AOY UPDATE: Nelson still cruising, Stefan, Villa stay on his heels - Major League Fishing

AOY UPDATE: Nelson still cruising, Stefan, Villa stay on his heels

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May 14, 2023 • Jody White • Invitationals

With two events left in the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals season, the Angler of the Year race has a definite front-runner, and multiple other contenders clumped and ready to take advantage of a stumble. Still, Ron Nelson with a lead going into two grassy northern rivers is a tall task, though this group may be uniquely suited to running him down.

Ron Nelson has fished nearly flawlessly this year. Photo by Kory Savage

1. Ron Nelson – 777 points

After finishing fifth at Lake of the Ozarks, sight-fishing every day and doing what he does best, Nelson expanded his AOY lead by five points up to a 42-point margin over Matthew Stefan. For that event, Nelson primarily sight-fished, and like winner John Cox, didn’t devote his whole practice to it.

“The weather turned out nice for that tournament, but I mismanaged my time poorly in practice for that tournament, a big part of that was because of the forecast,” Nelson said. “I knew I wasn’t fishing a very good section of the lake, but I wasn’t sharing a bunch of fishing either.”

Nelson now has a solid, or perhaps even a large, lead with two events left. Plus, the 2020 Pro Circuit AOY has been excellent over the years on the Potomac. In seven Toyota Series or Pro Circuit events on the historic tidal fishery, Nelson has finished 70th and 41st, but otherwise no lower than 36th, and that was all the way back in 2013. All told, his experience there likely makes his performance floor very high – this isn’t like Josh Butler trying to hold off Michael Neal at Champlain.

“Anything can happen, it’s far from over,” Nelson said of the race. “But, that being said, I couldn’t be happier with where I’m sitting at. I’m looking forward to the home stretch, but I think it’s still wide open. I’m going to keep doing my job and catching them, but you never know, you could blow an engine up, anything could happen.”

This year has been Matthew Stefan’s best yet at the national level. Photo by Matt Brown

2. Matthew Stefan – 735

Having himself a heck of a season, Stefan hasn’t even got to the good part yet, which is the season finale on the Mississippi River up in La Crosse – a short 2-hour drive from home.

At Lake of the Ozarks, Stefan sight-fished the first two days and called an audible on the final day, running up to dirty water to catch a big bag. If he does run down Nelson for AOY, that rally could turn out to be super key, as it bumped him up from 27th on Day 2 to 10th, which is a significant points savings.

The next stop at the Potomac is the big question mark remaining for the Wisconsin pro. His finishes over the years there are not sterling: 129th in 2012, 46th in 2015, 127th in 2017 and 104th in 2021. Overall, the river has been a real outlier for the usually super-consistent pro, and getting past it in good shape would go a long way.

Extremely versatile, Martin Villa has really only faltered in Florida this season. Photo by Rob Matsuura

3. Martin Villa – 733

Just two points behind Stefan, Martin Villa is looking good to make the BPT and is also firmly in AOY contention.

“My goal is the top eight, eight or better,” said the Virginia pro. “I didn’t know who Ron Nelson was until I met him – he catches them everywhere he goes, at a very high level. The only way I think I could even have a shot at it is to Top 10 the next two. Then it would make things interesting, he’d have to catch ‘em.

“But, I’m glad I got four out of four checks. The AOY is a moot point really, the top eight is what I’m after. I want to be on the Bass Pro Tour, I want to be on that side of the fence. If I get two more checks, I’m in that BPT.”

The next stop at the Potomac offers a lot of potential for Villa, as it is a river he’s fished for a long time with a lot of success.

“The problem with that is the hometown curse,” he said. “Of any fishery, I’d prefer not to be on that one, it’s a love-hate relationship. Cody Pike said the same thing, he said ‘Man, I could win that thing, or I could suck it up.’ It’s the same for me, I’ve been on both sides of it on that river. But I’m blessed to have the knowledge I have on it, because I do have an advantage over people that haven’t been there before.”

Anglers like Keith Carson may be a little outside of the Angler of the Year conversation, but they’re very focused on making the top eight and the BPT. Photo by Kory Savage

Eyeing up Bass Pro Tour qualification

Behind the leaders, AOY is a concern, but perhaps not as pressing as the race to stay in the top eight for Bass Pro Tour qualification. Michael Neal and Dakota Ebare are obviously not worried, but Grae Buck, Keith Carson and Colby Schrumpf want to maintain their position.

Of those three pros, Buck is probably the best bet to stay strong. Over the years, he’s had a lot of success on the Potomac, and he and Carson at 724 and 718 points actually have a decent edge over Brock Reinkemeyer in ninth with 668. Really, the remainder of the schedule suits a lot of the top eight well, as Carson and Schrumpf are also clearly strong shallow.

When looking for someone who could move up, Joshua Weaver in 10th is an interesting bet. He’s had some tough events on the Potomac, but some real high marks on the Mississippi over the years. Also, as crazy as it sounds, Dakota Ebare could fall out of eighth to open up another BPT spot. Considering how he’s fishing, it is hard to call it probable; but the Potomac and Mississippi have not been his strongest destinations, although the history there is limited enough that a couple of Top 10s from the Texas pro shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Top 15 in Angler of the Year after Lake of the Ozarks

1. Ron Nelson – 777 points

2. Matthew Stefan – 735       

3. Martin Villa – 733  

4. Grae Buck – 724     

5. Michael Neal – 719

6. Keith Carson – 718 

7. Colby Schrumpf – 698        

8. Dakota Ebare – 673

9. Brock Reinkemeyer – 668  

10. Joshua Weaver – 656

11. Tai Au – 654         

12. Tom Redington – 650       

13. Scotty Villines – 647         

14. Michael Harlin – 645        

15. Connor Cunningham – 644

Complete standings