BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The goal for JT Thompkins entering the 2023 St. Croix Bassmaster Opens season was simply to qualify for the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series. But as the season unfolded and an Elite Series berth became more and more likely, Thompkins shifted his focus solely to winning the Opens Elite Qualifiers Division Angler of the Year title.
“Honestly, about two tournaments ago, I completely forgot about the Elite race. It was no longer a thought in my mind,” he explained. “It switched to the AOY race. That is why I have been shooting for the win in the last couple of events.”
Capping off an incredible season with his seventh Top 25 finish of the season, Thompkins clinched the Angler of the Year title in the inaugural season of the Elite Qualifiers Division format by accumulating 1,659 points. Along with the $10,000 cash prize, the Myrtle Beach, S.C., native will be heading to the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Union City, Tenn., pro John Garrett finished second, followed by Illinois’ Trey McKinney in third. Robert Gee, Tyler Williams, Wesley Gore, Logan Parks, Ben Milliken and Kyle Patrick all earned Elite Series berths as well. Elite Series pro Kenta Kimura finished fifth in the EQ standings. Since Kimura double-qualified for the 2024 Elite Series, that allowed one additional angler to earn an Elite invitation.
“This has been one of the most stacked Opens fields of all time,” Thompkins said. “I have always thought about when I did make it to the Elites, I wanted to win Rookie of the Year. Just knowing I have done it once, I’ve beaten all the incoming rookies this year, it gives me confidence I can do it again next year.”
Eight of the nine anglers moving on to the Elite Series are under the age of 30, with Thompkins (21), Williams (21) and McKinney (18) being the three youngest of the group. While the 2022 Elite Series rookie class was heralded as one of the best ever, Thompkins believes this incoming group has a chance to be even better.
“When all us were standing there with our medallions, and me and John Garrett were in the front, that was when a lot of it set in,” he said. “When you talk to all the guys who qualified, none of them are scared. Everyone is saying, ‘We are going to go over there and dominate.’ They are all talking about winning.”
With a 19-point lead over Garrett going into the final tournament, Thompkins was as stressed as he has been this season knowing he needed to keep the momentum going for one more event.
“This week, I’ve been more stressed out than any other week of the year. I had cold sores, I couldn’t sleep, but when I saw that trophy at registration on Wednesday, everything came into focus,” Thompkins said during the cancellation day Thursday. “I have been pretty stressed about it, but usually the more stress I put on myself, the better I do. The more (stressed I am, the more) confident I feel about going out and catching them.”
With a strong performance on Day 1, Thompkins felt another limit on Day 2 would seal the deal. On the final day, Thompkins hooked up with a 4-pounder on a jerkbait, but his first couple turns of the reel collected his microphone cable and, for a moment, Thompkins was worried that bass would come off.
“I leaned into it, and the way I fish, my reel will hit my pocket, and when it did, the mic got wrapped up in it and I couldn’t reel,” he said. “Then all of sudden, the fish jumped in the air with complete slack in the line, and after losing two or three big ones already, I thought I was going to lose that one too. But the way he was hooked, I’m not sure he ever would have gotten off. It worked out. That fish was super-important.”
Once that bass entered the livewell, Thompkins felt he had put it out of reach, but another cull late in the day provided the biggest sigh of relief.
“I threw back a 1-pounder for a 2-pounder,” Thompkins said. “That put me up another pound and I knew for 100% that it was over. John would have needed a 30-pound bag to come back.”
The Angler of the Year title caps off an incredible year for Thompkins. Last September, he notched his first career victory at the Upper Chesapeake Bay, which led to a 24th-place finish at the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic.
Leaving Knoxville with a competitive finish gave Thompkins a ton of confidence heading into the bulk of the Opens season.
“A lot of fishing is confidence,” said Thompkins. “When you get back in the boat each morning with the confidence that you are doing it a lot better than a lot of people, it gives you confidence to stick with it knowing that, if you do, you’ll come out on top. That is what has helped me a lot this year … being able to stick to a deal more and longer than everyone else around me because I have the confidence I’ll be able to catch them. It has worked out this year perfectly.”
Thompkins spends close to 300 days on the water a year. Other than travel and boat maintenance days, Thompkins said he will be on the water from daylight to dark, scanning and searching for winning spots and techniques. Practice makes perfect, and that’s the philosophy Thompkins has adopted throughout his journey to the Elite Series.
Now, Thompkins will look ahead to the Elite Series schedule. He is most looking forward to the Northern swing at the end of the season, but a return trip to the Harris Chain of Lakes has him intrigued as well. Remarkably, the event in his home state, Lake Murray, is a lake he has only visited a handful of times.
“I’m excited for a lot of tournaments,” he said. “Harris Chain is a big one I’m looking forward to if the grass is right and the water clarity is right. I’m also looking forward to Lake Champlain and St. Lawrence River. I’ve probably spent more time on Champlain than (the) St. Lawrence River. I’m pretty excited for Wheeler Lake and Smith Lake too.”
The Elite Series season kicks off Feb. 22-25 on Toledo Bend in Many, La.
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