Story by Justin Brouillard | Photos by Tanner & Travis Lyons
The 2023 National Professional Fishing League Progressive Angler of the Year (AOY) race was far from over at the final event on Lake Lanier. Despite years of history and experience in the famous spotted bass fishery, leader Todd Goade carried only a 12-point margin over second-place angler Jesse Wise.
Coming into the event, Goade had stacked finishes no less than tenth place finish. His year began at Pickwick with a tenth place, followed by fifth a Wright Patman in Texarkana. From there, a near victory at Santee Cooper resulted in a 2nd place, with a 6th at Saginaw Bay and another 10th at Eufaula. His average finish through the first five events was 6.6th place.
“I did have Lanier circled on the schedule but my goals for this season were pretty simple,” said Goade. “Last year I finished in 13th place in the AOY, and I wanted to be top five. I also wanted to cash a check at every event, which ultimately would put me at the top of the AOY, and also qualify for the championship.”
For the most part, Goade made perfect decisions and executed the entire season. Going into Saginaw Bay, he was sitting behind Timmy Reams, who at the time, lead the NPFL field and averaged a 3rd place finish at the first three events.
“I didn’t practice any different at Saginaw Bay, but I did strategically fish throughout practice for any scenario possible,” he added. “Going in, I knew if I could find a handful of smallmouth spots, it would give me a chance in the event.”
Not only did Goade locate a few, but he ultimately found six or seven places where he could fish in various wind conditions, in addition to largemouth. By catching 12 to 14 pounds of largemouth, either in the morning or afternoon, with a couple of smallmouths, his bags could increase to 18 to 20 pounds.
“That whole event, the execution and decision making, starting on smallmouth one morning, it all played into continuing my success this season,” said Goade. I knew after finishing 6th, I had qualified for the championship, pending any major issues, and I took the lead with two events left.”
Having never fished Eufaula, another decision that played a role was the time on the water before the cutoff. Goade and his wife took a small vacation to the area and Goade was able to fish six days over a couple of weeks before the off-limits.
“With those days on the water, in my mind, I felt like, looking back now, that won me the AOY. I knew that lake could be tough, and if I could get through it, I had Lanier to end the season. Going into the event, I had 7 or 8 docks located that I had all to myself. Nobody else found them, they had sneaky brush, and it took a precise cast to get a bite; those paid off big time.”
Goade knew there would be an offshore bite at Eufaula, but planned ahead knowing that those fish would be found and receive pressure from other anglers.
“As it turned out, Trent (Palmer) found my best spot during that event, so the docks saved me.”
Looking back, if there was a bad decision to be made, it was the final day of Eufaula. Jesse Wise, the second-place angler in AOY going into the event, was also poised to finish strong, which he did. And Goade narrowly survived.
“On the final day, I was fishing the Long Town area, working a brush pile,” he said. “As I picked up to leave, I noticed a group of four docks across the lake. And as I was going over to fish, I noticed a lone dock, sitting on a point way off the bank.”
Goade decided to fish both areas, but started on the four docks, and did catch a few fish.
“While I was heading over to the point, I saw a boat there as I approached,” he added. “It was Jesse, and he was catching the crap out of them, which resulted in a major comeback.”
Wise finished 8th in the event, two places better than Goade. Will Harkins, who started the year with two finishes in the twenty’s, was slowly moving up in the standings with finishes in 3rd, 7th, and 2nd, at Eufaula.
“I knew if I ended up losing the AOY, that would have been a decision I made that cost me. If I started on the lone dock, rather than the group of four, I would have caught some bigger fish there.”
From there, going to the season finale at Lanier, Goade enjoyed a 12-point margin on Wise, and 29 points on Harkins, whose 2nd place at Eufaula moved him to third-place in the AOY. Goade fished Lanier for over 20 years, living in the Buford area, and knows a great deal about the lake.
“I was both excited and nervous going to Lanier,” he said. “I know what to do, and if things change, I know what to do. But it doesn’t always work out. I have done well there in the past and have a lot of tribal knowledge of the spotted bass there.”
Once again, despite a charge from Will Harkins, who finished 2nd place, Goade did “his job.”
“I knew if I caught 15 bass over the three days, I would win AOY. I thought I could win the event too after practice, but once I got behind Walters and Harkins, I was really fishing to just finish strong. To finish in third place, and win the AOY on Lanier was magical. It was an amazing season.”
