Through two events, the leader of the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Angler of the Year race isn’t unexpected, but the standings behind Ron Nelson are in absolute turmoil. With Lake Martin and Cherokee Lake on tap, things could begin to clarify a bit as spotted bass, smallmouths and lakes that actually have rock become factors. So, while we’re about to run through the top contenders, it’s highly likely that the next few events really reshape the standings.
386 points – Ron Nelson
After finishing ninth in the standings in his rookie season in 2019, Ron Nelson knows he’s gunning for the title this year. So far, with 11th- and fifth-place finishes under his belt, things are looking as good as can be. However, this next segment of the schedule is likely to be the most difficult for Nelson. He has a lot of experience in Florida and around grass and bedding bass, but these next few tournaments will test him. If he can stay steady, he’s got a great shot to keep his slim lead, but it’s inarguable that Lake Martin at least is out of his wheelhouse.
However, Nelson’s ability to adapt and overcome shouldn’t be underestimated. In 2019, he managed to finish 74th at Grand Lake, which isn’t great, but is also an achievement considering how brutal that tournament was. That same year, he finished 16th in his first time ever fishing on Cherokee and was on the bedding smallmouth bite from the start of the tournament.
So, if Nelson does well at Martin, it becomes harder and harder to argue that there’s any inherent weakness to his game that could sink a title run.
383 points – Hunter Freeman
One of the young guns on the Pro Circuit, Hunter Freeman is a former Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI national champion who might be coming into his own. With 16th- and third-place finishes under his belt early, Freeman has done extremely well for himself to kick things off. But, it is possible to nitpick his start: Rayburn is sort of his home pond, and he basically only had one spot at the Harris Chain.
To see a path forward for Freeman you need to believe that he’s learned from year one and that his 131st-place finish in the standings in 2019 wasn’t really a reflection of his actual talent. That’s totally possible, but going from 131st to first is a lot to ask of a second-year pro. Still, the man has great hair and a championship pedigree, so it’s hard to totally count him out. Plenty of anglers can make big improvements year over year, and there’s no doubt that the playing field this year is different than it was in 2019.
382 points – John Cox
Somehow, John Cox never managed to win an AOY title during the FLW Tour era, and he might not have a shot at this one, either. If Cox were to fish all the Pro Circuit events he’d be the favorite for the title, but he’s unlikely to, and the recent rescheduling of the Bassmaster Elite Series event at Chickamauga, which now conflicts with the Pro Circuit event on Martin, has thrown an additional wrench in the works for him.
So, until we really know what the season will look like for Cox, it’s safest to assume he can’t win the title after totally missing one or two events. Then again, he is John Cox, and you count him out at your own peril.
378 points – Miles Burghoff
Sitting high in the AOY race early is nothing new for Miles Burghoff, but this year he could be positioned a lot better to make the most of it. Currently hailing from Tennessee, Burghoff started his 2019 rookie year as hot as a pistol and faded hard at the end.
Looking at the season ahead and knowing how varied and extensive Burghoff’s preparation has been, he seems like a natural choice to continue to do well. The young pro finished 15th in the points last year and had to carry a pair of triple-digit finishes. If he can eliminate those in his second year he could have a very natural path to AOY contention.
372 points – Jon Canada
Rounding out the top five in points is yet another sophomore pro in Jon Canada. Not actually from the great white North, Canada is already doing markedly better this year than last. Like Nelson, he kicked off the 2020 season at Rayburn with a good finish instead of a bottom-of-the-barrel showing.
Like a bunch of the top pros, Canada doesn’t have a ton of experience on the upcoming lakes or lakes like them. Trying to decipher exactly what should fall in his favor is hard. Still, he’s consistently done well in the extremely tough Toyota Series Southeastern Division, and he’s caught plenty of Alabama spotted bass before. He also has one of the best dogs in the top five (no shade to Doppler), so the mere presence of Bella has got to be a point in his favor.
The rest of the pack
Because the season is so young, the number of anglers hypothetically in contention for the title is almost infinite. Still, there are some notable names missing from the top of the list. Perhaps most surprisingly, Jeremy Lawyer and Joseph Webster are mired in 79th and 81st, respectively, making their paths to contention a lot tougher than many figured they would be.
Also of note is the number of smallmouth specialists that have gotten off to strong starts. Matt Becker and Grae Buck are leading the group in eighth and ninth, but Matt Stefan, Scott Dobson and Josh Douglas are in the top 30 as well. They should all have a good opportunity coming up at Cherokee, without even thinking too much about the season finale on the Detroit River.
Of the others in and around the top 10, two of the most interesting possibilities for a run at AOY have got to be Becker and Joshua Weaver (10th). The latter seems to have stabilized his fishing a lot, and Becker has basically always been good since he joined the Tour. With the start they’re off to this year, it’d be no surprise to see both of them chalk up their best seasons yet.
The current top 10
1. Ron Nelson – Berrien Springs, Mich. – 386 points
2. Hunter Freeman – Monroe, La. – 383
3. John Cox – DeBary, Fla. – 382
4. Miles Burghoff – Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. – 378
5. Jonathan Canada – Helena, Ala. – 372
6. Bill McDonald – Greenwood, Ind. – 370
7. Darold Gleason – Many, La. – 360
8. Matt Becker – Finleyville, Pa. – 359
9. Grae Buck – Green Lane, Pa. – 359
10. Joshua Weaver – Macon, Ga. – 359