallmouth.”
Becker’s Championship Round performance — the biggest bag of the week at Saginaw Bay and the biggest of the day by more than 5 pounds — speaks for itself. When the stakes were highest, he not only beat some of the best smallmouth anglers in the world, he made it look like he was fishing a different lake.
But that 15-pound sack of largemouth he scrounged together two days prior — a “professional day,” in Becker’s words — not only made Sunday possible, it illustrated the diverse skillset that allowed Becker to achieve his ultimate objective in his first Bass Pro Tour season. He’s the first rookie to win AOY on a national tour in nearly 20 years, since Shin Fukae on the FLW Tour in 2004.
“To me, Angler of the Year is just the top of the sport,” Becker said. “It’s the ultimate goal. It’s the best over seven tournaments all over the country. And I can’t believe it happened.”
Winning AOY might have been Becker’s dream. But after he qualified for the BPT by finishing fifth in the points on the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit last year, he couldn’t let himself set his sights quite that high.
Always one to write down his goals, Becker identified three before this season began: Qualify for REDCREST. Finish in the Top 10 of the AOY standings. Win an event.
Initially, it didn’t look like he’d check off all three, and then some. Becker failed to make the Knockout Round at Stage One, finishing tied for 47th. But he quickly righted the ship and proved to himself that he could compete on the top tour.
Becker finished sixth at Stage Two, which was split between Douglas and Cherokee lakes in Tennessee. Then, after making the Knockout Round at Lake Murray, he notched another Championship Round appearance at Lake Guntersville, where he finished fifth.
The fact that he found such success fishing primarily for largemouth on Tennessee River reservoirs paid off a decision Becker had made years earlier. Having grown up near Pittsburgh and frequently fished Lake Erie, Becker arrived on the tournament trail as one of the best smallmouth anglers in the country, especially on the Great Lakes. He finished among the Top 10 in points in the Northern Division of the Toyota Series five times in six seasons from 2017-22. But southern largemouth vexed him, particularly on the Tennessee River. So, prior to the 2022 season, he moved from Pennsylvania to Ten Mile, Tennessee, which is located between Lake Chickamauga, Watts Bar and Ft. Loudon.
He credits that move for teaching him how bass behave on Tennessee River impoundments — a skill that comes into play at least once a year on any bass circuit. Safe to say it paid off.
“That’s why I moved is to get better in the Southeast region, Tennessee River, that kind of stuff,” Becker said.
When Becker continued his hot streak by placing sixth at Cayuga Lake, it became clear that at least two of his preseason goals were secure. And with each of the last two events set for Great Lakes fisheries, he allowed himself to think realistically about winning Angler of the Year for the first time.
Even though he sat third in the points after Cayuga and fourth after finishing 17th at Lake St. Clair, he might have been the only one to truly believe that he could claim the AOY trophy and accompanying $100,000 prize. Sure, his name was always mentioned among the contenders. But it seemed far-fetched that the rookie could beat two-time defending champion Jacob Wheeler, 12-year tour veteran Ott DeFoe and red-hot Alton Jones Jr., especially given that he needed to make up ground on all of them entering the final event of the season.
Even after he qualified for the Championship Round at Saginaw Bay, that remained the case. He entered the final day behind both DeFoe and Wheeler on SCORETRACKER® — albeit narrowly — and would need to finish at least four spots ahead of Wheeler and two clear of DeFoe to ascend to the top spot in the season-long standings. Throw in the storyline that dominated the day, Kevin VanDam leading entering the final day of his final BPT event, and Becker became an afterthought.
A third of the way through the Championship Round, Becker sat in last place among the 10-angler field. He started his day on a point on the east side of Saginaw Bay, the one spot where he (and several others in the field) had found consistent numbers of smallmouth all week. But he only mustered two fish for a little more than 5 pounds. So, he decided to run to the Charity Islands area. Having located the spot during practice and finally fished it during the Knockout Round, he knew there were fish in the area. But pinpointing exactly where they were and catching them — especially amid Sunday’s wavy, rainy conditions — would be easier said than done.
Becker sure made it look easy. He caught a 3-12 and a 4-14 within minutes of one another, then took the lead from VanDam with another 3-12 later in the second period. He closed the frame by boating a 4-6 in the final minutes. After putting it on the scale, Becker lay on his front deck, hands behind his head in disbelief. At that point, it hit him that he might actually be able to leave Saginaw Bay with two trophies in his truck.
Becker admitted that he doesn’t have a good explanation for why the smallmouth were schooled up where he caught them. As far as he could tell, they weren’t relating to any structure or bait. Part of him thinks it was simply “meant to be.”
But he also credits a lifetime of fishing for smallmouth on the Great Lakes, particularly amid the windy, wavy conditions anglers faced Sunday, for knowing how to make those fish bite and put them in the boat.
“I love the big water,” he said. “I run the boat for it, I have my equipment set up for it, and I just enjoy it. I’m probably a little weird in that sense.”
Early in Period 3, when Becker added a 5-5 (the biggest smallmouth of the week) and a 4-2 within 10 minutes of one another, it became apparent that the Stage Seven trophy would be his. Yet despite his dominance, his AOY standing remained out of his hands.
Had Wheeler finished fourth at Stage Seven, he and Becker would have finished tied in the points, and Wheeler would have won the second tiebreaker. If Wheeler had managed to climb into the top three, he would have taken the title outright.
Becker said he wasn’t stressed about Wheeler’s status in the sense that he knew he couldn’t control it. Having moved as far up the leaderboard as possible, he wouldn’t have any regrets even if he lost out on AOY. That said, he admitted that he spent much of the third period asking his boat official for updates on where Wheeler and DeFoe stood in the standings.
In the end, Wheeler finished 1-1 short of stealing the trophy for a third straight season.
The fact that he both ran down VanDam — who has won more national tournaments than anyone in bass fishing history — for the win and passed Wheeler — the two-time defending Angler of the Year — in the points made the most memorable fishing day of Becker’s life even more special.
“Kevin VanDam, I feel kind of bad for ruining his retirement party, but it was an incredible day for us and my family,” Becker said with a laugh. “And then Angler of the Year, Jacob Wheeler is just the hottest angler in the world, no doubt. To have him and Ott fishing today and to beat them both in the final day — like the last minute of the whole season — it’s just that much more special to me.”
As the final minutes of the third period ticked away, Becker kept telling the camera in the back of his Phoenix that it didn’t feel real. He had to be dreaming. Even three hours later, after he had hoisted both trophies in front of family members and fans at Wenonah Park, he had a hard time putting his emotions into words.
It will probably take a while for the magnitude of Sunday to set in. But no matter what happens for the rest of his career, Becker has now checked the box on his ultimate fishing goal.
“This is a life-changing day, for sure,” Becker said. “Winning a tournament, let alone winning Angler of the Year, it’s a huge career booster. I don’t know what comes next. I’m excited to see what the future holds, for sure.”