And much of the excitement can be traced back to the dramatic, nail-biting conclusion of last year’s battle royal for Angler of the Year.
It was simply one of the closest and most exciting Angler-of-the-Year races in BASS history, coming down to the last day of the season as young Alabama pro Gerald Swindle sweated it out on shore while 2004 Rookie of the Year, Greg Hackney, fished in the semifinal round — needing to finish eighth or better in the 12-man field to score an unthinkable BASS double by taking home two of the sport’s biggest titles.
By day’s end, Hackney’s disappointment combined with Swindle’s elation as the Louisiana pro dropped to ninth, giving Swindle a narrow 3-point victory. Such notables as reigning CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion Michael Iaconelli, Kelly Jordon and Skeet Reese weren’t far behind in the Angler of the Year standings.
And during the fall CITGO Bassmaster Open season, Hackney kept his career momentum moving forward by winning the Southern Opens points title and qualifying for the Open Championship finals.
That is the backdrop for the 2005 Angler of the Year race, which will reward the winner with $100,000 and a livewell full of bragging rights.
Right now, those rights belong to Swindle, 35.
It will be a new position for Swindle, who has never won a BASS tournament. But the five-time Classic contender insists that he does not feel any pressure entering the new season.
“Some people think that if you win this title, you’ve got the bull’s eye on you,” he said. “Nah, you don’t. The other guys just want to win the title. The only way I feel different this year is a greater sense of maturity. I feel a little more comfortable on the water. Last year, I didn’t feel any jitters, and I’m not nervous this year, either. If anything, I’m a little more calm about everything.”
Last season, Swindle did his best not to think about the evolving Angler of the Year race until the final Tour event. He plans a similar approach this time around.
“That’s exactly what my strategy will be this year,” he said. “If I’m fortunate to be in the running, I’ll try not to think about it until the last tournament.”
Unlike last season, when three of the six Tour events took place in his native Alabama, Swindle faces a different kind of challenge in 2005. But he is nonplussed by the schedule.
“It actually helps me because two of the tournaments were at Eufaula and Guntersville, where I’ve never really set the water on fire,” Swindle said. “Last year going to Smith, I admit I had a lot of confidence. But not with the other two (Alabama) lakes.”
“I’m really looking forward to getting back to Guntersville because I feel I’m capable of redeeming myself there. I actually like the lakes we’re going to this year better than I did the ones we went to last year.”
Again in 2005, CITGO will pay $100,000 to the leader of the points race at the end of the six-event CITGO Bassmaster Tour. What’s more, CITGO is rewarding other top finishers on the Tour with an additional $200,000. The runner-up this year will receive $30,000, while the third place finisher will get $20,000. The rest of the prize money will be distributed through 25th place in the rankings.
Swindle, easily one of the most quotable pros on the Tour, was asked to handicap the 2005 Angler of the Year race.
“I’ll give you two or three guys to watch, along with a dark horse,” he predicted. “Of course, everybody is picking Hackney. I’m looking for Iaconelli to do well. And Mark Davis. Then my dark horse, somebody who is moving up, would be Skeet Reese. I think Skeet will be right there in the top five making a run at it. I think he’s due and he’s a good fisherman. He’s been very consistent.”
“And I’ll have to throw in John Murray, because of the way things have been going his way. He’s quiet, and he flies under the radar. He’s a low profile guy, but, dude, he’s been getting the job done.”