Jay Yelas’ name is often followed by a lot of accolades. Bassmaster Classic champion, B.A.S.S. angler of the year and FLW angler of the year.
However, his newest, member to the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, may be the most impressive.
Yelas will be inducted to the 2020 class of the hall of fame in September at the Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Mo. He is one of five inductees along with late-pro fisherman Bryan Kerchal, outdoor writer Steve Bowman, lure designer James Heddon and fishing educator Ron Lindner.
“I was surprised and thrilled at the same time,” Yelas said of his nomination. “It is a tremendous honor for me and my family to be recognized by the hall. I always hoped to one day make it, but it is totally out of your control.”
Yelas was on the board for the hall of fame in its formative years and watched as his heroes like fishermen Bill Dance and Jimmy Houston along with B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott were selected.
“You don’t set out to do it as a kid, join your dream team,” said Yelas, who lived in Tyler with his wife, Jill, and two daughters from 1997-2007.
Asked why he thought he was nominated, Yelas said while he has had a good professional career there are others who have had better. He believes it was a combination of his on the water success along with his efforts to promote fishing that swayed voters.
“I would say it was a broad-based contribution. It is not just the tournament record. I have done a lot of other things like right now I am the executive director for C.A.S.T. for Kids, which puts on fishing clinics for special needs kids around the country,” Yelas said.
When it comes to tournament fishing his best years came while he was living in Tyler. Since starting with B.A.S.S. in 1989, he has fished 212 tournaments, finishing in the money 149 times including five wins and 54 top 10 finishes. He has also qualified for 16 Classics, winning the 2002 event on Alabama’s Lay Lake. To date Yelas has won $1.4 million in B.A.S.S. events.
At the height of success Yelas walked away from B.A.S.S. in 2006 because of philosophical differences with ESPN, the organization’s owners at the time.
“I left in 2006 and went to FLW. The reason was I didn’t like the way ESPN was changing the culture of bass fishing by owning Bassmaster. They tried to make it into a TV spectacle. They wanted it to be the next NASCAR,” the fisherman said.
Yelas felt that instead of focusing on the fishing and top fishermen in a tournament, the sports network was more interested in driving ratings by featuring certain personalities more than the competition.
He earned $1 million-plus participating in 141 FLW Tour events, including 11 Forrest L. Wood Cups before returning to B.A.S.S. in 2019 after ESPN and another then another group sold the circuit to it current ownership, Anderson Media.
“Fishing is just fishing. That is what it is. You are not going to turn it into NASCAR. It is a sport for fishermen, followed by fishermen,” Yelas said.
Yelas grew up in Oregon, a state he says has a surprisingly good smallmouth fishery and some largemouth bass. He grew up fishing for everything, but was drawn to bass fishing by reading Bassmaster Magazine and watching the occasional B.A.S.S. tournaments on TV. He started fishing local team events while attending Oregon State University and branched out to smaller pro circuits on the west coast after graduation. He always had his sights set on B.A.S.S. competition.
“I graduated from college in 1987 and fished my first B.A.S.S. tournament in 1989,” he said. His first tournament win came in 1993 when he won the Maryland Bassmaster Top 100 on the Potomoc River.
Turning 55 in September, Yelas said he realizes the years of wear and tear have taken a toll on his body.
“You definitely feel that stuff. Tournament fishing is such a grueling, demanding sport. You go six days in row. I know I can’t keep up with guys that are 20 and 30, so you try to use wisdom and fish smarter,” he said.
Yelas admitted he is probably not as competitive as he once was, but still enjoys being on the water.
“I don’t do as well as I used to do, but every year I have a couple of three really good tournaments. As long as I love it and can keep doing it I will keep doing it,” he said.
Yelas said it helps that he has fished most of the lakes where tournaments have been held numerous times. His favorite lake nationwide remains Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
“I love it. Before we lived in Tyler, we lived at Rayburn for seven years. I feel in love with the place. It is a classic East Texas fishery and it has such history. I just love it there,” Yelas said.
Like other Elite series anglers Yelas has been off the water since the Bassmaster Classic in March because of coronavirus. There are two Texas tournaments, one on the Sabine River out of Beaumont and the Toyota Texas Bassmaster Fest, scheduled beginning later this month, but both are on hold and could be shifted to fall.
“I have never gone two months in a row in the spring time without a tournament for 30 years. I have just been fishing for fun with friends and family,” Yelas said of his social distancing routine.
Yelas is scheduled to be in Tyler Sept. 26, two days after his induction into the hall of fame, for a C.A.S.T. for Kids event on Lake Tyler.