"Initial" anglers will likely dominate the Green Bay Challenge this week on Lake Michigan. But perhaps not the ones you would expect.
"We've got such a good group of fishermen that anybody's liable to win," said Brent Chapman, current Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year leader. Maybe, but some favorites are obvious. Other good picks, however, aren't as apparent. So yes, I expect KVD and JVD to finish well, but don't count out EE and KK – Edwin Evers and Kotaro Kiriyama.
Bucket A – KVD or Edwin Evers
On a Northern fishery which will be won with deep-water smallmouth, Michigander Kevin VanDam is the odds-on favorite this week to win. Few anglers on the Elite Series are as comfortable on big, Northern water as KVD is, and few know as much about catching smallies as does the Kalamazoo Kid. Outside of Tennessee's Dale Hollow, the best smallmouth factories in the country are in KVD's neck of the woods, and he grew up fishing them.
"Kevin is always a heavy hitter when smallmouth come into play," Chapman told me.
Although KVD has not won a tournament this season, he's quietly moved into seventh place in the Angler of the Year standings – behind Chapman, Todd Faircloth, Randy Howell, Matt Herren, Ott DeFoe and Terry Scroggins. If KVD wins here, those contenders might have to start thinking about next year because KVD is the best closer in the business.
That said, at the time of this writing, everybody and their dog is picking KVD to win; he's at 73.5 percent ownership. Now, if you're above the 90 percentile in the Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing points race, stick with KVD and try to pull away from the pack with a sneaky pick in one of the lower buckets.
If, however, you're languishing in the back of the pack and need to swing for the fences the rest of the season for a chance to win your league – or at least not finish dead last in it – put Edwin Evers on your roster in Bucket A. At 7.8 percent ownership, Evers offers the best combination of value and past performance.
In 2007 and 2008 Bassmaster tournaments on Lake Erie – another Great Lake fishery thick with fat smallmouth – Evers placed first and third. In those same tournaments, KVD placed 16th and 18th.
Faircloth also placed ahead of KVD in both of those tournaments – 14th and 6th. Having just won the Mississippi River Rumble and sitting in second place in AOY points, Faircloth has both the momentum and past performance on a similar fishery to merit consideration for your roster. At 4.2 percent ownership, he also offers great value.
The only other Bucket A angler to finish ahead of KVD on Lake Erie in 2007 and 2008 is Greg Hackney, at fifth and 12th, respectively. Chapman finished behind KVD in both tournaments, at 20th and 31st.
Bucket B – Aaron Martens or Nate Wellman
Because the seeding buckets were reset this week strictly by the Elite Series field's AOY standings, Aaron Martens remains in Bucket B. Owing to an out-of-character early-season slump, Martens sits in 26th place in the AOY race. Only the Top 15 in AOY points were seeded in Bucket A this week.
Based on career numbers, Martens is a Bucket A-caliber angler, so he's a steal this week in Bucket B. Not only does he have momentum after getting off the schnide with a third-place on Douglas Lake, a 25th on Toledo Bend and a fifth-place last week on the Mississippi River, he also has fared well in summer tournaments on a Great Lakes smallie fishery. In 2007 and 2008, he placed ahead of KVD on Lake Erie, finishing ninth and 2nd.
On the other hand, Martens is both popular and on a hot streak, so 41.6 percent of Fantasy Fishing players have already put him on their rosters. If you need a pick that offers the potential for a greater move against the field, take Nate Wellman in Bucket B.
Another Michigan native with experience catching smallmouth on big water, Wellman has climbed to 18th place in the AOY race, with only two events left on the schedule.
Asked who would be tough to beat this week, Chapman told me, "probably Nate Wellman."
"If anybody's going to have an advantage there, it's definitely going to be him, because he's at least been on the water before," Chapman explained.
Wellman is the third-most-picked angler in Bucket B, behind Martens and fellow Yankee angler Mike Iaconelli (20.5 percent ownership). Iaconelli placed 51st on Lake Erie in 2007 and fifth in 2008.
Buckets C & D – Matt Reed? Rick Morris?
I'm leaning toward Matt Reed and Rick Morris, who fared well on Erie in 2007 and 2008, but I plan to do some additional research and will report back here before the rosters lock.
Reed placed 18th and 10th on Lake Erie in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Morris finished 12th and 11th. Heading into this tournament, Reed is 50th in AOY points and Morris is 58th.
Bucket E – Travis Manson, JVD or Kotaro Kiriyama
You might be tempted to pick Wisconsin native Travis Manson, a former walleye pro who is from Green Bay. Or perhaps your money's on JVD, Kevin's nephew Jonathon, who grew up fishing for Northern smallies with his dad and famous uncle.
But my money will be on Kotaro Kiriyama, who won the 2008 smallmouth-fest on Lake Erie and was runner-up the year before there. As Ohio rookie Fletcher Shryock told me, Kiriyama is a "smallmouth guru." Additionally, Kiriyama is sponsored by Jackall, which makes some of the most realistic drop shot baits on the market. Expect many a smallmouth to fall for Kiriyama's offerings this week.