Through three events of the 2020 Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit, second-year pro and 2019 Polaris Rookie of the Year Ron Nelson remains atop the Angler of the Year standings after a second-place finish at Lake Martin.
Behind him, the rest of the top 10 in the current standings is littered with some familiar names, including 2019 AOY runner-up John Cox. While Cox remains within striking distance of retaking the lead he assumed after his season-opening win on Sam Rayburn, much of the top 10 was shuffled around thanks to some strong performances at Martin.
With Cherokee rescheduled for June 11, Lake Hartwell (April 23-26) is next up, followed by a mid-May showdown on Dardanelle. Both lakes offer opportunities for pros with local knowledge to make moves before hitting the home stretch of the season.
Here’s a look at how the standings are shaping up ahead of those events.
585 points – Ron Nelson
Nelson finished ninth in the FLW Tour standings last year en route to his ROY title. It’s hard to improve on that kind of season-long performance, but here we are. Through three events, Nelson is the prohibitive favorite to one-up that showing with some even more impressive hardware this year.
It’s hard to overstate the amount of momentum Nelson has been riding in 2020. He turned in top-20 performances in all three of his final regular-season tournaments last season – including a third-place showing on Chickamauga – and 2020 has been even more impressive to this point.
By a wide margin.
It started with a fifth-place finish at Rayburn, the fishery where Nelson began 2019 with his worst tournament of the season (120th place). That redemption story turned into a full-on 30-foot wave of momentum that culminated in Nelson nearly making the final-day cut at the Harris Chain in February (11th place) before going runner-up last weekend at Martin.
The way Nelson is fishing, it’s going to take a major letdown performance from the Berrien Springs, Mich., pro or a string of stellar derbies from one of his peers to knock him off his perch.
556 points – Matt Becker
Consistency has really defined Matt Becker’s Pro Circuit career to this point. After finishing 32nd in the standings in 2018 to win the FLW Tour Rookie of the Year title and turning in an 11th-place finish at the FLW Cup, the Finleyville, Pa., pro fished his way to 14th in the standings last season (with a 15th-place finish at the Cup).
Now, three events into the 2020 season, Becker is just 29 points back of the AOY lead thanks to three top-25 finishes in three events, including a fourth-place showing at Martin. He’s still searching for his first Pro Circuit win, but the way he’s contended in almost every event to this point in his career, it’s going to happen sooner than later.
“Sooner” could very well be in the next couple tournaments, though he almost certainly has Cherokee and the Detroit River highlighted in eight different colors on his calendar. The 27-year-old pro finished ninth at Cherokee last year, and his penchant for catching Northern smallies makes the Detroit River an event in which he’ll be one of the odds-on favorites to take home the win.
552 points – Jon Canada
Like Nelson, Jon Canada is fishing his second season on the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit. And like Nelson, he started his season strong on Rayburn after bombing there last year (152nd place).
That 10th-place finish in east Texas was apparently a sign of things to come for the 40-year-old Pro Circuit sophomore. He went on to post a 20th-place finish at the Harris Chain before finishing 21st at Martin last weekend. As with Becker and Nelson, consistency has been key.
While Canada may not have as much experience on lakes that comprise the upcoming schedule as some of his fellow competitors, there’s something to be said for momentum, not to mention the fact that Canada finished 50th at Cherokee last year and will have another shot at the rocky east Tennessee fishery in early June. If Canada’s marked improvement on Rayburn is any indication, his second go-round at Cherokee should be a fun one to watch.
539 points – John Cox
What does it say about John Cox that a 44th-place finish on a tough, unfamiliar fishery constitutes a letdown?
Despite not making the cut at Martin, Cox remains one of the most dangerous anglers on the planet. His win to start the season – an event in which the DeBary, Fla., pro left his comfort zone to scramble for a well-earned victory – allowed Cox to pick up where he left off last season, and he followed that up with a top 20 at home on the Harris Chain.
The scary part for the rest of the field is that we’re entering prime John Cox territory – the stretch of the schedule in which sight-fishing and shallow power-fishing becomes the norm rather than the exception. Sure, there were sight fish to be had in Florida and Alabama, but neither event really allowed Cox to fully play to his strengths given the erratic weather conditions at Harris and the stained, falling water at Martin.
With the weather starting to warm, the biggest thing that could keep Cox from making a run at AOY is just finishing out the full Pro Circuit schedule without having to miss any events that conflict with the Bassmaster Elite Series docket.
535 points – Dylan Hays
Last season – his third on the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit – was full of ups and down for Dylan Hays. Despite turning in a few top-35 performances (including third place at Cherokee), he also finished 80th or lower four times, en route to 58th in the final points standings.
What doesn’t show up in Hays’ 2019 Pro Circuit tournament report, though, is his Toyota Series win on Lake of the Ozarks last October – his first in FLW competition. That win seems to have flipped a switch for the 32-year-old El Dorado, Ark., pro, who has nearly made the day-three cut in all three tournaments to this point, hindered only by a 31st-place finish on Rayburn to open the season.
It’s a lot easier to fish relaxed and with confidence when you have some paychecks under your belt, and Hays has already cashed in $31,500 in 2020 Pro Circuit competition.
It should also be noted that Hays is one of the handful of anglers on the Pro Circuit who has quite a bit of prior experience on Dardanelle. Provided he can avoid a letdown at Hartwell, Hays will be in good shape to retain his top-five AOY standing at Dardanelle ahead of Cherokee, where he finished third last year.
The rest of the pack
In sixth place (532 points), Grae Buck represents maybe the most obvious choice to make a run at AOY should he make it through the next couple events unscathed. The smallie specialist finished runner-up at Cherokee last year and has the Detroit River on the other side of that event. He hasn’t fished a day four yet this season, but he’s made the day-three cut in all three derbies.
Spencer Shuffield (eighth place with 516 points) might be the pro to watch in the more immediate future, though. After fishing nine consecutive seasons from 2007-2015, the Hot Springs, Ark., pro returns to the Pro Circuit with a schedule that includes Dardanelle – a fishery on which he has plenty of experience. Shuffield also turned in top 10s as a co-angler on both Hartwell and Dardanelle when the Pro Circuit still had co-anglers.
The current top 10
1. Ron Nelson – Berrien Springs, Mich. – 585 points
2. Matt Becker – Finleyville, Pa. – 556
3. Jon Canada – Helena, Ala. – 552
4. John Cox – DeBary, Fla. – 539
5. Dylan Hays – El Dorado, Ark. – 535
6. Grae Buck – Green Lane, Pa. – 532
7. Jacob Wall – New Hope, Ala. – 525
8. Spencer Shuffield – Hot Springs, Ark. – 516
9. Jared McMillan – Belle Glade, Fla. – 512
10. Greg Bohannan – Bentonville, Ark. – 509