With the first two events of the 2019 FLW Tour season in the books, it’s time to take a look at how the Angler of the Year race is shaping up. At Sam Rayburn and Lake Toho the pros were tested with very different conditions, and the standings include anglers different specialties and skill sets than at this time last year, when the Tour’s first two events were both held in Florida.
As of now, the usual suspects are right in the hunt, but there’s a strong mix of other veteran pros in the top 10 as well. The third event of the season is at Lake Seminole, and there are enough similarities between it and Toho and Rayburn that it’d be no surprise to see some of the pros who’ve had a lot of success thus far continue to roll.
Leading the way so far is Benton, Ky., pro Terry Bolton, who won the first event on Sam Rayburn and then followed it up with a 19th-place showing at Toho. Historically, Bolton hasn’t been an AOY contender, despite qualifying for the FLW Cup 13 times during his career. This year, he’s off to as hot a start as any, and when you consider his career accomplishments, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him stay strong throughout the season. Nonetheless, the folks in his rearview figure to keep the pressure on.
After winning the TBF National Championship and the Living the Dream package in 2016, Joseph Webster has really never looked back. In two full years on Tour, the affable pro has made the Cup with relative ease each time, and he made the top 10 on Lanier in his second year. Finishing 17th at Rayburn and seventh at Toho, he’s going strong again and proved that he can catch ’em pretty much everywhere. Last year Webster stubbed his toe at St. Clair, and he’s not exactly loaded with Northern experience, but if you’re looking for reasons he’ll succeed at Seminole, Grand, Cherokee and Chickamauga you’ll find plenty of them.
Lurking in a virtual tie for third are the big guns – Bryan Thrift and Scott Martin. Thrift has two AOY titles to his name already and would love to join the group with three, and Martin would surely like to add a second. With the next event at Seminole, both pros figure to be forces. Thrift has finished second and 25th the last two times the Costa FLW Series has hit Seminole, and the grassy lake on the Florida-Georgia border ought to fit Martin’s style perfectly.
With both pros off to really good starts there’s only one concern – Thrift’s ankle. Early in the morning of day two of the Toho event, Thrift stepped on his net and badly sprained his ankle. That didn’t stop him from making the cut and finishing 26th, but if he isn’t fully healed by Seminole it does have the potential to slow him down. Luckily, he’s got a solid three weeks ahead of him to take it easy and heal up before practice starts in Georgia.
Bryan Schmitt and Chad Warren have arrived at a tie with remarkably different backgrounds. Though both have been standout regional sticks, Schmitt has been a hammer on Tour for a while and has developed a reputation as one of, if not the best in the business when it comes to winding grass. Warren, on the other hand, is back on Tour after a pretty disastrous rookie season in 2017 that was saved by a top 10 in the final event on the Potomac.
Schmitt will surely go into Seminole as a pre-tournament favorite, and Warren will be a favorite at the next one on Grand, so it wouldn’t be a wonder to see them stay in the hunt the rest of the year. More so than Schmitt, the interesting angler to watch will be Warren. Even if he doesn’t stay in the AOY hunt, he’s got a chance to establish a new height for his fishing. One cool thing: Warren technically has finished in the top four in two of the last three Tour events he’s fished, even if they were separated by two years.
Veterans John Cox and David Dudley round out the top group of AOY contenders for now, and the odds are good that they’ll stay in the running the rest of the year. Cox has never won an AOY title, but Dudley has three to his name. Both would love to come out on top this year – Dudley to reestablish himself in the rarified air that he once was in, and Cox to prove that his penchant for aluminum boats and shallow water can triumph over convention through a full season.
Diving down in the standings a bit, there aren’t any anglers that look extremely out of place considering how early it is in the season. One notable thing is how well some of the rookies are doing. Wade Strelic and Miles Burghoff are both in the top 13 after two derbies. They’re Rookie of the Year frontrunners as of now, but there’s a long way to go and some very talented rookies such as Sam George, Tyler Woolcott and Nick LeBrun not too far behind. Finally, it might be worth keeping an eye on Buddy Gross at Seminole. He’s won a Costa FLW Series event there, and the tournament should be squarely in his wheelhouse. He’s got a better-than-average chance to go back-to-back.