LA CROSSE, Wis. – And now for something completely different.
After going deep in the last two tournaments, Bassmaster Elite Series anglers must change gears this week and go shallow to win the Mississippi River Rumble.
Shallow backwaters with plentiful wood cover and shallow grass on flats adjacent to current will likely produce the most and biggest largemouth this week, provided they have access to nearby deeper water. Current breaks on main river bluffs, riprap, wing dams, bridge pilings and cuts will likely produce the best smallmouth, as well as a few largemouth. Marinas and docks could also produce some green and brown bass.
If the river level continues to fall as it has for a couple of weeks, the main river patterns will dominate for both species. Falling water robs largemouth of shoreline cover and moves them to the mouths of backwater creeks, sloughs and cuts, and into the main channel. If, however, forecasted rain begins raising the river level, the green bass will return to the shallow wood cover they prefer and the river-fishing mantra "you can never go too shallow" will be in play.
The tournament area covers Mississippi River Pools 7 and 8. Anglers will launch from Veterans Freedom Park in La Crosse. B.A.S.S. has held five professional tournaments on the Mighty Miss, but only two launching from here – and that was almost 30 years ago. The only time the Elite Series has visited the river was in June 2009. Launching out of Fort Madison, Iowa, Kevin Short overcame muddy, falling water to win with 43 pounds, 3 ounces, in one of the toughest Elite Series tournaments in history.
That tournament followed severe flooding in 2008 that affected the bass population.The river, this season, won't fish nearly as tough. But it's not likely to be a slugfest either.
What does that mean for Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players?
To borrow a term from horse racing, bet on mudders.
That is, pick anglers with successful track records navigating the challenges of current, fluctuating levels and muddy water of true rivers (as opposed to river impoundments). Keep in mind, however, that although typical river-fishing tactics will surely prevail this week, not all the traditional "river rats" might be the best bet for your roster. Some anglers best known for success with other tactics and on different kinds of fisheries have surprisingly stellar past performances on rivers in the summer.
Sure, we all think of Greg Hackney as the Elite Series' leading "river rat" – and he indeed is a major player in shallow, moving water – but in the last decade, deep-crankin' master Kevin VanDam has finished in the Top 12 in summer river tournaments more often than the Hack Attack. And even though Bassmaster fans likely remember KVD zeroing on the Mississippi River one day in 2009, this could well be the week that KVD again hoists a trophy over his head on a Sunday. With KVD sitting at 12th place in Angler of the Year points, AOY front-runner Brent Chapman would likely begin hearing footsteps, should KVD win this week.
In seven summer tournaments on five river systems dating back to 2003, KVD averaged a 12th-place finish, having placed first, fifth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 18th and 28th. That last one came on the Mississippi in 2009, albeit downriver river on different pools. But Hackney placed 66th in that same event. Hackney's finishes in summer river tournaments over the same time period are second, eighth, 10th, 42nd (twice) and the aforementioned 66th.
Still, KVD is again the most popular pick in Bucket A, at 24.5 percent ownership, so you won't really pull away from the field with such a conservative pick. On the other hand, you won't risk a dismal showing either, like Skeet Reese's 61st, Randy Howell's 75th and Keith Combs' 78th on Toledo Bend. KVD's average finish this year is 30th. A 30th-place finish is worth 215 points.
Angler of the Year race leader Brent Chapman, however, is averaging a 17th-place finish. And even that's a little deceiving, because of his 68th-place stumble on Bull Shoals. Outside of that, he has placed fourth, fifth, fifth and first in Elite Series events. And in Central Opens, he's finished first and 20th.
All that said, only 6.6 percent of Fantasy Fishing players have put Chapman on their roster. Perhaps that's because they doubt such a hot streak can continue, or because they researched Chapman's history in summer river tournaments. In our date range, he averages 25th place (second, 14th, 18th, 36th, 37th and 42nd on the Mississippi in 2009).
