AOY Update: Gill setting a torrid pace on the Invitationals - Major League Fishing

AOY Update: Gill setting a torrid pace on the Invitationals

Image for AOY Update: Gill setting a torrid pace on the Invitationals
The race for Fishing Clash Angler of the Year is shaping up to be a hot one.
March 12, 2024 • Jody White • Invitationals

The consensus favorite for Fishing Clash Angler of the Year heading into the season, Drew Gill is looking unstoppable so far, with a win and a Top 10 already under his belt. Still, the first two Tackle Warehouse Invitationals events at Sam Rayburn and West Point seem to have played directly into his hands. The problem is, for anyone else looking to take home the $50,000 for AOY, the rest of the schedule looks up his alley as well.

In addition to AOY, there’s the lure of Bass Pro Tour qualification – this year, the top five will get a shot at the next level at the end of the season.

Here’s how things stand early in the race, with the top eight pros all having made the Top 30 cut in each of the first two events.

Top 10 in AOY after two events

1. Drew Gill – 396 points
2. Jake Lawrence – 393             
3. Marshall Hughes – 385       
4. Alec Morrison – 381               
5. Keith Poche – 379  
6. Brody Campbell – 376         
7. Cole Breeden – 375               
8. Brock Reinkemeyer – 364 
9. Cal Lane – 360         
10. Colby Miller – 360

Complete standings

1. Gill fishing up to expectations early

Drew Gill isn’t cutting the Invitationals field any slack this year. Photo by Rob Matsuura.

Maybe the best in the game when it comes to LiveScoping shallow, Gill has leaned on his electronics to take the early lead in the points. With Kentucky Lake, Lake Eufaula, Lake Champlain and the Detroit River lined up to finish the season, it’s hard to see a stop that could derail his program.

“It’s awesome. I’m trying my best to replicate the Michael Neal pace of two years ago, of winning Sam Rayburn and holding the lead all year,” he said. “But, it’s going to be tricky going into Kentucky lake, because I’m 3 points ahead of Jake (Lawrence), and he’s the clear favorite. So, to stay in the lead, a top 5 will be necessary.”

Though Neal did not actually hold the lead that entire 2022 season, trying to imitate the two-time Pro Circuit AOY is certainly a worthy goal. If there’s a bump in the road for Gill, it could be the northern swing, which he recognizes.

“The weakest point for me the rest of the year is probably Champlain,” he said. “I had a good tournament there last year, but it was on the shoulders of three areas. That one concerns me; it’s not just how good my stuff is, but it’s also how good the bed fishing is, because I’m probably not going to be bed fishing.”

2. It looks like Lawrence can catch ‘em off the Tennessee River

Jake Lawrence is the current “king of Kentucky Lake” and the consensus favorite for Stop 3. Photo by Matt Pace.

Finishing second and seventh in his first two events as a rookie, Jake Lawrence looks primed to contend for the whole season. A Tennessee River expert, Lawrence has been money on Pickwick and Kentucky, but his résumé was lacking nationally. Though nobody really had questions about his skills, he’s answered any early on.

“It’s a great start; you couldn’t ask for much better,“ Lawrence said. “Gill and I are getting to be really good friends, and it’s really cool to have a duo like that. Other than Table Rock last year, I don’t know that we’ve been more than a pound apart from each other. But, it seems like he always gets me by a couple ounces or a place or two.”

To outside observers, it seems like Lawrence is a lock to be in the AOY conversation for at least the next two southern events, and likely the whole way. But, he’s trying not to think much about it.

“Just the way my mind works, as far as AOY, I’m not going to dwell on it or make decisions based on it,” he said. “I try to keep it as simple as possible. Drew (Gill) is a big numbers guy, he’s going to know to the 1/2-ounce what he needs. Me, I’m just going to focus on getting the next bite – the points will take care of themselves if I do my job. The more I crunch the numbers, the more I get to thinkin’ about it in ways I don’t like.”

After another Toyota Series win on Kentucky Lake last week, Lawrence is a strong favorite going into the Invitationals event in April. After that, he’s more than proven that he’s adept at the offshore game for Eufaula. The big question mark for him is the North.

“I have made attempts the last couple years to make it up there every summer, and I haven’t yet,” he said. “I’m not going to say I’m not anxious, but the offshore game is what I’m familiar with, and most of the Tennessee River guys can do fairly well up there. Techniques and the ways you go about it are different, but it doesn’t seem to be out there on Mars. So, I’m excited about it. That’s the one thing in fishing that I haven’t done.”

