Last week, we reviewed the first half of the 2023 BPT season, uncovering an interesting pattern of specialization required to win. Until then, I was convinced that overall versatility was key to making a living as a bass pro today. While that may be the case, it’s obvious that it takes specialization to hoist the champion’s trophy. Or does it?
Let’s look into the second half of the BPT season in our quest to learn more. Remarkably, an entirely different theme comes forward.
Stage Four: Lake Guntersville
Winner: Jacob Wheeler
Well, we all knew it was just a matter of time. Wheeler is nearly a guarantee to win at least once each season, so it makes sense that his highlight would occur on one of the country’s most storied fisheries. Guntersville is a “been there, done that” type of lake, where it takes an incredibly detailed plan to win a multi-day event. That type of program is custom-made for Wheeler, and his approach to gamble and fish areas void of large schools paid off.
Whatever the intuitive sense or confidence that the best players possess is nearly always a factor in this type of tournament. These guys are simply in a category all their own, unafraid to strike out when swinging for the fences. Gambling won the tournament for Wheeler, as he reported 26 schools of bass in his rotation by the end of the tournament.
Stage Five: Cayuga Lake
Winner: Adrian Avena
How do you pass up 5-pound spawning smallmouths in an effort to find even bigger fish? I have no idea, but that’s exactly what Avena did in order to win this event. Cayuga featured the largest weights of any smallmouth tournament in history, thanks to perfect timing during the spawn and a population of bass that continue to increase in size year after year.
Where once a 4-pound smallie was a good one and a 5-pounder gave you a shot at big bass, today those lunkers are commonplace on many fisheries, requiring a bag full of even larger fish to win. Avena recognized this and didn’t fall victim to the siren song presented by beds full of 4-pound fish.
Avena’s gameplan was simple: Gamble on the chance that he could catch nothing but giants, which he did. Avena’s Championship Round tally of 10 bass weighing 58 pounds will likely hold as a smallmouth record for some time. Unless the brown bombers get even bigger!
Stage Six: Lake St. Clair
Winner: Jordan Lee
Jordan Lee has nothing to prove. The two-time Classic winner, General Tire World Champion and former BPT AOY has pretty much done it all, despite his young age and conservative appearance. In reality, the guy’s a monster on the water.
So it comes as no surprise that Lee took the biggest gamble of the year without worry. Forfeiting his ability to practice Canadian water prior to the St. Clair event, Lee returned to the fabled Belle River Hump on his first day and started fresh, uncertain if he’d even catch a bass.
But catch he did, in a big way. Lee jumped out to the tournament lead and never looked back. His impressive bags came as a result of a proven dropshot system in a proven area, despite never making a cast there before the starting bell. Only a few competitors would have taken that chance, again solidifying gambling as the best tournament strategy on the Bass Pro Tour this summer.
Stage Seven: Saginaw Bay
Winner: Matt Becker
Becker made history the final day of the 2023 BPT season by not only winning the event, but taking down the Angler of the Year title, thanks to a refined program of a catching smallmouth in deep, rough water.
Many fans may not realize that Becker nearly missed the cut in this event,and was forced to rely on largemouth tactics to qualify for the Knockout Round. On the final day, with nothing to lose, Becker again went smallmouth fishing, despite everything saying he shouldn’t.
Competitors and commentators alike love to remark how smallmouth bite best on pleasant days, so when the finals greeted competitors with relentless wind and rain, everyone chalked up the event to a power fisherman like KVD. The open-water smallies, they figured, wouldn’t show.
Becker knew better. While conditions were less than ideal, Becker’s experience as a big-water angler taught him that the best way to win was to gamble on the big bag. That could only come together with open-water smallmouth, wind and rain be damned.
Becker dialed in and refined his approach, locating the motherlode when he needed it most, and sacking the Championship Round’s biggest limit, anchored by a 5-pound kicker. His gamble paid off through the use of forward-facing sonar and the time-tested Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm, still a smallmouth favorite anytime it hangs on a hook.
Knowing when to hold ‘em. That was the key to winning in the second-half of the BPT season. Next, we’ll investigate the Elite Series to see how specialists and gamblers fared there. Some new faces received the majority of the attention on that tour. What was their secret?
(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.)