In 2003, Jay Yelas was fresh off of a victory in the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer when he went on to surprise the fishing world by becoming just the second reigning Classic champion to follow up with the coveted CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. (David Fritts is the other.)
In 2004, Yelas struggled en route to finishing 56th in the Angler of the Year point standings.
Still, the 38-year-old Texan remains tied with three-time Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam for the longest active consecutive streak of Classic qualifications with 14. As the 2003 Angler of the Year, his berth in the 2004 Classic this summer in Charlotte was assured
"I'm fortunate that the Angler of the Year gets an automatic berth the following year," Yelas said. "That started with Davy Hite and last year's Classic. It's a huge luxury. I've been fortunate to have an automatic berth the last two years from winning the Classic and then Angler of the Year. I've forgotten what it's like to have to fight tooth and nail to make the Classic.
"Next year I'll be back, though. I'll have to do it again next year, unless I win the Classic this year."
Yelas, who has not missed the Classic since failing to qualify during his rookie year in 1989-90, had a very uncharacteristic Tour season performance this spring. It began with a 56th-place showing at the Harris Chain; improved at Smith Lake (29); plummeted with an 136th place at Lake Guntersville; rose sharply with a 15th at Table Rock; took a nosedive following 105th finish at Lake Eufaula; and came to an end with a mediocre 72nd at Santee-Cooper.
"This year was the worst Tour finish that I can recall having had in my career," Yelas admitted. "I don't know what to attribute it to other than I went out this year and tried to approach it the same way I did last year.
"Last year, I didn't put forth the effort I had in past years, and I won Angler of the Year. I was pretty casual about it because I had the Classic already made. And then I won Angler of the Year for the first time, so naturally it made sense that I should use the same mental approach this year.
"This year I bombed out. But I think last year was just a special year. I was blessed last year, and the lesson I learned this year is, hey, don't forget the value of hard work, big boy."
Yelas' 2003 Angler of the Year heroics were remarkable because only in recent years has the reigning Classic champion done well the following season, when the demands on his time become overwhelming. Surprisingly, he says his workload (seminars, public appearances and sponsor duties) did not lessen in 2004.
"It was the same, except for not writing a book. I actually did more seminars and appearances this year than I did last year. I've had past Classic champions tell me that your demand doesn't go away after the next year. It's there for the next five years or so. Or as long as you continue to do well in tournaments.
"That's the tough part - trying to balance doing all of these appearances, which are good for your sponsors and you can make good money doing them with your fishing. It's hard to forego those, but usually you end up arriving at a tournament running a little bit behind and getting in late. And your mind hasn't been on the tournament because you've been out promoting.
"I think a guy can manage all those appearances, but he has to really look hard at doing a lot of the mental and physical preparation well ahead of when you normally would. I'm only home four days a month during the spring schedule. You really have to be on top of your game fishing. It will really test the merits of a guy's trying to fit that much into the first three and a half months of the year."
With his 14th Classic ticket in hand, Yelas is determined to rebound during the four Bassmaster Elite 50 events (he finished 11th in the season-opener).
"Hopefully, I can throw a good (Elite 50) season together and make up for the slow start on the Tour," he said.
THE OLD GUARD. Although a great deal has been made in recent years about the onslaught of fresh, young and talented faces in professional fishing, this is the sport where experience is most valued.
Proof of that can be seen in the list of anglers who have already qualified for the 2004 Classic. The Old Guard didn't do too badly on the CITGO Bassmaster Tour this season.
Examples: Florida's Jim Bitter might be 61, but he earned his second consecutive (and seventh overall) Classic invitation; 58-year-old Harold Allen scored his 15th; 55-year-old Denny Brauer won a tournament and his 17th Classic ticket; Stacey King, 55, laid claim to his 10th Classic appearance; and Gary Klein, 46, earned his 22nd Classic invitation.
DID YOU KNOW? When the Bassmaster Elite 50 series comes to Columbus, Miss., and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway May 19-22, it will be just the second time a BASS event has been held there. Arkansas' Kevin Short won the CITGO Bassmaster Central Open there last August with 39 pounds, 4 ounces.
PRO BIRTHDAYS. California's Mike O'Shea turns 43 on May 4. Eight-time BASS winner Shaw Grigsby celebrates his 48th birthday on May 11, while Tim Loper of Mississippi becomes 45 two days later. Michigan pro Gerry Gostenik will blow out 45 candles on May 16. Former Classic champion Davy Hite will be 39 two days later. Another former Classic winner, Paul Elias (53), California's Robert Lee (36) and Oklahoma's Jeff Kriet (35) all share May 19 as their birthday.
IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... Louisiana pro Sam Swett would still own his business constructing portable buildings.
THEY SAID IT. "I love doing it. It's a lot of fun. But I think it's probably the hardest way to catch fish in a tournament because it's so much work and you have to concentrate so hard. Everything has to go right. The sun can't go behind a cloud at a critical moment. Somebody can't move in the boat or drop something that spooks them. You have to catch them right when their mood's right." Texas pro and 2004 Santee Cooper event winner Kelly Jordon on sight fishing.
For additional information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.