The Toyota Series Championship kicks off this week, gathering a widely diverse group. When the format was initially announced, I admit, I had my doubts about the endless qualifying routes. Sometimes tournament organizers have a tendency to get carried away with the teasers.
A case in point: There have been times when it was easier for a grass-roots angler to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic than a pro, in terms of steps and competition involved. The same could be said for the Forrest Wood Cup, where a single college-level win could get a guy in.
Anyway, I always felt that the World Championships should mostly be reserved for touring pros. But, in the case of the Toyota Series’ premier test, the Cinderella story is alive and well.
Table Rock will provide the perfect proving grounds. The reservoir hosts big tournaments well. Plenty of water, a wide range of species and tactics, and the ability for competitors to fish fresh water instead of endlessly cycling through the same schools, as is often the case elsewhere. Add in an early freeze to much of the country, and we’re primed for a compelling contest.
Let’s look at a few standouts across the brackets, starting with regular-season qualifiers through the six Toyota Series divisions and Wildcard.
Southern: The names Bobby Lane, Ron Nelson (Michigan commuter) and veteran big-money angler Joel Richardson jump off the page.
Southwest: Todd Castledine, Keith Combs (Bassmaster commuter) and Dakota Ebare. Good grief. I can’t imagine fishing local tournaments in Texas.
Plains: This overlooked proving grounds hosted Dennis Berhorst (a 10-time MLF winner and Ozark monster), Trevor McKinney (one of the strongest 20-somethings in the world) and former college standout Cole Breeden.
Northern: Grae Buck, Pennsylvania’s hammer, joins Texan Kyle Hall, winner of a half-million dollars in the last two years. And I ‘d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ohio’s Jim Vitaro. A long-time friend, Vitaro has been grinding away in the Midwest for three decades and gets closer to a big win every year. If anyone in the field is due, it’s Vitaro.
Western: Californ-i-a is the place you wanna be. Unless you want to compete against Ish Monroe, Mark Lassagne and David Valdivia.
Central: Casey Martin, Jordan Wiggins and Jacopo Gallelli all have the experience to pull it off.
Wildcard: Brent Chapman, Roy Hawk, Cody Huff, Jeff Reynolds, Spencer Shuffield … seriously?
The field is stacked from the get-go. Then, we must factor in the other avenues.
International qualifiers come from nine countries outside the U.S.. These include Canada and Mexico (Canadian Erik Luzak will be one to watch), Italy, South Africa and anywhere you’ve ever heard of bass being caught (except, strangely, Japan).
The All-American brings us seven pros, including Jeremy Lawyer, who’s probably been eyeing this event since its announcement. Also on hand will be long-time competitor and winner Edward Gettys and the other Wiggins, BPT pro Jesse.
We’ve got college and high school national fishing champions on board, as well as TBF champion Andy Fryer. This young Ohioan “Won the Dream” last year, receiving a boat, entries and prize package (including travel expenses) totaling over $125,000. The location of his win: the Ozarks.
The stage is set and the names are here. All three species of bass could play a role. The easy predictions will focus on this turning into a forward-forcing sonar battle, but such drastic weather cold prove otherwise.
I’ve always heard about Ozark patterns in the fall; wild tactics in cold weather. The biggest fish rushing the banks, and buzzbaits in the snow.
Could this, the final major event of the year, turn into the tournament we won’t soon forget? One thing’s for sure: it won’t be easy.
The winner will earn the title of champion.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)