CLAYTON, N.Y. — After a season of incredible consistency, Kyle Welcher saved his best for last. Welcher is currently in second place with 79 pounds, 5 ounces at the Bassmaster Elite tournament at St. Lawrence River — and by guaranteeing himself at least a Top 10 finish, he locked up the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title.
A fourth-year Elite from Opelika, Ala., Welcher outlasted South Carolina pros Brandon Cobb and Patrick Walters to win the AOY title and the $100,000 prize that comes with it. Official point totals will be determined after the Day 4 weigh-in.
“I don’t think it has really set in yet. I can’t believe it is true yet,” Welcher said. “It is my biggest accomplishment so far. I’m super proud of it and I feel like it will be a good kickstarter.”
The title comes after a disappointing 2022 season that saw Welcher finish 69th in AOY points, well outside of the cut for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota. While he didn’t necessarily change his approach, Welcher said he found ways to execute and find consistency.
“I always feel like I work as hard as I possibly can,” he said. “Last year was no different. I worked as hard as I felt was humanly possible, I just had bad results. I put in the same amount of work this year, I just had better results.”
While Louisiana’s Tyler Rivet started the season as the AOY leader, it was Welcher and Cobb who duked it out for the top spot most of the year. Entering the St. Lawrence River event, only six points separated the two anglers, and Welcher was able to maximize his area in Lake Ontario to take the title. His performance at the St. Lawrence River wouldn’t have been possible without a daring run into Lake Ontario on Day 1 of the event. Heavy winds created giant waves across the Great Lake, but Welcher knew if he wanted to win the event or AOY, he needed to make the run. It worked out as Welcher has caught over 25 pounds in the area each day so far.
“I had a slim lead coming into this and I really came into it thinking that AOY still had to be won,” Welcher said. “I wasn’t going to do anything to lay up. I was going to take the big risk. I would rather lose taking a big risk trying to win than to play it safe and lose. I would never get over it. I took a big risk and it was what saved my week.”
Once he reached the 20-pound mark on Saturday, Welcher knew he had sealed the deal. Welcher is used to making big gambles. As highlighted in the past, he is a former professional poker player. He played cash games, which reward consistency over big wins. He used some of the same concepts he learned from poker to achieve this title.
“They are both games of incomplete information where you have to make educated guesses to do well. They are very similar as far as decision making,” Welcher said.
The now three-time Classic qualifier made every Day 3 cut during the 2023 season. His first three finishes of 13th, 15th and 18th at Okeechobee, Seminole and Murray, respectively, indicated he could keep himself in contention for AOY. Okeechobee, in particular, fished to Welcher’s strengths and he was able to cover tons of water.
“After those three, I thought if I could keep it up I would have a shot at AOY,” he said. “That was the point where I knew I needed to keep working hard, go pre-practice and do my research.”
While he finished 41st at Santee Cooper, Welcher then notched a 25th at Lay Lake and then a seventh-place finish at the Sabine River. In the past, the Northern swing has not been kind to Welcher, but this season was his best in smallmouth country.
“(Before the Northern swing) I was trying to figure out how I could be the most efficient with my electronics, baits, rods, reels, everything so that I could find the smallmouth as fast as possible and catch as many as possible,” Welcher said. “I put a lot of time and effort into figuring out the most efficient way to catch the most numbers of smallmouth I could out of an area in eight hours.”
Welcher finished Day 1 in 39th place at St. Clair, but Day 2 was his most trying of the season. As much of the field was catching 20-pound stringers, Welcher struggled most of the day but managed to land 18-14 on Day 2 to stay above the cut line.
“I had to keep making adjustments and moving spots,” he explained. “I ended up catching 19 pounds, but that wasn’t very good for that tournament. Getting through that day was very tough.”
With a 44th at St. Clair, he then finished 25th at Lake Champlain and is squarely in contention at to win at the St. Lawrence River with one day remaining. Welcher will be vying for his first Elite Series trophy — and to win it, he will not only have to chase down Walters, the leader, but also fend off both Chris and Cory Johnston as well as Taku Ito and Kyoya Fujita, all noted smallmouth masters.
“I found a couple schools of really big fish. It is a long run to get to them, but they are better than average as far as quality goes,” Welcher said. “I am catching quite a few 5-pounders as opposed to 4-pounders. That makes a big difference in this tournament.”