By Todd Ceisner
The 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series season is six events old, but with three full-field events plus the 50-man Angler of the Year (AOY) championship event and the Classic Bracket to round things out, there’s plenty of unfinished business on the water.
At this point, though, it’s safe to say it’s been a banner year for the Elite Series rookies. There are four among the top 35 in AOY points. Between those four – Mark Daniels, Dustin Connell, Jamie Hartman and Jesse Wiggins – they’ve collected five top-10 finishes, including one win (Connell at Ross Barnett Reservoir). Only Daniels, who’s been the most consistent, is without a top-3 finish (his best result is 25th).
A few years ago, when FLW Tour competitors began migrating to the Elite Series, the talk was how much stiffer the competition would become. That’s certainly been the case, but now the rookies are hitting the ground running as they carve out their own space in B.A.S.S.’ top circuit.
This year’s crop of rookies didn’t waste any time proving they belonged.
Hartman and Wiggins showed their mettle right off the hop with a runner-up and 3rd-place showing, respectively, at the season opener at Cherokee Lake, which was won by Jacob Wheeler, another Elite Series newcomer, but not a rookie as defined by B.A.S.S.
Floridian Jesse Tacoronte was the highest-finishing rookie (16th) at Lake Okeechobee and Hartman was in the mix right until the end again at Toledo Bend before finishing 3rd. Connell went off the map (almost) at Ross Barnett Reservoir and won fishing way up the Pearl River, edging Kevin VanDam. At Sam Rayburn, where the first Toyota Texas Fest was held, Alton Jones, Jr., another rookie, claimed his first top-12 showing with an 8th-place finish.
At Lake Dardanelle last month, Hartman again found himself in contention before settling for 6th, his third top-6 finish so far. Aside from Okeechobee, there’s been at least one rookie competing on the final day of each Elite Series event this season.
“I haven’t had that great of a year, but I’ve cashed checks in four out of six events,” Wiggins said as he assessed his season so far, “and I’m still 60 points behind Mark. Everybody is so dang good and it shows, even the rookies.”
Right now, Daniels is 15th in AOY points and holds a 4-point lead over Connell in the chase for Rookie of the Year. Hartman is 23rd overall in points and 18 points behind Connell, who’s in 17th. Wiggins is 35th, which would put him on the bubble to make next year’s Bassmaster Classic, but he’s already qualified via his win at the Harris Chain Southern Open earlier this year.
With a schedule dominated by northern fisheries remaining, BassFan caught up with the top four rookies to get a sense of what their seasons have been like so far and what they expect of themselves the rest of the way.
BassFan: What’s been the toughest aspect of being an Elite Series rookie?
> Mark Daniels: “Crossing over, all the new fisheries. FLW fished a lot of the same water over and over so you get experienced at those places. Crossing over to B.A.S.S., out of the nine lakes, I’d only been to three. It’s a gift and curse because you fish with an open mind, but it’s hard to beat experience.”
> Dustin Connell: “Knowing that I really need to do well so I can continue to do this because I don’t have a lot of sponsor help. The financial pressure is a strain. When you leave home and drive 1,300 miles and don’t know if you’re getting paid and knowing you’re probably going to spend $3,000. That’s been tough.”
> Jamie Hartman: “The unfamiliarity of the fisheries and learning them and the fish movement. That’s the biggest one for any of us.”
> Jesse Wiggins: “Just the new lakes I’d never been to. I had never been to any of the lakes on our schedule.”
BF: What’s been the best decision you’ve made so far this season?
> MD: “Fishing my strengths. At Cherokee, I didn’t have a great finish. The majority of the field was fishing offshore for smallmouth and I tried to get that going in practice, but couldn’t do it. I wanted to keep at it, but I wound up falling back on what I’m comfortable doing and it worked out for me.”
> DC: “On Friday at Ross Barnett, I had to scrap everything I had going on day 1. I almost gave up on the winning deal, but I went back through it at 10 a.m. I slowed down and picked it apart. I ended up catching 17 pounds flipping in 2 1/2 hours. That showed me I was doing to the right thing. I could’ve gone with a shaky-head to save myself, but I didn’t.”
> JH: “Putting all of my eggs in one basket and leaving New York and putting in my time. If I hadn’t have done that, I don’t think I’d have had the success I’ve had so far.”
> JW: “At Cherokee, I hadn’t found anything in practice and I never gave up idling and I found that place on the last day in practice that I almost won on.”
BF: Where did you expect to be in the points standings at this point of the season?
> MD: “I had no clue. I was just trying to size up all the new fisheries. I knew I’d be giving it 100 percent to help myself with pre-practicing and doing all of the homework. I wanted to be inside the Classic cut, but didn’t expect to be where I’m at.”
> DC: “I expected to be in the top 20. I wanted to do well and felt like I would. To be honest, I’m pretty disappointed right now. I had some technical difficulties on day 1 at Dardanelle and that set the tone for that day. If you have one bad day, your whole tournament is done.”
> JH: “About where I’m at. I figured I’d be able to figure a few lakes out and there’d be a few I’d be blank on and that’s about what’s happened. I didn’t think I’d have some extreme bad finishies but I didn’t think I’d have the high finishes I’ve had either.
> JW: “I was already in the (2018) Classic so I wasn’t really thinking about the points. The worst I wanted to do was to qualify for the Classic. The best would’ve been in the top 10. Anything less than qualifying for the Classic, I’d be disappointed. I still wanted to say I qualified for the Classic through the points.”
BF: What’s one thing you need to do to remain successful as the schedule heads north?
> MD: “Keep an open mind and follow my gut instincts and not be afraid to act on them. A lot of times, something will cross your mind, but you’ll talk yourself out of it. Being able to fish like it’s practice during a tournament is hard to do, but it can be beneficial.”
> DC: “I have to stay versatile. I have to keep an open mind. The whole schedule has been shallow water all year and I kind of got tired of doing that. You could’ve swam a jig and flipped all year and done well, but I need to stay versatile.”
> JH: “I need to stay consistent on the upper end. Even though I’m coming up to the northern swing, anything can happen. That proved itself at Oneida. I had a terrible finish. I’ve never been overconfident. I have to stay humble and consistent.”
> JW: “I have to keep covering water in practice. I know that’s my weakest link. I’m running out of areas in practice. I’ve barely gotten by in most of the tournaments and I hate that.”
BF: Why do you think you’re going to win Rookie of the Year?
> MD: “Because of hard work and determination. It’s a title that I’d like to own.”
> DC: “Because I love catching smallmouth and I love learning. When I fished up there it’s a big learning curve because the water is super clear. I’m more excited about these three tournaments than any of the others all year. To be honest, it’s a dream for me to go fishing up there. A lot of people don’t get to experience it. I won’t hand it to them, I’ll tell you that much.”
> JH: “Because I’m putting my time in. That’s the only reason I’m putting all of this time in.”
> JW: “I’m going to try to win it. That’s my goal. I just love catching smallmouth.”