Early season stats are prone to noise and fluctuation in just about any sport. It’s just a matter of sample size – odd things can happen early and carry more weight than they would at the end of the season. With Bryan Thrift back at the top of the points after his win on Cumberland, it looks like the season is really underway. Jared McMillan had a great run at the top of the points, but a tough day two on Cumberland dropped the young pro out of the lead in the blink of an eye. Now, it’s a pile of FLW Tour stalwarts at the head of the race for the Pennzoil Marine Angler of the Year title.
The final three tournaments at Lewis Smith Lake, Kentucky Lake and St. Clair are diverse and challenging venues, so it looks like we’re in for a pretty epic race the rest of the way. Combined, the top four in the standings have won more than $5.5 million with FLW and half the Tour events this season. The best part is they’re only 14 points apart.
Picking up his sixth FLW Tour win on Cumberland, Bryan Thrift also locked up a pile of fresh AOY points and moved into the lead. With three events left, he’s now in hot pursuit of back-to-back titles. If he can pull it off, he’ll join Andy Morgan, Clark Wendlandt and David Dudley as the only pros with three. Thrift finished 65th at Okeechobee, but top 20s at the Harris Chain and Lanier got him back on track pretty nicely. It’s hard to see the Carolina pro giving up much ground the rest of the way, especially at Lewis Smith and Kentucky Lake, but he doesn’t have a ton of history to go on for the season finale on St. Clair.
Ever since Zack Birge’s electric rookie season, folks have been waiting for him to put it all together again. This might be the year. Birge has developed into a super-versatile angler, and he’s proven it in a big way thus far. Like Thrift, he did only so-so at Okeechobee, but he’s kept pace with the reigning AOY since then. If you believe in the young Oklahoma pro’s talent, then there isn’t any particular lake that will derail him the rest of the way. If you’re a little more skeptical, then Kentucky Lake and St. Clair have the potential to challenge him.
It’s hard to believe it, but Mark Rose’s storied career has yet to include an AOY title on Tour. He’s piled up the wins (six on Tour and one Costa FLW Series Championship win), yet his highest finish in the AOY race is third. If Rose can get through next week’s event on Lewis Smith in good shape, it’s hard not to be excited about his potential the rest of the way. A late-May Kentucky Lake event when the ledges aren’t the only deal going might play right into his hands, relieving him of some of the competition for the best ledges. Though his record up north is up and down, he’s one of the best offshore anglers around, and that’s going to be a factor on St. Clair for sure.
One of the things about the cream of the crop is that they’re basically good at everything, and if they aren’t, they can learn it in about two seconds. Chris Johnston and Birge seem to represent that caliber of angler very well. From Canada, Johnston hasn’t really grown up on Southern tournament bass fishing, but that hasn’t been an obstacle to him or his brother, Cory. Like everyone else in the top four, it’s not hard to imagine Chris catching them until the end. Unlike the others, he seems to have a definite advantage at St. Clair. If he’s still in the hunt when the Tour heads north it could make for a few very exciting days on the border.
J-Mac was blowing minds and garnering Jordan Lee comps after day one at Cumberland. Sitting in fourth with more than 16 pounds, the kid from Florida was on the cusp of conquering yet another unfamiliar fishery and putting a gap between himself and the veterans gunning for him. Day two was another story, as lost fish plagued him, and he weighed just three keepers to finish in 78th place and leave the door open. McMillan is obviously still in the running, and the top five pros are incredibly tight in the race, but now he needs to find a way to beat four absolute studs. J-Mac has the pedigree to do it and has proven that he’s more versatile than anyone could have dreamed, but he’s going to need to catch ’em on mostly new lakes the rest of the way.
Running down the standings reveals some interesting names that are at least somewhat in the hunt for the AOY title.
In seventh, Brandon McMillan has amassed 657 points. Even that is a bit of a longshot for the win considering the competition, but the possibility of a pair of McMillan brothers finishing first and second is fun to imagine.
Scott Martin earned the AOY in 2015, and he’s in ninth with 643 points now. It’s not out of the question that he could contend again. Looking at the lakes and situations pros are likely to face the rest of the way, it’s certainly easy to see him going on a tear.
Beyond Martin, there’s a pretty significant points gap between Johnny McCombs in 10th and Thrift in first. McCombs has 618 points now, which is a full 97 points shy of the lead. That said, there are some pretty big names lurking: Scott Canterbury, David Dudley, Brandon Cobb and John Cox are in the top 16 and hard to count out.
This year’s Rookie of the Year race isn’t quite as high-flying as last year’s, when Bradley Dortch and Justin Atkins battled to the end and finished 18th and 22nd in the overall standings. Nonetheless, the anglers at the top are interesting and fairly tightly packed.
Leading by a decent margin, Sheldon Collings is the youngest rookie on Tour and pre-qualified for this year’s Forrest Wood Cup. So far he seems to be living up to his potential, and he’s been able to be quite consistent on the season, though he’s yet to cut a check.
Wes Logan, Matt Becker and Tyler Stewart are packed like sardines behind Collings with about 500 points apiece. They are all within striking distance, and they’ve each had some pretty impressive finishes this year. It wouldn’t be a shock to see any of them turn it on and make the Cup or take a run at the ROY title.
Complete Rookie of the Year standings
(AOY standing, angler, points total)
40 Sheldon Collings 534
53 Wes Logan 506
54 Matt Becker 505
57 Tyler Stewart 502
67 Tim Cales 480
68 Cody Hahner 480
80 Joe Thompson 452
82 Taylor Ashley 449
85 Rob Jordan 446
94 David Nichol 431
95 Todd Castledine 431
117 David Larson 397
121 Greg Mansfield 390
126 Miles Howe 373
131 Cameron Gautney 358
133 Ronald Young 356
137 Andy Wicker 350
142 Clint Brown 341
144 Russell Cecil 340
147 Craig Rozema 331
154 Stephen Hatala 308
159 David Wootton 287
171 Matt Garner 234
181 William Campbell 171
183 Freddy Hurley 112