Goade never finished worse than the top ten in any event and averaged a 6th place finish for the season.
“I would have thought it was crazy if you told me that before the season. It doesn’t seem real. In six events, there are 1500 total points available, and somehow, I finished with 1470 of them.”
When the schedule comes out, a lot of anglers in all leagues look at a few and question the time of year, or worry about how the bite will be. But not Goade.
“I don’t care where we go; it is the same for everyone, and we have to figure them out. You can’t get spun out before you even leave the house. The field is so strong, and the fisheries this season were diverse. It takes being well-rounded and committed to fishing however you need to get a bite. You have to be good and confident in every event.”
Although he had a close call, near victory at Santee, and a 3rd place finish at Lanier, the AOY is special. To win it, you have to win the season.
“The AOY means more than winning an event,” said Goade. “When it’s your time to win an event, you will win it. I didn’t do that this season but I did everything right at each lake. It’s a season-long accomplishment, fishing against your peers for those six events, and you have to be the best.”
Ending the 2023 NPFL Season with three consecutive 2nd place finishes, Will Harkins flipped a switch after the second event and never looked back. Harkins got off to a decent start at the Pickwick with a 28th finish with tough conditions and moved up to finish 22nd at Wright Patman in Texarkana. From there, he finished 3rd at Santee Cooper, 7th a Saginaw Bay, 2nd at Eufaula, and 2nd at Lanier, and his charge in the second half of the season moved him to second place in the Progressive Angler of the Year race.
Harkins averaged a 3.5th place finish over the last four events and almost a top-10 average for the season. The mid-season comeback was due to a mindset change and Harkins settled into his fishing style and just had fun.
“Coming in, I was definitely nervous,” said Harkins. “I was unsure of the competition, and the results showed in the first two events. However, at Wright Patman, I almost snuck into the check range and I told myself I could do it.”
Having never fished all around the country on a national level, the expectations were modest, but he was confident that the lakes would set up his fishing style and give him a chance to compete.
“I just relaxed and the next few events were in my wheelhouse – fishing offshore,” he added. I wanted to prove to myself I could do this and get comfortable at new lakes around the country. I think I did that, cashed a few checks, and maybe set the stage for the future.”
While it’s hard to be upset with finishing second place, it usually comes down to a decision or lost fish that changed the event. For Harkins, he isn’t getting worked up and knows his time will come when he can string three good days together.
At Saginaw, I made a bad decision to start day one and had to climb back out of a hole to finish in 7th place. Then at Santee, where I finished 3rd, I only had four fish on the final day. At Eufaula, I had a slow day two, but learned some new information on the final day that would have helped on day two and probably given me the win. That is how it goes, but it has been a phenomenal season.”
To add on to the season, Harkins qualified for the no-entry fee championship next March and like the others, knows that nobody will remember who finished in 2nd place.
“That event, where everyone gets paid and its free entry, you can settle in and do exactly what you want to do as an angler,” he added. “Only a handful of guys competing on a lake where most probably have never been, I have no history there, I can’t wait. And I am excited for the quick turnaround at the end of January at Logan Martin.”
In third place, Jesse Wise had himself a solid season notching four top 10 finishes, and began the season with three consecutive 7th place finishes. He cashed a check at Saginaw Bay in 16th place before making up ground on AOY with an 8th place at Eufaula. Lanier was tougher for Wise, but when Goade caught them on days one and two, virtually securing the AOY win, he had nothing to worry about and could just go have fun.
Patrick Walters, winner of two NPFL events this season moved up to the 4th place spot in AOY despite only fishing five of six events on the season. His average finish in the five events was 2.6th place, and he secured $239,000 in earnings in 2023 with the NPFL. Without missing the event at Wright Patman, Walters would have been fighting for the AOY win along with Goade at the final event.
Top 10 2022 AOY Standings:
Todd Goade | 1470 — $88,250
Will Harkins | 1442 — $54,000
Jesse Wise | 1431 — $46,550
Patrick Walters | 1417 — $239,000
Timmy Reams | 1407 — $41,000
Mike Corbishley | 1399 — $52,150
Dustin Smith | 1388 — $52,500
Louis Fernandes | 1384 — $127,750
Jason Wilson | 1372 — $28,000
Brandon Perkins | 1369 — $117,750