It’s rare you get a perfectly consistent rookie at the national level, and this year’s Polaris Rookie of the Year race is proving that out. While the top three pros in Angler of the Year points have been downright deadly, the ROY side of things is much more mixed. Still, it’s not without plenty of highlights, and the race for the title on the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals is going to be a good one this summer.
The Lake of the Ozarks stop was not unkind to the big crop of Missouri sticks in the Invitationals, but Andy Newcomb was the only Show Me State angler to make the Top 10. Finishing 17th, Brock Reinkemeyer turned in a super consistent performance to move up the leaderboard each day and into the lead for Rookie of the Year. Coming up five spots in the standings, Reinkemeyer now sits at ninth overall, and on top of the rookies with 668 points.
A guide on Truman Lake, Reinkemeyer is fishing really well this year, and he started it off with a 53rd-place showing at Okeechobee.
“My goal was just to make the Top 50 a couple of times, honestly,” said Reinkemeyer. “Okeechobee kinda hurt my feelings, but I was like, ‘Well I can do this.’ Clarks Hill was good, and I just kept the momentum going. Those three practice days are crucial, you have to go full-bore for three days. Sunup to sundown. If you ain’t doing it, you’re gonna get beat, especially if you’ve never been there.”
Now that he has three Top 50s under his belt, Reinkemeyer has a lot of opportunity ahead of him.
“I’m feeling great, I just need to have two more good tournaments, and I’ll be there,” he said. “Before Lake of the Ozarks I was in 14th, and I was like, ‘Heck, I have a shot at this.’”
As for the stretch run, Reinkemeyer knows he’s light on experience. Aside from an October trip to the Upper Mississippi River, he’s never seen the next two stops.
“I’m just kind of winging it,” he said. “It’s all grass instead of rocks and wood, but I don’t mind it. I had fun at Okeechobee, I don’t mind throwing the ol’ ChatterBait around.”
Scotty Villines nearly made the Top 50 at Lake of the Ozarks and dropped just two spots in the overall standings, but moved up among the rookies, going from third to second. The owner of Buffalo River Hardwoods, a custom flooring shop in Arkansas, Villines’ season is a case study in how much a few moments can impact the points standings. To open at Okeechobee, he lost a 6-pounder. Then, on Day 1 at Lake of the Ozarks, he lost a 2 ½-pounder that would have put him in the cut and fishing on Day 3.
After boxing a little limit to start Lake of the Ozarks, Villines ran to some big bedding bass he had marked.
“I ran up there and spent several hours checking. Long story short, I only saw one, the rest of them were gone,” he said. “So, I knew there were quality fish up there, I figured I’d spend the rest of the day around there and get bit. And it just never happened, I never got a big bite.
“The second day I stayed between [Public Beach 2] and Carrot Bluff, and it just worked out,” he recalled. “There were more quality fish in those little creeks than I realized. I probably left a 17- or 18-pound bag on the beds up there, I would have loved to have made Day 3.”
While Villines has moved down to 13th in the overall standings, he’s now just 21 points away from the top of the rookies.
“I’m actually closer in points than I was when I was 11th,” said Villines. “That section in there has tightened up. We’re all right there close. But, I missed a good opportunity to drop another 20 or 30 points on the board. ROY is going to be very volatile in these next two tournaments. I think the Potomac will be the shaker, and La Crosse can be too, because it can be fickle. The Potomac is going to set up the showdown at the last one.”
Lucky for Villines, he likes that just fine.
“I’m optimistic for the Potomac,” he said. “I’ve been there once, the last year they had co-anglers in the FLW Tour, and I saw quite a bit of water. I got to see a good portion of it, and anytime I get around grass, I just like that.”
Dropping nine spots in the standings after Lake of the Ozarks, Michael Harlin finished 96th but avoided disaster. With only four fish on Day 1, he rallied with 14-10 on Day 2 to surge up the leaderboard. After the event, Harlin is now 14th in the standings with 645 points.
“I have been kicking myself so bad,” said Harlin of his showing on his home pond. “I just should have went and caught a limit, and it’s not hard to do. That’s what I did on Day 2. I went and skipped a wacky rig around, and I don’t know how many fish I caught in the first hour.
“The first day, it got too personal with some of the bed fish. I’ve never had so much trouble catching them before. Then, looking through the highlights, it looked like those guys were just fishing for really obvious ones. I was fishing for ones in 5 foot of water that you could barely see, and they weren’t really locked on.”
To make matters worse, Harlin’s charge on Day was dampened by a couple of key lost fish. So, he’s got that to replay in his head as well.
“Looking back, I was just fishing to win,” mused Harlin. “I was fishing to win, and I shouldn’t have done that. I was in too good of a spot pointwise to do that. And now we’re here. It didn’t kill me too bad, but it did.”
Now, Harlin is still in the thick of the ROY race, but his path to making the BPT just got a lot tougher.
“If I could get a Top 10 or two, I think I could still qualify,” he said. “I just have to catch them, honestly, it’s a little easier, less pressure, you just have to go catch them. It’s just going to be grinding, La Crosse is going to be interesting, because a ¼ of a pound or ½ a pound means so much there.”
The reigning Phoenix Bass Fishing League All-American champion, Connor Cunningham finished 100th to start his pro career at Okeechobee. Since then, it’s been nothing but solid finishes, with an eighth at Clarks Hill, and then two Top 30s at Eufaula and Lake of the Ozarks.
“I think so far, so good,” said Cunningham of his rookie season. “I didn’t expect it to go this good, but man, that Okeechobee event is really haunting me. I always start off any tournament circuit with a total bomb, I don’t want to jinx myself, but I slowly creep my way back somehow.”
For Cunningham, one theme of the season has been how well an Ozark upbringing has served him nationally.
“I’m really learning how everything you learn in the Ozarks applies everywhere you go,” he said. “Clarks Hill was an eye-opener. I really researched that heavily – to get an eighth-place finish there fishing how I like to fish in dirty water was amazing. I was sure that would be dominated with LiveScope. That was a big learning moment – to go fish your strengths and see how it goes. For example, Lake of the Ozarks, don’t go try to sight-fish against John Cox. He brought his strength to that tournament and look where it got him.”
Notably, many of the top rookies now are ones that have made big moves up the leaderboard recently. Though Jaden Parrish has remained pretty steady, a bunch of the other recent risers made big gains at Lake of the Ozarks.
In fifth and sixth among rookies, Marshall Robinson and Drew Gill moved up 18 and 21 spots respectively. In eighth, Jordan Hirt moved up 23 spots, and down in 11th Andrew Nordbye rocketed up 38 places. That sort of movement isn’t uncommon among the rookies, and it goes to show how fun this race could get.
9. Brock Reinkemeyer – 668 points
13. Scotty Villines – 647
14. Michael Harlin – 645
15. Connor Cunningham – 644
16. Marshall Robinson – 635
17. Drew Gill – 623
21. Jaden Parrish – 609
26. Jordan Hirt – 591
29. Spike Stoker – 583
34. Hunter Eubanks – 572
36. Andrew Nordbye – 566
39. Cody Spetz – 562
40. Kyle Schutta – 560
42. Derik Hudson – 557
45. Cole Breeden – 555
49. Drew Boggs – 551
50. Eric Panzironi – 546
52. Hunter Mills – 544
53. Travis Harriman – 536
56. Jordan Collom – 530
58. Jack Daniel Williams – 527
59. Sean Anderson – 525
61. Brad Jelinek – 523
64. Andrew Behnke – 517
65. Blake Felix – 517