May 27, 2020
by Kyle Wood
As the 2020 Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit season looks to start back up in June on Lake Chickamauga, there are some new factors to consider in the Angler of the Year race.
Of course, the recent expansion to the Pro Circuit with the addition of the “Super Tournaments” where Major League Fishing (MLF) pros will join the Pro Circuit field for the final three events is an exciting one, no doubt. But, MLF anglers will not be competing for points, so it’s the original Pro Circuit field that will be vying for the Angler of the Year award.
Obviously, changes to the event locations and times of year will shape how the tournaments themselves unfold, but more importantly it could have an impact on how the AOY race shakes out. So, we decided to dive back into the standings and see who at the top could stay strong and who may slip in the final three events.
Nelson still in charge
After three Pro Circuit events, Ron Nelson sits strongly atop the AOY standings at the moment with 585 points – 29 points ahead of second-place Matt Becker. Never finishing below 11th place this year, Nelson is in the midst of a stellar sophomore season.
Nelson is an absolute hammer in the spring of the year thanks in large part to his sight-fishing prowess, which nearly earned him the win on Lake Martin back in March. Last year on Chick in the FLW Tour event in May he also made a run at the win thanks to some heavy lifting in the sight-fishing department. But this time around to Chick may not be as kind.
With the event being held at the end of June it is most certainly going to be an offshore shootout and truth be told, we haven’t seen Nelson in a solely offshore Tennessee River tournament yet in his career – whether it be on Tour or in the Toyota Series. That being said, Nelson did catch some of his fish offshore on Chick last year when he finished third in the Tour event. He also caught his fish offshore on Rayburn this year en route to his fifth-place finish. Still, the jury is still out on how he’ll fare when the entire field is searching for offshore schools. Nevertheless, Nelson is ridiculously fishy by nature – maybe even Bryan Thrift level, well, close anyhow – and it may be a safe bet that he still catches them in this event, or catches them good enough to survive for the final two events. Call it a hunch, but look for Nelson to escape Chickamauga with a top 30 or better finish, which would be ridiculously impressive considering the talent in the field and his lack of experience on the Tennessee River system in the summer.
The Mississippi River will be the next test, and again, Nelson doesn’t have the experience there, but he does fare well on rivers. The fact he’ll be able to wind a swimbait, swim a jig or toss a frog plays in his favor. Plus, anytime there are smallmouths and largemouths to be caught, Nelson is on full display. So expect the Michigan pro to find his groove and keep sailing towards the Detroit River where he will really get to showcase his talents.
Ending the season on the Detroit River will without question play to the hand of Nelson. Sure, there are some smallmouth hammers behind him, but Nelson will be in his element come early August on the smallmouth mecca. He has a pile of knowledge and experience on the Great Lakes and St. Clair and it honestly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him compete for the win in this one.
The verdict on Nelson is that while he may not be a lock for AOY, he certainly has the right skill set and talent to make it happen in 2020.
Becker down, not out
After making the top-30 cut at every event this year – including his fourth-place finish on Martin – Matt Becker is also having a stout year. He’s improved his AOY finish every season on Tour and is now in a good place to best his finish from last season of 14th. The only issue for Becker is that summertime on the Tennessee River has proved to be a bit of sticking point for him in his career.
Last year on Chickamauga, though it wasn’t totally an offshore deal, Becker posted a 132nd showing. The year prior on Kentucky Lake he finished 102nd. On paper, things may not look great for Becker at the next stop and it’ll certainly be his biggest challenge of the year. However, Becker is fishing the Toyota Series event on Pickwick, and regardless of his finish in that he’ll have gained another layer of Tennessee River knowledge. So, don’t count him out at Chick yet.
Like Nelson, Becker doesn’t boast much of any Mississippi River experience, so it could be another test for the 27-year-old pro.
His light at the end of the tunnel and biggest opportunity to make up ground will come on the Detroit River in August. Having the event moved later in the year may have actually helped Becker’s cause since he is one of the few Lake Erie specialists in the field, and Erie can really show out that time of year.
But without question the next event, maybe two, will really set the pace for Becker and set the tone for how much of that Great Lakes experience he’ll have to call on to have a shot at his first AOY title.
The rest of the pack
Behind Becker and Nelson, the rest of the top 10 features some serious talent. Interestingly, the majority of them could be considered shallow-water specialists, which could both help and hurt them in the final three events. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the 10 also lack major professional experience, so it’ll be worth watching to see how they handle the pressure in the home stretch.
Jon Canada is currently in third with 552 points and is also on a tear in his sophomore season. Last year was tough on Canada – both on and off the water – but this year he’s turned things around. Generally speaking, Canada is at his best up shallow and that should suit him well on the Mississippi River, but Chickamauga and the Detroit River could be too much of a battle to overcome, especially being sandwiched between John Cox, Nelson and Becker.
Of course, John Cox would be on the watch list to move up the ranks if his schedule wasn’t such a mystery. It’s likely that he’ll miss the Mississippi River event to fish the B.A.S.S. Elite Series event on Champlain at the same time, so his ability to fish all the events is very much in question. He’s currently in fourth with 539 points, and obviously impossible to count out, but it’s an uphill battle.
Down the list, Dylan Hays, Grae Buck, Jacob Wall, Spencer Shuffield, Jared McMillan and Greg Bohannan round out the top 10. While most of these guys are likely to have decent events to finish the year, it’s hard to pick one out that will go on a tear to make a run at AOY.
Hays has shown he can catch brown fish and is well versed for shallow largemouth, but is a little love-hate when it comes to the Tennessee River. Buck, Wall and J-Mac would also fall into that category.
Shuffield, on the other hand, would be one to keep an eye out to make a big move from his eighth-place seat. He’s done well on Tennessee River fisheries in the summer and caught them on the Detroit River before. His only knock is lack of experience on the Mississippi River, but his shallow, power-fishing strength should be enough to help lead him to a good finish. If we were still going to Dardanelle he’d have one event with a huge home field advantage, but even so, he’s one to watch.
The final three events will be different enough that we will likely see plenty of fireworks in terms of who will falter and who will be versatile enough to earn the AOY crown. At this point it’s hard to bet against Nelson keeping his pace and making a run, but there is some serious talent both inside and outside the top 10 to keep an eye out for. If one of these guys heats up and Nelson lets off the gas, it could be a heck of a race to the finish.