A lot of BassFans are probably wondering: Can 2007 FLW Tour Angler of the Year (AOY) Jay Yelas come back with another strong season?
If history's the judge, the answer's yes. After all, he won back-to-back FLW Tour and BASS AOY titles in 2002-03. But a lot's changed since that time.
"Our world is definitely more competitive than ever," Yelas said while en route to catch an airplane to Dallas for a meeting with one of his sponsors. "Everyone seems to get better more quickly, and the young guys are coming out better prepared than ever."
He opens 2008 ranked No. 7 in the BassFan World Rankings presented by Tru-Tungsten. Only one angler in the Top 10, Peter Thliveros, has been at the tour level longer (26 years). No. 1 Kevin VanDam (18 years) is close, while many others, like Boyd Duckett,
aren't close at all.
Yelas owns five major victories, one of which was the 2002 Bassmaster Classic, and 61 Top 10 finishes. He finished 2nd twice in a row last year – a near impossible feat on the 200-boat FLW Tour. And he did that after a 6th-place finish.
So he was definitely fishing at or near the peak of his ability.
How does Yelas keep doing it? One factor, he said, was softening the valleys that come after the peaks.
"I think one of the keys to my longevity has been keeping the bad years from being too bad," he said. "I don't think the concept of momentum is very well understood. I don't understand it. We don't really know how to create momentum. But once you get it, I know from experience there are some things you can do to keep it going.
He did say that 2 years is a "long time" stay at the top, especially now that competition is more intense than it's ever been at the tour level. But he also said that he knows it's possible to have "another really good year" in 2008, because "throughout (his) career, the real highs have lasted longer than just one season."
He also knows that circumstances can turn in a heartbeat. He talked about being "one bass on the wrong side" of victory in major events. "(But) last year, I ended up being one fish on the right side in the FLW (AOY) race. There are times like that in everyone's career when you just get the breaks. I hope it continues this season. My goal is to win AOY again."
According to Yelas, a will to learn also plays a role in maintaining momentum. Wholesale change isn't what he's after. But he does want to stay at the cutting edge, and continue to fold new baits and techniques into his skill set.
As one example, the decision to include swimbaits in his tacklebox played a major role in his success last year. It's indicative, he said, of the role new baits, presentations and techniques have played and will continue to play on tour.
"The waters we fish are getting more intelligent fishing pressure than ever before," he noted. "It's not a stretch to suggest that all the keepers in those lakes have been caught at least once, and some multiple times. The fish we're after are more educated than ever, and that means I have to be more creative than ever in catching them.
"I believe a big key to my success last season was fishing swimbaits on lakes where the bass had never seen them before. A new bait or technique will prove effective like that for maybe a couple years, but then it'll be something else."
He added that "intelligent fishing pressure" is the reason he's so committed to staying open-minded about new lures, presentations and techniques. When he won his AOY titles 5 and 6 years ago, he did it with classic baits like spinnerbaits and jigs. "They just aren't as effective now as they used to be," he said. "Swimbaits, dropshotting and ChatterBaits are things you hear about now that are hot. They're hot because they're effective."
Not only are bass seeing more intelligent fishing pressure, but he also noted that the FLW Tour's prime waters aren't stagnant. "Our fisheries are as good as they've ever been, and catch-and-release has played a big role in that. But they cycle. Some lakes have become more developed, and we find a lot more boat docks to fish than we did when I first fished some of those places."
Practice: Less is Better
Probably the biggest question BassFans have this year is whether the new FLW Tour's new limited practice and no-info rules will help or hurt veterans like Yelas. After all, he made much of his mark in the sport under a limited practice format.
Yelas is clear when it comes to the new format: he likes it. Whether or not it'll help him, he's not sure.
"On paper, the decrease in practice looks like it'll provide a huge advantage to the tour veterans who've been on those lakes before," he said. "They have more experience, and I believe they should enjoy that advantage.
"The tour veterans have earned that, and they deserve it," he added. "They're the ones who've paid their dues and supported tournament fishing over the long term. You can put any club fisherman on a lake for 3 weeks, and that fisherman is going to learn where to find bass to catch.
"To me, one of the real strengths a truly good pro has is the ability to find quality fish on a given body of water in a limited amount of time. That's why I like the rule changes. They return that element of tournament fishing to the equation."
> "I think finesse fishing will stay big and continue to become more important as time goes on," Yelas said. "It's a technique that we pretty much have to resort to because of all the intelligent fishing pressure our bass are getting these days."
> "I'm working with a couple of baits that nobody's fishing yet," he noted. "I'll continue to work on new things because you can't expect to be successful by just doing the same old things."