BAY CITY, Mich. – Stakes will be high in Bay City, Michigan, when competition commences Tuesday at Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki, the final event of the 2023 Bass Pro Tour season.
Four anglers within 10 points of each other in the Bally Bet Angler of the Year standings (Alton Jones Jr., Jacob Wheeler, Ott DeFoe and Matt Becker) will be in a sprint on Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River for the AOY trophy and accompanying $100,000 payday. In addition, 10 anglers enter Stage Seven within 10 points of each other for REDCREST 2024 qualification, and 22 anglers are within 1 pound of the cut line for Heavy Hitters 2024.
Further down the AOY standings, several anglers will also be battling to retain their spots on the 80-man Bass Pro Tour roster.
The 80-angler 2024 Bass Pro Tour roster will be determined by the following criteria:
1. 2023 AOY Standings – The first 67 invitations will be extended to the 2023 BPT field based on their 2023 Bally Bet AOY finish.
2. REDCREST, AOY exemptions – Five roster spots are reserved for “champions exemptions”: past REDCREST and Angler of the Year winners. None of the REDCREST or AOY winners from 2019 through 2023 will need their exemptions for 2024, so those five spots will be extended to the existing Bass Pro Tour field.
3. Career AOY average or 2023 AOY finish – Because no exemptions will be used, roster spots 68 through 72 in 2024 will be decided by either the angler’s average career Bass Pro Tour standings (minus one dropped year for every three consecutive years of BPT competition) or his 2023 BPT AOY finish, whichever is higher.
Every angler who has competed in the Bass Pro Tour since 2021 is allowed to drop his worst season. Career averages are calculated on a two-, three- or four-year tally, based on the number of years an angler has fished the Bass Pro Tour. Anglers who have competed since the league’s inaugural season in 2019 will receive a four-year average; anglers who joined the Bass Pro Tour in 2020 will receive a three-year average; anglers who started fishing the BPT in 2021 will receive a two-year average.
4. Invitationals AOY qualifiers – Roster invitations 73 through 80 were first extended to the top eight finishers in the 2023 Tackle Warehouse Invitationals AOY. With the culmination of the 2023 Invitationals season last week on the Upper Mississippi River, the following eight anglers qualified for invites: Ron Nelson, Michael Neal, Matt Stefan, Keith Carson, Martin Villa, Grae Buck, Nick Hatfield and Marshall Robinson.
Neal is already guaranteed a roster spot on the 2024 Bass Pro Tour thanks to both his 2023 AOY standing and lifetime average, so he won’t use his Invitationals berth in the BPT. Per MLF rules, that roster spot will be added to the existing pool of current Bass Pro Tour anglers, bringing the total number of potential requalifiers from the current 80-man field to 73 (more on this below).
Declined invitations – Any declined roster invitations are offered to existing BPT anglers, based solely on their career average. Kevin VanDam’s retirement from tournament fishing at the end of the season opens up one more roster spot for the current Bass Pro Tour field. Timmy Horton’s retirement won’t affect the 2024 roster (he’s currently 77th in AOY and 78th in career average).
Heading into Stage Seven at Saginaw Bay, Pennsylvania pro Dave Lefebre is the angler perched in the final spot for automatic requalification status – No. 67 – with 158.5 AOY points. The first man out is Shin Fukae with 156, followed by Cliff Crochet with 150.5. Six anglers enter the final event within 15 points of that coveted No. 67 spot (Randall Tharp and Josh Bertrand above the line; Fukae, Crochet, Russ Lane and Fred Roumbanis below it).
A handful of pros enter Stage Seven in poor position to qualify via their three- and four-year career averages and need to catch ‘em in Saginaw Bay to stay inside the top 67 to guarantee their roster spots in 2023.
With a 61- to 80-point AOY boost available for any angler who finishes in the Top 20, the potential still exists for some significant movement up the ladder this week. More on this below.
The five anglers currently holding down invitations 68 through 72 for career average include Wesley Strader (19.5 average AOY finish), Roumbanis (38.0), Fukae (47.0), Matt Lee (48.0) and David Walker (56.5). Strader is having an uncharacteristically down year, but has four top 25 AOY finishes (2019 through 2022) to boost his average into the Top 20. Roumbanis, Fukae, Lee and Walker are also having their least successful BPT points seasons to date and will be able to drop their 2023 finishes from their career averages.
Assuming that all seven of the Invitationals qualifiers accept their invites and take roster spots No. 74 through 80, Stage Seven will serve as the battlefield for the final remaining Bass Pro Tour invitation available via career average. Lane enters the Saginaw Bay tournament with a career average of 58.0 and a tenuous hold on the 73rd invitation.
Lane is trailed by Jeff Kriet (64.0), who would be the beneficiary of VanDam’s retirement if the standings hold to form. He’s closely followed by Roy Hawk (66.25), Kelly Jordon and Horton (both at 66.75). Boyd Duckett (68.0), Crochet (69.0) and Tommy Biffle (71.5) fill out the list of anglers with work to do to earn an invitation for 2024. Those three anglers almost certainly need to climb into the top 67 in the AOY standings to keep their roster spots, but Crochet is the only one within 40 points of doing so.
Potential moves around the No. 73 spot abound heading into Stage Seven.
Nelson and the other Invitationals qualifiers have some time to declare their intentions for 2024, but a quick straw poll of the seven pros hints that all of them will likely accept their spots on the Bass Pro Tour.