3. Easy does it for Hughes

Marshall Hughes blasted them on the home pond and held strong at West Point. Photo by Rob Matsuura

If Marshall Hughes wins AOY, you might be able to trace a lot of it back to his Day 2 at Rayburn. On Day 1, Hughes was mired in 63rd – weighing 38-7 on Day 2, he blasted into the lead. Next up, at West Point,  Hughes made the Top 30 and then weighed his biggest bag on the final day to move up from 25th to 14th and snag some more points.

This year, Hughes entered the Invitationals without big expectations or big plans. Already making a living fishing around home in Texas, he didn’t have a burning need to fish nationally.

“My motto is ‘You don’t know until you go,’” he said. “I like it, it’s a lot different. I’ve fished stuff regionally for so long – there’s a lot more drama at that stage. You’re fishing the same lakes, and trying to keep stuff hidden and secret. In the Invitationals, we’ve never been there before, we’re not sure if we’re coming back, it’s a lot less drama it seems like. The morale of the whole tournament, it seemed like really positive energy.

“I don’t really have a goal of qualifying for the BPT, I just kind of did it to do it. I had an opportunity with the sponsors I gained where it was wise for me to do it. My finances lined up. Before, there’s no way I could have done it. I don’t really have the goal of making the BPT — that would be cool — but I did it to try to get experience.”

As is the case for many of the front-runners now, Hughes is light on experience the rest of the way. He knows his competition won’t be letting up.

“I don’t want to get wrapped up in it, to be honest,” he said. “It seems like when I do that, I end up overthinking things and it turns into a disaster. I’m feeling good about it; I’d never been to West Point, I’ve never been to any of these other places. At Kentucky, Lawrence is from there, and Drew is from that area, so I might have to figure something out there. We’ll see how it goes – there’s a lot of unknowns.”

4. Morrison also impressing in the early running

Through two events, young Alec Morrison has been excellent. Photo by Jody White.

With two events under his belt now, Alec Morrison has been super consistent, finishing 12th and ninth to start the season.

“The start to the season has been good. I was really looking forward to Rayburn, and I felt like I could get off to a good start there,” he said. “West Point, there was a little unknown, but I spent a good amount of time pre-practicing, and I liked how it set up. It went well; I’m glad to have come out of that one with a good finish.”

With an affinity for offshore fishing and a sterling record up north, this next event might be the toughest one for the young New Yorker to weather.

“Kentucky definitely strikes me as the biggest challenge, for myself,” he said. “That’s the one out of all six that I question the most. I’m not quite sure what to expect, I’m going to practice hard and do everything I can to ensure a good finish there. A lot of people felt like the biggest unknown was West Point. For me, I’d say it was Kentucky.”

As of now, Morrison isn’t thinking much about AOY – he wants to hoist a trophy.

“A goal is always to win one, and even more so, I’ve made the cut in the last two events, and I got to see two good guys win,” he said. “It fueled me even more – I really want to win one now. That’s the primary goal, but I would love to hold strong and finish well and have a crack at Angler of the Year.”

Poche lurking, others primed to rise

One of the most experienced anglers in the hunt for AOY, Keith Poche is right in the rearview for the front-runners. Photo by Jody White.

We’ll know a lot more about the AOY race after the next event, but for now, one of the only truly veteran anglers in the running is Keith Poche. The tin rig aficionado has experience across the rest of the schedule and has proven he’s a threat to win anywhere, anytime. If there’s anyone else on the list that should worry Gill and the rookies the most, it’s probably Poche.

With so many doing so well, it looks like this is going to be a very hard year to win Fishing Clash Angler of the Year – finishing 90th in an event probably isn’t going to cut it. It’s also looking like we’re still going to be super tight after the next event – Brody Campbell, Cole Breeden and Brock Reinkemeyer all have quality experience and finishes on Kentucky, so if someone else falters, you can expect them to pick up the slack.

A glance at Polaris Rookie of the Year

There’s every chance that this year’s AOY could take home $50,000 from Fishing Clash and a new Polaris. Still, it’s hard to be a rookie, and this year’s class has some truly great anglers in it. Here’s how the Top 10 are sitting in the standings after the first two events.

Top 10 rookies after two events

2. Jake Lawrence – 393 points
3. Marshall Hughes – 385       
4. Alec Morrison – 381               
6. Brody Campbell – 376         
18. Jacob Walker – 343             
20. Ken Thompson – 340         
24. Jordan Wiggins – 334         
26. Terry Fisher – 327
32. Taylor Parker – 315              
33. Brett Carnright – 315