Welcome to the Big Leagues – Jay Yelas

Photo February issue of Bassmaster Magazine.

Photo February issue of Bassmaster Magazine.

I’ve frequently contended that in addition to time on the water and the requisite instincts and physical skills, anyone who wants to become a great tournament angler must also have a great memory. You have to remember how to pilot through that stumpy backwater, what you were doing when the big fish hit, and of course how to apply seasonal patterns.

I was reminded of my belief recently when I asked Jay Yelas to describe his first B.A.S.S. tournament, the 1989 Nevada Invitational on Lake Mead. I hadn’t prepped him for the topic, but immediately he responded, “I think I finished 12th there.” Indeed, he was correct. The tournament was won by Arizona pro Jim Jared in his first B.A.S.S. tournament. It was Jared’s lone top 30 finish in seven events with B.A.S.S.  As my recent conversation with Yelas indicated, the tournament remains important to his professional history as well. He’s fished approximately 300 tournaments combined between FLW and B.A.S.S., but that was his introduction to the big leagues.

“It was a thrill,” he recalled. “I had been looking forward to those my whole life. I think anybody in their first major tournament would feel (a little intimidated). It’s guys you’ve read about your entire life. And then you look at someone like in the FLW tournament (at Okeechobee) last week, who wins his first time out.”

Yelas may have been a little wide-eyed when he came to B.A.S.S., but by no means was he a beginner. By 1989, the western-based Yelas was very experienced on all of the western lakes. As he wrote in his autobiography: “Fishing the top western circuits was probably similar to a minor league baseball experience. I played every day, gained lot of experience and had great success. You could say I was the Most Valuable Player at the AAA level. After three years with that kind of record, I felt like I was ready for the big leagues. In 1989, that meant the Bassmaster Tournament trail.”

In addition to remembering his precise finish in the tournament, Yelas also had discrete memories of the third day of competition for a variety of reasons. First, he was paired with Arkansas pro Mark Davis, who “became a great friend” and traveling partner later in life. Comparatively speaking, Davis was a veteran – he’d already fished 20 B.A.S.S. tournaments, including the 1988 Classic on the James River. At that time, the pro-on-pro draw meant that anglers often fought over whose boat to take. “We took my boat,” Yelas said. “We may have flipped a coin. We started on Mark’s fish, then went to mine.”

The day was also memorable because Yelas caught the biggest stringer of the tournament as well as the biggest bass. It was a 5-pound 10 ounce largemouth. Up until that day the largest bass had been Floridian Steve Daniel’s 5-06.

“I still remember right where I caught it in Vegas Wash on a jig and pig,” Yelas said. “It was in a tree, then ran out and got hung up on anther tree before I got him free.”

Jared also used a jig and pig to catch his fish, specifically a brown and purple Mr. Pig Jig with Uncle Josh pork rind. According to the June 1989 issue of Bassmaster, one key to his success was a splashless entry. He pitched it to secondary breaks and used a “pull-and-feel retrieve.”

“You pull and feel it up over the next piece of cover and let it fall again by lowering your rod tip,” Matt Vincent quoted Jared as saying. “You can’t hop it. Hopping it wouldn’t work. When I pull it over a rock or limb or ledge, I let the bait fall down as straight as possible. Then when you pull the jig, you try to feel for the strike. Most of the eight keepers I caught during the first day hammered the bait as soon as it entered the water. Later, on the second day and today, you had to wait for the jig to hit the bottom.”

While Yelas didn’t start off as well as Jared in his B.A.S.S. career, he’s persisted for another two-plus decades, most notably winning the 2002 Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake, along with multiple FLW AOY titles as well as a Bassmaster AOY title. At the beginning, though, he struggled outside of the west. After the Mead tournament, he drove to the St. Lawrence River in New York and finished 113th. Then it was back to Havasu, where he ended up 10th. Trips to Okeechobee and the Harris Chain in Florida produced 138th place and 53rd place finishes, respectively, and his first tournament at Rayburn (his future home) resulted in a 99th place finish. Then he came back to Powell and added another top ten (6th). Keeping up the up-and-down trend, in May of 1990, he came in 103rd at Guntersville, but a few months later on his second trip to the St. Lawrence he came in 9th, ending his oh-for-the-east trend.

“My first time at Okeechobee or the Thousand Islands it was like outer space,” he said. “I had to drive 45 hours one way to get there. It was a huge learning curve. My first time at the St. Lawrence I bombed out, but by the time we returned I had started to get it figured out. It was definitely a confidence-booster.”