ONAMIA, Minnesota – The wind-blown, 55-degree waters of Mille Lacs Lake in east-central Minnesota might seem like an odd place for a man from Warrior, Alabama to complete a journey. But for Mercury pro Gerald Swindle, Mille Lacs and the Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship represent the culmination of a season that may define an already-successful professional career.
As he motors out onto Mille Lacs this week in search of some of the biggest smallmouth in the world, Swindle holds a nearly insurmountable lead in the 2016 Bassmaster AOY race: “G-Man” has racked up 843 points after nine regular-season events to 800 for his closest competitor, Keith Combs. While it’s still not a mathematical certainty – Combs can unseat Swindle if he finishes 44 points higher in this 50-man event – Swindle is poised to win his second career AOY trophy … 12 years after his first title in 2004, the longest gap between AOY awards in B.A.S.S. history.
“To say that Gerald has been on a long, winding journey is an understatement,” said Mark Zona, host of Zona’s Awesome Fishing Show and longtime friend of Swindle’s. “He’s SO much different now mentally than he was 12 years ago, it’s remarkable.”
And “remarkable” is an apt word to describe Swindle’s Elite 2016 season: the Alabama native logged six Top 12 finishes during the regular season, a feat that’s happened only twice in Elite history (Mercury teammates Skeet Reese and Kevin Vandam in 2007 and 2009, respectively). For further comparison, Mercury teammate Aaron Martens had five Top 12s during his record-breaking 2015 season.
“We talk about crazy-great years like Aaron had last season and Vandam and Reese had in 2009 and 2007, but Gerald’s 2016 season is absolutely in the same conversation,” said Zona.
Making it happen in 2016
Swindle, 46, is quick to admit that much of his success in 2016 can be attributed to a change in his off-season preparation, and in his time management in the weeks between tournaments. An avid hunter and former host of a 52-episodes-per-year hunting show, Swindle reassessed his performance in 2015 – he finished a disappointing 43rd in AOY standings – and made a conscious decision to spend more time on the front deck of his Mercury-powered Triton and fewer days in a deer stand.
“Both on tour and in the off-season, I’ve focused more on fishing,” Swindle admits. “I’m spending more time on the water when I’m home than I have in years, and I can tell you, it makes a difference.”
The increased attention to his craft has paid obvious dividends, especially in the latter half of the 2016 season, where he’s excelled with an average finish of ninth place in the last four Elite tournaments. For comparison, his average finish in the last four tournaments of 2015 was 52nd.
“I honestly think at times that Gerald himself was his biggest competitor,” Zona says. “What I mean by that is, he’s always had a lot of other things going besides fishing. If he can continue to not let outside distractions bother him, G. can be scary good the next five years.”
The 2016 campaign
Swindle started off the season with a 40th-place finish at the St. Johns River in Florida, and then got his feet under him at the next tournament, on the sprawling expanses of Winyah and Charleston bays in South Carolina. Over the course of four days, Swindle hammered 80 miles each way over the Intercoastal Waterway between the launch in Winyah Bay and the Cooper River in Charleston, racking up hundreds of miles on his Mercury 250hp Pro XS. The long, laborious runs paid off in a seventh-place finish, which put Swindle in position to contend for AOY.
“That Mercury motor is the powerhouse of this whole operation,” Swindle says. “Tournaments like Winyah Bay, where you’re running a million miles, you depend heavily on your motor. You darn sure rely on your equipment through the course of a year, and you darn sure better be running the best motor possible.”
Swindle followed suit with a Top 10 at Wheeler Lake, and then started to gradually work his way up the AOY Top 10 with a third-place finish at BASSfest on Lake Texoma. He took the AOY lead with a 10th-place finish at Cayuga Lake, and broadened his cushion with another Top 10 at the Potomac River and a 12th-place finish running his Pro XS up and down the shallow, treacherous length of the upper Mississippi River.
“There are some similarities this year to 2004,” Swindle admits. “Both seasons, it just seems like I’m watching everything in slow motion. AOY titles, whether you win them or even get in position to win, it’s extremely difficult to even get there and maintain it. I feel extremely fortunate and blessed to be in this position again during my career.”
NOTES: The 2016 Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship will be contested Sept. 15-18 … if Swindle indeed wraps up the 2016 AOY, it will be the tenth consecutive year that a Mercury pro has claimed that title … Mercury pro Drew Benton has already locked up the Rookie of the Year title with 672 points, 128 points better than Adrian Avena, also a Mercury pro.