By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Jake Whitaker climbed from 32nd to 18 in the Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year (AOY) race with his Top-5 finish in last month's event at Lake St. Clair. Now the 2018 Rookie of the Year stands at least an outside chance of claiming the points title as the tour returns to his native part of the country for the final four events.

"We've still got a lot of work to do," said the affable North Carolinian. "Finishing 5th at St. Clair was awesome – I wouldn't necessarily say it was unexpected, but it was way better than I would've predicted myself to do. I'd only fished there a few times and to be able to go up there and be out of my comfort zone and find some fish and do really well on them was neat. I basically caught 22 pounds of smallmouth for 3 days in a row, so that was a lot of fun.

"Now we're going back down south, fishing for largemouth, and obviously that's something that I'm more comfortable with. I tend to do better in the tougher settings and, being late summer and early fall, they're not going to be smash-fests. I'm looking forward to seeing what's going on at each of those lakes.

The derby at Lake Guntersville that starts on Wednesday will kick off a stretch of three tournaments in as many weeks. It'll be followed by stops at the Santee Cooper Lakes and Lake Chickamauga.

Then, after 2 weeks off, the regular season will conclude with an event at Lake Fork in Texas.

"Grass should be in play at most of them and there should be some frog-fishing, which is one of my favorite things to do. There might be some topwater going on, too. It'll be a lot of power-fishing and moving around rather than sitting in one spot and that fits into my wheelhouse."

Could've Been Worse

The 5th-place finish that Whitaker logged at St. Clair was his second of the season – he ended up in that same spot in the opener at Florida's St. Johns River back in February. He also has two finishes in the 30s and a pair of 51sts, so he's been everywhere on the standings sheet except at the very bottom. That, of course, is a critical component of AOY contention.

The 51sts occurred in the back-to-back tournaments at the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain in late July. Those finishes would've been considerably worse if not for bounce-back performances on day 2.

At the St. Lawrence, he was 74th on day 1 after weighing a 12-14 sack. On day 2, he boxed 17-15 to gain 23 places in the standings.

At Champlain, a 14-00 day-1 stringer had him in 75th. He climbed 24 spots the next day with an 18-08 haul.

"A 51st isn't good, but it's a lot better than a 71st," he said. "I pretty much stayed with my program both times – it was one of those deals where you don't get the big ones to bite on one day, but the next day you do."

Always Keeping Tabs

Whitaker said he's constantly thinking about the AOY race, but not necessarily the top position.

"We all think about it – I think anyone who says they don't isn't telling the truth," he said. "You always want to make it as easy as you can on yourself and make sure you (qualify for the) Classic; that's what we're all shooting for. You want to be high enough in the standings so you're not a bubble boy or in danger of missing out.

"It's also important to win (individual events) and I definitely want to win. The more times I can put myself in position, my odds will obviously be better. It'll eventually happen."

His next opportunity will be at Guntersville – a venue where he has a fair amount of experience, but not much at this time of year.

"I think you're going to be able to pick whatever you want to do and catch some fish, although they may not be the winning fish. There should be plenty of shallow fish to be had, whether they're on grass or boat docks or whatever and there will still be some deep fish and some in between. You can name your game and go do it.

"I'm really anxious to see how these last four tournaments are going to play out. It'll be interesting to see the difference between how they fish in the spring and how they set up in the fall. It's going to be a lot of fun."