BAY CITY, Mich. – The storylines entering the Championship Round at Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki focused on bass-fishing G.O.A.T. Kevin VanDam trying for a win in his final regular-season event and the current best in the world, Jacob Wheeler, attempting to win a third-straight Angler of the Year. But, as he’s done before in his career, it was Matt Becker who stole the show on the final day, earning the win and Bally Bet Angler of the Year to boot.
Becker placed a tournament-best 22-pound, 11-ounce bag of smallmouth on SCORETRACKER® when it counted most. In doing so, he completed a double comeback as he rose from fifth place entering the day to win the tournament and from fourth place in the points to take home the AOY title.
Overall, it was a payday of over $200,000 for the Pennsylvania-turned-Tennessee pro.
It was a clean sweep for Becker, who won the tournament with the biggest bag of the event, the Bally Bet Angler of the Year trophy and the Berkley Big Bass Award with his 5-5 kicker.
As time expired for the event, Becker was in a state of shock.
“This feels like a dream – I’m waiting to hear that awful alarm clock noise,” he said. “There is no way this is real – it can’t be real. My ultimate goal has always been to win an Angler of the Year trophy because it shows that you were the best that year, all across the country.”
As tight as the points race was, Becker nearly needed to win at Stage Seven to pull down the AOY and used some great strategy this week as he slowly started to figure out the Saginaw Bay smallmouth.
“I was planning to fish for smallmouth the whole event and only spent two hours of my practice looking for largemouth,” he said. “The first day was really bad for smallmouth, and I was in 26th place and felt frustrated. On the second day, I targeted largemouth, just trying to squeak into the cut. I survived with a swim jig and by flipping a Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog into the reeds, and barely made it into the Knockout Round in 19th place.”
Revitalized and with zeroed weights, he returned to the smallmouth and headed to the Charity Islands area for the final two fishing days. His 17–14 in the Knockout Round had him in fifth, 1 ounce from Wheeler and tied with Ott DeFoe. He knew he would need a big bag to take home either of the trophies handed out this week in Bay City. So, on a day marked by rain and big winds, the former Lake Erie local put his stamp on the BPT season.
“I had no idea what to expect today with the weather we had come in,” he said. “I thought I was around fish, but stumbled into a wad of them today.”
Fishing what he described as a long flat point in 18 to 20 feet of water, Becker ran into the winning school in the second period and caught them with a drop-shot with a Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm in the Becker’s juice color.
“There were 10 to 15 of them in a group and they were just cruising around; there were no contours or structure to keep them there,” he said. “I would pick off a few and then come back and catch one or two more. I have no idea why they were there.”
No matter why Becker intercepted those smallmouth, they proved to be the winning school to close out the 2023 Bass Pro Tour season.
Yesterday’s story was about VanDam chasing a win in his final event and Wheeler positioning himself to win a third straight AOY title. Both fell short of their goals and were edged out by Becker.
With a 2-13 lead entering the day, VanDam was in an excellent position to cap off his legendary career with a win. His primary area at the northwestern tournament boundary near Au Gres was exposed to the wind today, significantly hurting his smallmouth bite. His best five fish of the day weighed an even 14 pounds and consisted solely of largemouth, with only one of his 19 scoreable bass being a smallmouth.
“It was one of those days. I really wanted to win this thing,” VanDam said. “The conditions and Mother Nature took it away from me, but that’s part of it. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.”
Known for his power fishing style with reaction baits, VanDam went out fishing his strengths. Instead of classic spinning rod techniques, the Michigan pro let a Strike King Thunder Cricket do his heavy lifting all week.
“I knew that when the wind switched to the east, it would make everything in my area harder to fish,” he said. “I tried to fish my strengths and give myself a chance to win and kept my head in the game all day. So many tournaments I wish I had done something different on the last day, but today I didn’t have any other options. I’m comfortable with how I fished this week because I feel like I made good decisions.”
Reflecting on his career, VanDam put it all in perspective.
“It was a fun day, and I took it all in and savored the moment,” he said. “It’s been a great 33 years fishing professionally, and I have many people to thank. This is the end of one chapter, and I’m excited to go out on my terms. It would have been a fairytale ending to win, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Wheeler needed to finish four spots ahead of Becker to claim another Angler of the Year title and finished eighth with 31-8 over the final two days. While disappointed, he still chalked up the year as a success.
“It’s been a great season. I won a tournament and have nothing to complain about,” he said. “I was in contention for AOY, which is all you can ask for. Today was hard, pouring rain all day, but adversity is part of the deal. I kept my head down and fished hard, but never got the big bite I needed.”