There’s always a lot on the line — a trophy, a top prize of more than $100,000 and a trip to REDCREST — when the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals field takes the water. But this week’s Mercury Stop 6 at the Upper Mississippi River comes with extra pressure. The final event of the season means the Angler of the Year title, Polaris Rookie of the Year honors and eight invitations to the Bass Pro Tour will also be handed out.
Tuesday’s Day 1 brought some challenges in the form of low water levels, sunny skies and barge traffic that delayed a host of competitors looking to lock into Pool 7. That led to volatility at the scales and some major shakeups in the races to claim the aforementioned honors.
Nick Hatfield, fresh off a victory at Stop 5 at the Potomac River, stayed hot by catching 18 pounds, which leads the field. Both he and Marshall Robinson would jump into the top eight in the AOY standings and earn BPT invitations if the event ended today. Meanwhile, six of the anglers who entered the event in the top eight — and each of the top four — find themselves sitting below 60th place. As a result, we have a new unofficial leader in the points standings.
Among the competitors who had to wait about two hours to pass through Lock and Dam No. 7 was Matthew Stefan. That made for a stressful morning for the Wisconsin native. However, it didn’t take Stefan long to make his run to Pool 7 worth the wait.
Stefan sacked up 16-8, which has him in fourth place. After catching a 5-3 kicker that earned Berkley Big Bass honors, he declared to those watching on the MLFNOW! live stream, “BPT here we come.”
That seems like a foregone conclusion; Stefan would have to fall at least outside the top 80 in the event to miss out on an invitation to the Bass Pro Tour. But after some surprising struggles from the rest of the top eight, another goal suddenly appears realistic for Stefan: winning the Angler of the Year trophy and a berth in REDCREST 2024.
Stefan, who entered this week in fifth place in the AOY standings, leapt all the way to first place in the virtual standings. The points will not officially update until the conclusion of the event.
It’ll be interesting to see whether that impacts Stefan’s strategy on Day 2. On one hand, given that missing weigh-in or running aground seem like the only things that can keep him from a spot on the BPT next season, he could choose to play it safe. But it might be hard to pass up the opportunity to contend for both the event win and an AOY title, especially on a fishery he knows well.
Ron Nelson has been rock solid all season, never finishing an event worse than 21st. He finally had a tough day Tuesday, when his five-fish bag weighed just 10-13. That has him in 94th place.
The bad news is that, as of this moment, his struggles have Nelson in position to lose his spot atop the AOY standings, which he’s held since Stop 2. But the good news is the damage could have been much worse, as he was far from the only angler in the top four to struggle.
Martin Villa, Keith Carson and Michael Neal — who entered Stop 6 in second, third and fourth in the points — also all find themselves outside the top 50 after Day 1. Neal’s 11-15 bag has him 69th. Carson managed a late rally to fill his limit and weigh in 10-12, good for 97th. Villa mustered just four keepers for 7-2, which has him 127th.
As a result, Nelson currently sits second in the virtual standings, only 9 points back of Stefan. The door is wide open for him to reclaim his lead — or for Carson or Neal to give themselves a shot at the AOY trophy entering the final day of the season. All three are still within 2 pounds of 50th place, the cut line to fish Day 3. That means, yes, there is still a scenario in which Neal could pull out his third AOY title in as many years.
Anglers often say that familiarity with a tournament venue can either be their best friend or worst enemy, rarely anything in between. The early results suggest that, with the river being low and the fishing a bit stingy, local knowledge will be especially valuable this week.
Five of the current top seven anglers either call Wisconsin home or, in the case of second-place Hunter Litchfield, have spent considerable time fishing the Upper Mississippi as participants in the Great Lakes division of the Phoenix Bass Fishing League, which hosts multiple tournaments on the river each year. That includes Litchfield, Stefan, Steve Lopez (3rd), Kevin Ruh (6th) and Mike Brueggen (7th).
Of those anglers, only Stefan and Lopez have fished previous Invitationals this season, with the other three specifically targeting this event. That said, they’re no strangers to success, particularly Brueggen. With eight BFL wins and 42 Top-10s, Brueggen has long been regarded as one of the most dominant anglers on the Upper Mississippi.
Arguably no angler entered Stop 6 facing more pressure than Robinson. The Invitationals rookie started this week in ninth place, just 7 points away from earning an invitation to fish alongside his father, Marty Robinson, on the Bass Pro Tour next season.
The younger Robinson came up clutch on Day 1, sacking up 14-6. That has him in 17th place in the event and eighth in the projected season-long standings.
That said, Robinson will have to catch ’em again on Wednesday, both to earn his spot on the BPT and maintain his lead in the Polaris Rookie of the Year standings. Hatfield, who entered the event tied with Robinson in points, passed him with his monster Day 1. Meanwhile, fellow rookie Drew Gill finds himself in 12th place after weighing in 14-15.
It could come down to a two-man contest between Robinson and Gill, both for ROY honors and to claim the final BPT invitation. Gill trails Robinson by 15 points in the current hypothetical standings.
Here is how the Top 10 in the Angler of the Year race would look if the event ended today: