LA CROSSE, Wis. – Almost from the moment he started fishing nationally, Ron Nelson has been a force to be reckoned with, earning a win at his first EverStart Series event in 2013 on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. Now, 10 years later, Nelson has earned his second national Angler of the Year title and punched his ticket to the Bass Pro Tour after the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals season finale at the Mississippi River.
That first win at Smith Mountain probably should have clued in the bass fishing world about how good Nelson would become. Riding a sight-fishing bite to the win, which is probably what he’s best at, Nelson pulled out the sort of trick that only he could think of on the final day.
“I started my day in the back of a pocket on a secondary point,” said the then-37-year-old paint contractor. “I thought I may have a shot to catch a random big fish early. I saw a school of shad swimming around, so I used my boat to push them onto the point to try and get the bass fired up and ended up catching about a 3 1/2-pounder on a spinnerbait. That really got me juiced up to have what I would call a kicker fish that early.”
In Nelson’s first big tournament ever with FLW, on a fishery hours from home in Michigan, the pro was already herding the fish like some sort of aquatic Babe. Since then, Nelson has gone on to win two more Toyota Series events, earn 19 Top 10 finishes, make seven Toyota Series Championships, win the 2019 FLW Tour Rookie of the Year title and the 2020 Pro Circuit Angler of the Year title.
Nelson went into the first year of the Invitationals as an Angler of the Year favorite, and he delivered on that promise handily. Missing the cut at the Mississippi (where he finished 60th) was the only blemish on the season, as he finished in the top five three times, in addiition to 25th and 15th. Accumulating a total of 1094 points, Nelson beat out Michael Neal, who wrapped up the season with 1081 points, and Matthew Stefan, who finished with 1074 points.
“The goal was AOY,” said Nelson of the season outlook. “After 2020, I had a couple slack years, my heart wasn’t in the sport. This year, I started off and knew it was time for a good year again. When the schedule came out, I knew I was in for a tough challenge if I wanted AOY, there were three or four of the bodies of water I had never been to, and they’re huge. So, to show up, and have chances to win, it was a success. It’s a mindset, you don’t just show up and have one good day, or three good days, you need to have 18 good days to take it.”
Nelson seems to have been able to flip a switch to elevate his performance, mostly because he recognized that his worth wasn’t based on others’ estimations.
“I had success in the Toyota Series, but it feels like it has been an uphill battle from Day 1,” he said of his efforts to make it in pro fishing. “I thought, after the 2020 AOY, some doors might open, and nothing really opened up for me at all. So, I didn’t know what the point was. There was no big paycheck to give my wife, there wasn’t the prestige. But, I realized I still had a really good year, and this year, I wanted to accomplish it for myself.”
Now, he’s done it, and the Bass Pro Tour invitation should open a few more doors for the transcendent angler.
Though Nelson frequently makes big bags look easy, the 2023 season offered its share of challenges.
The final stop at the Mississippi River itself may have been the toughest event. Catching 10-1 on Day 1 and 13-3 on Day 2, Nelson didn’t really threaten for the cut, and left a lot to chance on the final day, needing Neal to finish below 11th to clinch the title.
“I was really looking forward to La Crosse, it’s a really special place, and it lays out so diverse,” said Nelson. “When Tom Monsoor won that year, I thought I had some winning fish I was saving for the last day. I knew I found several special deals. I was looking forward to getting back here, and after the first day of practice, I was like ‘uh oh.’ It wasn’t like the normal La Crosse you expect in July.”
Even with the trophy in hand, Nelson couldn’t quite believe it.
“It feels surreal,” he said. “It was a great week, but it was a real frustrating week as a competitive angler. To catch 10 pounds in La Crosse, I was pissed, honestly. I had the opportunities to have a solid day, and lost a big one on a swim jig that should never come off, and it came off. It was a struggle of a week. I locked through on Day 2, caught a couple big smallmouth on a sand bar, and then three came off. It just didn’t happen.
“Every day you’re on the water, you expect to figure it out more, learn more. I expect that out of Michael, and I expect the same out of myself. He had a big bag on Day 2, I expected him to catch them today. So, he had the opportunity, and I shouldn’t have given him the opportunity.”
Another test of the season was the final day at Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma. Leading the event, Nelson started fishing in off-limits water that he believed was free and clear to fish. After a quick start, he had to throw back most of his fish and restart the day.
“This year, Oklahoma was hard, from a mental standpoint,” he said. “I fish 100 percent by the books, I don’t try and bend the rules. I fished by the books and still got burned. That was hard mentally, but, as a Christian, I believe whatever happens is already set. That was my toughest day as an angler, but it will make me tougher next year for sure.”
The rest of the 2023 season will likely see Nelson notch a few more cuts at the Toyota Series level, and he’ll then start preparation for the 2024 Bass Pro Tour. With that will come the chance to fish another big championship – REDCREST.
“As a young angler in the sport, I watched it for a long time,” said Nelson. “Watching the Bassmaster Classic and the Forrest Wood Cup, to fish the Forrest Wood Cup my first year was memorable. So, I hope it’s something similar, because that was something special to be a part of.”
Of course, REDCREST isn’t the only event coming up. Nelson has full season to think about on the BPT, and a full head of steam coming into it.
“A Bass Pro Tour Angler of the Year, that’s the next goal,” Nelson said. “Momentum is a huge thing in this sport, when it rolls, it rolls.”