Need a bold, high-risk, high-reward Bucket A pick this week in hopes you can gain ground against the conservative-picking field favoring KVD? Take Gerald Swindle. In seven summer tournaments on five river systems dating back to 2003, G-Man averaged a 12th-place finish (third, third, sixth, 11th, 11th, 20th, 21st). At the time of this writing, only 3.4 percent of Fantasy Fishing players had picked Swindle, who is 18th in the AOY standings.
Of your best bets in Bucket B, Tommy Biffle is a no-brainer, while Aaron Martens might be a bit of a surprise.
Biffle's fame came as a shallow-water, flipping stud, but A-Mart is more known as a deep-water, finesse specialist. Yet Martens has enjoyed almost as much success in summer river tournaments as has Biffle. Martens' average in our date range is 23rd place (second, second, 13th and 75th on the Mississippi in 2009). Biffle's average is 21st (third, fourth on the Mississippi in 2009, 15th, 23rd, 24th and 55th).
Martens, 40th in AOY points, is the second-most picked angler in Bucket B, at 17.8 percent ownership. Biffle is a better value at 3.2 percent. Rookie Brandon Card is this bucket's dark horse this week because, at seventh place in the AOY race, he's proving week in and week out that he can catch them anywhere, whether he's fished there before or not. A lock for Rookie of the Year, Card is contending also for Angler of the Year.
As has been the trend all season, Cliff Pace is undervalued and under-picked. This week, he's in Bucket C at 4.7 percent ownership. Unless he gets bumped up to Bucket B in ensuing weeks, you could pick him here for the rest of the season and be happy with the results.
Pace, 21st in the AOY race, has not fished as many Bassmaster summer, river tournaments as have some fellow competitors, but his finishes in them have been consistent, averaging 23rd place (20th on the Mississippi in 2009, 23rd and 26th).
Steve Kennedy has also fished three summer river tournaments in our date range, averaging 13th place (seventh on the Mississippi in 2009, seventh and 25th). But at 58th in the AOY race, Kennedy's having the kind of season that would make me wary, especially at 12 percent ownership.
I also like Matt Reed (11.7 percent ownership) in this bucket, although I'm going with Pace. Reed's average finish in summer river derbies in our date range is 20th place (seventh, 17th, 24th, 32nd on the Mississippi in 2009).
Although he's not having a great 2012 season, having not made a single 50-cut, 2009 River Rumble winner Kevin Short will definitely be fishing on Saturday this week, and likely on Sunday too.
Short is a so-called "river rat" whose numbers back up that billing. In three summer river tournaments in our date range, he averages 13th place (first on this river in 2009, and third and 36th on his home water, the Arkansas River, where he has long honed his river fishing skills). Short has said the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers fish similarly. At 2 percent ownership, he's a great Fantasy Fishing value.
Billy McCaghren, who hails from the same small Arkansas town as does Short, is another Arkansas River rat who could finish in the Top 12 here, as he did in 2009 when he finished third on the Mississippi, and in 2006, when he finished ninth as a local on the Arkansas River. He led the 2009 tournament going into the final day but did not catch a limit on Sunday, opening the door for Short to win. If McCaghren returns to 2009 form, you'd be among only a few to benefit if you pick him; he's at only 0.5 percent ownership.
Another intriguing pick in Bucket D is Denny Brauer. A shallow-fishing, flipping legend, Brauer's finishes have trended lower in the last decade, but he remains a threat to return to his career-high form, as he did last season when he won on the Arkansas River. Brauer averages a 24th-place finish on summer river tournaments in our date range (first, fourth, 24th, 27th and 62nd on the Mississippi in 2009)
The angler with the best career numbers in Bucket E also has the best average finish on summer river tournaments in our date range – John Murray, 19th place. Murray placed 31st on the Mississippi in 2009. Prior to that, he placed fifth, 13th, 19th and 29th in summer river tournaments.