By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
After a competitive career spanning 3 1/2 decades and highlighted by three tour-level Angler of the Year (AOY) titles, a Bassmaster Classic victory and election to the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2020, Jay Yelas has announced his retirement from tournament fishing.
The 57-year-old Oregon resident missed the second half of this year's Bassmaster Elite Series campaign due to tendinitis in both elbows, but said that was only a minor part of his decision. The biggest factor is he wants to devote more time to his role as executive director of the C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation, which he's held since 2015.
In two stints on B.A.S.S.' top circuit sandwiched around a 13-year run as an FLW-only competitor, he amassed five wins, 76 finishes among the Top 10 and more than $2.6 million in earnings.
"I just feel like that part of my life has run its course and I'm retiring to a full-time job with C.A.S.T. for Kids," he said. "The Foundation has grown so much and that's where my passion is now – spending time with and serving the kids and families who attend our events.
"It's been a great career, but I'm ready for the next chapter of my life. I've found something that I love more than tournament fishing. This is a calling that God has put on me and it's what I want to do when I wake up every morning.
"I think I could still have some good years fishing," he continued, "but it's a young man's game and it's time for me to step aside and let a younger guy have my spot on the Elite Series."
C.A.S.T. for Kids, the nation's largest children's-oriented fishing charity, is dedicated to facilitating a day on the water for special-needs and disadvantaged youth. Yelas oversees a staff of five full-time employees and two part-timers, along with hundreds of volunteers all over the U.S.
It's conducted 80 events serving several thousand children in 30 states in 2022 – an all-time high for the organization. He hopes to eventually expand the program's reach to all 50 states.
"Like everybody else, COVID slowed us down a little bit, but we've come roaring back," he said. "To me, we're still in the early innings of our growth. It's been around for 31 years, but since I started 7 years ago it's tripled in size and I look forward to seeing what we can do over the next 7 years. One thing's for sure – we're going to get a lot more kids out there fishing.
Yelas celebrates his victory in the 2002 Bassmaster Classic at Lay Lake in Alabama.
"A lot of the kids we get are blind or quadriplegic, or they have Down syndrome or autism. It's an opportunity for them to be celebrated and have fun and go fishing. For me, it's a special experience to serve the less fortunate that way."
Yelas was born in Hawaii and moved to California with his family as a pre-teen. A graduate of Oregon State University, he launched his pro career with a 12th-place finish in the 1989 B.A.S.S. Nevada Invitational at Lake Mead.
He collected his first win in 1993 in the Maryland Bassmaster Top 100 on the Potomac River and won the Classic in 2002 at Alabama's Lay Lake (he led after each competition day and took big-bass honors in all three rounds). He was the Bassmaster AOY in 2003 and the FLW Tour points champion in 2002 and 2007.
Always vocal and forthcoming about his Christian beliefs, he left B.A.S.S. in 2005 when he felt like the organization, which had been purchased by ESPN, was emphasizing aspects of the sport that he didn't consider totally positive. He returned under the "legends exemption" in 2019 after B.A.S.S. had undergone two more ownership changes and the formation of the MLF Bass Pro Tour had siphoned off roughly two-thirds of the Elite Series roster.
His best finish since his return was a 3rd at Lake Fork in 2020, which gave him Top-10 showings in five different decades.
The father of two adult daughters became a grandfather in June and looks forward to spending more time with family.
"This is really kind of a relief for me because I've had a heavy workload during the tournament season trying to do both jobs," he said. "C.A.S.T. for Kids is a labor of love for me; the hugs those kids give you, it just melts your heart. It makes me want to serve them more and give them that opportunity that they otherwise would never have."