Michael Neal hasn’t quite crossed the threshold, but the two-time defending champion is certainly knocking.
Neal sacked up 15-13 on Day 2 of Mercury Stop 6 at the Upper Mississippi River, boosting himself from 69th place to 20th. Neal said he only caught six keepers on Wednesday, but he ran across the right fish, including a 4-11 kicker.
Coupled with Nelson – who has held the AOY lead since Stop 2 – missing out on Championship Thursday with his 60th-place finish, Neal’s big day has him in a familiar position: entering the final competition day of the year with a chance to lift the AOY trophy.
Neal moved into second place in the unofficial Angler of the Year standings Wednesday, just 8 points back of Nelson. While the points won’t officially update until the conclusion of the event, Neal’s path to a three-peat is clear. If he moves up to 11th or better in the event, he will become just the third angler in history to win AOY on a national tour in three consecutive seasons.
That’s not the only drama still to be sorted out on the final day of the season. We appear poised for a thrilling finish in the Polaris Rookie of the Year race, as well, and six anglers are vying for the final three invitations to the Bass Pro Tour for 2024.
We knew entering this event that both Nelson and Neal would receive invites to fish the Bass Pro Tour next season. Neal is already a member, while Nelson couldn’t fall out of the top eight in the final event (the top eight finishers in the AOY standings will earn invitations to join the BPT).
Three more anglers officially punched their tickets on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the final few spots look like they’re going to be decided by just a handful of points.
Even though Martin Villa and Keith Carson both missed out on the Top 50, their strong seasons through the first five stops were enough to earn them invitations to fish the BPT. Matthew Stefan, who sits in second place at the Upper Mississippi, also clinched a promotion to the top tour.
Grae Buck is close to joining them, but the Pennsylvania pro still has to catch a few fish in order to ensure his spot. Buck currently sits sixth in the virtual AOY standings. It would take Buck, who enters the final day of Stop 6 in 26th with a two-day total of 26-12, finishing 32 places behind both Nick Hatfield (who currently sits in 8th) and Marshall Robinson (34th) and 44 places behind Colby Schrumpf (5th) in order to fall out of the top eight.
Realistically, Hatfield, Schrumpf, Robinson and Drew Gill are all battling for two spots. While Hatfield, who entered Day 2 atop the leaderboard, couldn’t quite replicate his 18-0 bag from Day 1, he remains seventh in the AOY standings. Schrumpf, who vaulted himself to fifth with a 16-3 limit on Day 2, lurks 9 points behind him. Robinson is currently the first man out of the top eight, 17 points back of Schrumpf and one point ahead of Gill.
Jason Vance has a chance to crack the top eight, too, albeit a slim one. Vance would have to move up at least 12 spots from his current 37th place at Stop 6 and have the three anglers ahead of him all falter just to have a mathematical shot at earning a BPT invite. More likely, he’ll need to climb all the way into the Top 10 to have a prayer.
With all six of those anglers set to take the water Thursday, the race for the final BPT invitations should provide an engrossing subplot to Championship Day.
It’s difficult to imagine how Day 2 could have unfolded better for Stefan. The Wisconsin native backed up his 16-8 bag on Day 1 with 16-6 for a total of 32-14. That not only punched his BPT ticket, as mentioned above, but moved him into second place in the event, 14 ounces back of Steve Lopez.
And yet Stefan not only lost his lead in the unofficial Angler of the Year standings, he was eliminated from contention. He entered the final event 79 points back of Nelson, and the most he can make up now is 59.
That said, Stefan can still earn a spot in REDCREST 2024 — and his first national tour-level win — if he’s able to overtake Lopez. Of the anglers who will take the water Thursday, Stefan is by far the best positioned to steal the victory from his fellow Wisconsin native, as he’s the only competitor who will enter the final day within 2 pounds of Lopez’s 33-12 total.
Much like the Angler of the Year race, the Rookie of the Year contest is going to come down to a pair of anglers. The two couldn’t be much closer entering the final day of competition.
Gill continued to make up ground on Robinson Wednesday. Gill caught 13-4 on Day 2, and his two-day total of 28-3 has him in 15th place. Robinson, meanwhile, slipped to 34th with 26-0. As noted above, that has Gill just one point behind Robinson in the season-long points, with both set to take the water again tomorrow.
While both anglers will likely be more focused on trying to make up ground on the other contenders for the final BPT invites, add the Rookie of the Year trophy to the list of honors that will be hotly contested all the way until the final weigh in of the season.
Here is how the Top 10 in the Angler of the Year standings would look if Stop 6 ended today: