ROY UPDATE: Harlin paces a talented crop - Major League Fishing

ROY UPDATE: Harlin paces a talented crop

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May 3, 2023 • Jody White • Invitationals

This year’s Polaris Rookie of the Year race was almost sure to be wild, and halfway through the season, it looks like it’s living up to the promise. With 70 rookies on the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals, everyone knew that some would really show out, but there are also a lot struggling early with their foray into the national stage.

Of the 70 rookies, only 19 of them are sitting above 50th in the standings, proving that the old dogs know plenty of tricks. Still, some of the rookies are truly impressive and have been in contention a number of times. In fact, each Top 10 of the season has featured three rookies so far, which goes to show how much potential this year’s class has.

Michael Harlin came into the season as a highly-regarded prospect in the ROY race.

1. Harlin ahead going into his home pond

Leading the rookies at the midway point, Michael Harlin is sitting fifth in the overall standings with 540 points. Coming out of the Plains Division as the 2022 Angler of the Year, Harlin’s success isn’t a shock, as Clarks Hill and Eufaula fit his Ozark upbringing well. But, a Top 10 at Okeechobee made for an impressive start to the season.

With two MLF wins under his belt on Lake of the Ozarks, the next event presents a lot of opportunities for the young pro.

“I’m definitely happy to be where I’m at,” said Harlin. “I like being where I’m at going into this tournament. I want to gain as much gap as I can going into the last two. The river systems aren’t something I have experience on. I’ve been to La Crosse a couple of times, but never the Potomac, or any tidal fishery.”

Harlin has done well all year, but a few moments stick out as key to him.

“The decision to go to that pond on Day 1 at Okeechobee obviously made my tournament,” he said. “And at Eufaula, I caught a 3-15 male on the bed on the last day, in the last hour, to fill my limit. That one there was pretty important, it kept me in the Top 30.”

Going into Lake of the Ozarks, Harlin is focused on doing well, but he’s not too focused on Rookie of the Year. He’s now got his eye on the Bass Pro Tour.

“I think if I can get out of this one with a Top 30 or so, I think I’ll have a decent chance at maybe qualifying. That wasn’t something I really had in my head going into the year. First year out there, you don’t know what to expect going into it,” he said. “I’ve still got to catch them at the next two, but that’ll give me a little padding. The BPT is the goal, but the points are tight – the guys behind me are right there too.”

Spike Stoker turned heads after starting the season with two great finishes.

2. Stoker continues to impress

Sitting eighth overall with 528 points, Spike Stoker has kept the pedal down all year, only missing the cut at Eufaula and finishing 54th. Otherwise, he’s banked phenomenal finishes, earning 10th at Okeechobee and 11th at Clarks Hill.

For Stoker, a key bait change on Day 1 at Okeechobee helped set the tone for the season.

“I was throwing a Speed Worm, and at about 9 o’clock it died,” he said. “The bottom of my boat looked like a tackle store, and I picked up that [lipless] and caught a 6-pounder. The next day, I picked it up again, caught another 6 the first time I threw it, and I never put it down.”

Since then, he’s led a charmed life.

“I have not lost a bass, knock on wood. Every fish I’ve set the hook on I’ve got in the boat,” Stoker said. “I think that makes a huge difference in tournament fishing. It’s all momentum, and if you lose one, you lose that momentum.”

Like many of the rookies, Stoker has had a lot of unknowns on the schedule so far, but the second half might line up well for him.

“I’ve never been to Lake of the Ozarks, but I’ve been to the Mississippi River and the Potomac once each,” he said. “The first time you go somewhere, it’s a learning curve. The next time you go there, you have an idea of what to do. I really liked the Mississippi River, I like the Potomac too. I told my wife when we started, ‘If I can survive the first four, I’ll feel more comfortable in the last two.’ Which, that’s more than half of the schedule, but I like the look of the last two.”

Scotty Villines is right in the mix for ROY, but the second half of the season could be a challenge for him.

Villines, Reinkemeyer right there

Behind the leaders, Scotty Villines and Brock Reinkemeyer and 11th and 14th in the overall standings and fairly close in points. Considering the amount of time left in the season, they’re both well within striking distance. Hailing from Arkansas and Missouri, both should be well-suited for the bout at Lake of the Ozarks. Still, some of the same questions that the leaders face are in play for them the rest of the way – they’re simply not loaded with experience when it comes to the Mississippi or the Potomac. Villines has some time on both fisheries, but some of that is as a co-angler, and he’s certainly not local to either.

Of course, being ideally suited to the back half of the schedule is a rare trait for this rookie class. You could argue that Eric Panzironi looks good for it, but he’s down at 37th in the standings. In 35th, Cody Spetz also has some interesting river experience, with some solid finishes on the Cal Delta to his credit – if he can translate that to the East and Midwest then he might have a run in him.

Still, the second half of the season figures to be very interesting for the rookies. Rookie of the Year is historically pretty volatile, and many of the rooks are facing a schedule that isn’t necessarily right up their alley.

Top 50 rookies after Lake Eufaula

5. Michael Harlin – 540 points

8. Spike Stoker – 528

11. Scotty Villines – 498

14. Brock Reinkemeyer – 484

22. Connor Cunningham – 465

29. Jaden Parrish – 442

31. Travis Harriman – 440

34. Marshall Robinson – 437

35. Cody Spetz – 436

36. Cole Breeden – 433

37. Eric Panzironi – 426

38. Drew Gill – 426

40. Kollin Crawford – 422

42. Cody Petit – 419

43. Drew Boggs – 415

45. Chad Mrazek – 413

47. Hunter Eubanks – 413

48. Hunter Mills – 410

49. Jordan Hirt – 409

51. Sean Anderson – 407

52. Jack Daniel Williams – 406

53. Robby Frashier – 405

56. Flint Davis – 401

58. Eddie Carper – 391

62. Kyle Schutta –387

66. Jesse Millsaps – 380

69. Derik Hudson – 377

72. Blake Felix – 375

74. Andrew Nordbye – 372

79. Andrew Behnke – 365

82. Nolan Gaskin – 359

84. Brad Jelinek – 353

88. Laker Howell – 349

90. Wyatt Frankens – 344

91. Jordan Collom – 343

94. Mark Condron – 338

95. Kyle Minke – 337

97. Kyle Palmer – 331

99. Tristan McCormick – 329

102. Bryan Partak – 322

103. Jason J. Grape – 321

104. Rick Chenoweth – 317

105. Danny L. Shanz – 314

106. Ryan Armstrong – 314

107. Chad G. Allison – 312

108. Bobby Bakewell – 311

115. John-Dalton Miller – 294

116. Cody Parker – 293

119. Elijah Meyers – 286

121. Austin Culbertson – 281

Complete standings