By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Jay Yelas' next birthday will be his 50th, and he acknowledges that his greatest competitive seasons are probably behind him. Nonetheless, the three-time tour-level Angler of the Year (AOY) and 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion is certain that he can do considerably better than he has the last 2 years.
The 86th-place points finish he logged on the FLW Tour this year was just one slot better than his 2014 final position. Both were far, far worse than any he'd posted previously for a full campaign.
He plans to do better in 2016.
"I've still got a great love for the sport, but I feel like I haven't made the most of my ability at all these last couple years," he said. "At my age, I may not be what I was at 30 or 35, but I need to get the most out of who I am today and I haven't been doing that.
"You don't just wake up one day and forget how to catch fish. I certainly need to inventory the situation – maybe I need to prepare a little more, maybe I haven't had the drive that I once did or maybe I haven't been as focused as I used to be. Those are all intangibles and you can regain those just through sheer will and determination."
Pulled in Several Directions
Yelas's streak of qualifying for a championship event (Bassmaster Classic or Forrest Wood Cup) in 24 straight seasons, which ended in 2014, is a testament to the consistency that he's exhibited throughout his long career. He's undergone a lot of life changes since reaching his pinnacle more than a decade ago and his existence outside the realm of competition continues to evolve.
First there was the move from Texas to Oregon, where the native Californian attended college. Then there was a major focus on the competitive endeavors (primarily softball) of his daughters. Now he's almost a year in to his role as executive director for the C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation, which is a full-time position.
Diverting his attention in so many different directions has unquestionably hindered his performance on Tour.
"The older you get, the busier life gets, and I've had a lot going on," he said. "That single-minded focus is so important to excel at the highly competitive national level – you can't have all these other interests that are distractions from tournament fishing. I know what it takes to do well: You've got go give it your all.
"If you're giving pretty much your best effort, but not quite, you can't compete against these kids who are out here now. You can't just show up and say, 'Okay, come on fish, get in the boat.' That doesn't work, and I've known that for years. I've chosen to do some other things in life, and that may have resulted in me not putting as much effort (into tournament fishing) as I need to."
He once heard a saying that he believes fully applies to professional fishing: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.
"How bad do you want it? The guys who want it the most are usually the ones who end up on top in bass fishing. No matter your age, your talent level or the successes you've had in the past, you've got to want it bad and you have to sacrifice some other things to maintain that single-minded focus.
"I think I can still have several good years past the age of 50, although maybe not my best years. If I was a major league baseball player or something like that and I had 2 years like I did, I'd be done. The great thing about fishing is you can hang in there and get on a bit of a comeback trail."
A Labor of Love
Time management will be ultra-critical for Yelas in 2016. He's determined to be better prepared for each tournament, but must accomplish that without slacking off in his C.A.S.T. for Kids role, which involves a great deal of administrative work and travel to a dozen or more events around the country (the charitable organization's primary focus is conducting one-day fishing events for special-needs children).
He said that job is every bit as important to him at this stage of his life as tournament fishing.
"I'd still love to win the Cup, but I've pretty much lived all my dreams," he said. "I've done this for a living for 28 years and I've won some big tournaments and some major titles. When I look back at my body of work, it's been a long, fun, successful career.
"At this point, I get more gratification out of these (C.A.S.T. events) than I do out of showing up at a tournament and getting a Top-10. Seeing the joy on those kids' faces when they get to catch fish and then be honored in front of their peers and their families, that's always fresh and it never gets old. They don't have many days that are just for them, where they're the center of everybody's attention and people celebrate what they achieve. To be part of something that enriches their lives like that is really special.
"It's something that I plan to keep doing for at least the next 20 years."
> C.A.S.T. conducted 49 events in 2015 and should exceed 60 next year. "The goal is to get to 100 in 3 years and adding 15 or 16 every year will do it," Yelas said. "You could do one at every big lake in the country if you had the volunteers, because the kids are out there."
> He hopes to find the time for some pre-practice at Lake Okeechobee prior to the 2016 Tour opener, which will take place Feb. 4-7. Horrible finishes in Florida (140th at Toho this year, 149th at Okeechobee in 2013) have laid the foundations for his sub-par seasons.