Fat, deep-dwelling, clear-water smallies will fill the winning bag this week, so repeat this mantra as you set your roster for the St. Lawrence River in Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing — spin to win!
Spinning rods spooled with light line will be the winning tools of the trade this week, so set your line-ups accordingly. Sure, there’s some largemouth in the St. Lawrence, but most guys are going to make the long run to the Thousand Islands area, which is one of the best places in the country to catch limits of huge smallmouth. One caveat: If five-day forecasts call for gale-force to blustery winds during the tournament, all bets are off. (Hear Bassmaster TV pundit Mark Zona and I discuss smallmouth fishing weather and handicap the field in my podcast, “Fantasy Fishing Insider.” Additional guests are AOY leader Edwin Evers and Ott DeFoe.)
With only two tournaments remaining in the Fantasy Fishing season, you’ll want to use strategy more than ever to achieve your goal, be it winning a league or just earning bragging rights over your fishing buddies.
If you’re in the 90th percentiile or better in points, it might pay to play defense, making more safe picks than high-risk/high-reward picks. Consider balancing your roster 3-2 or even 4-1, conservative to ambitious. If you’re in the 80th percentile in points, balance your roster 2-3, conservative to risky. If you’re in the 70th percentile or worse, you’ve got nothing to lose, so make one conservative pick and throw four Hail Marys.
I’ve handicapped the buckets to highlight the best bets, safest picks and best dark-horse, high-risk/high-reward picks. I’ll also tell you who I’m picking, and why (I sometimes don’t follow my own advice!). Pick and choose from this menu as your strategy needs dictate, based on where you are in the Fantasy points race.
Kevin VanDam (31.5% ownership): Safest Bet
If you’re protecting a lead, pick KVD. It’s not only possible, but probable, that he will do well this week, as Deb Johnson explained in this article last week on Bassmaster.com.
Aaron Martens (16.3%): Best Bet
Few anglers anywhere are better than Aaron Martens with a spinning gear and light line. Both his reputation and résumé indicate he will place in the Top 12 this week. Consider his career highlights in similar tournaments — two Top 10s and two Top 20s in eight Top 50 finishes in New York tournaments (Lake Erie-Niagara River and Lake Champlain). I would pick him this week, if I didn’t have a gut feeling that Skeet Reese will place just slightly higher than Martens.
Skeet Reese (6.6%): My Pick
With Edwin Evers, VanDam, Martens and Reese at the top of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Race, they will all be extra motivated this week — Evers to protect his lead and the others to make up ground, should Evers falter. Although Evers told me that he’s fishing to make a Top 10, it will be hard for him to not be conservative because all he has to do is avoid disaster and the AOY prize is his.
That’s why I like Reese this week. His personality seems better geared to go for broke and try to win this one. And his career highlights on similar New York waters suggests he’s more than capable: 13th on Erie/Niagara River in mid-July and second, seventh, 14th and 18th on Oneida, all in later summer tournaments. Among all Elite Series anglers, his average finish in New York state tournaments is third-best.
Gary Klein (0.3%): Dark Horse
Gary Klein is fishing better than ever and he’s got eight Top 20s in New York, including two Top 10s in the past 13 years. And he’s made three Top 20s on Lake St. Clair, another smallmouth factory, including a seventh and a fourth, all in late August.
See picks for buckets B, C, D and E on the next page.
Jonathon VanDam (17.5%): Safest Bet
I don’t like to pick any angler with more than 10 percent ownership, and at 17.5 percent, Jonathon VanDam is a little overvalued. But if you’re protecting a lead, pick him. He showed his deep-water smallie skills last season by winning on Green Bay, drop shotting. That’s standard procedure in his home state of Michigan. And being Kevin VanDam’s nephew, he likely benefits somewhat — pre-cutoff period — from the family information grapevine.
Still, his finishes in New York tournaments have not been stellar: 29th in late September on Oneida; 68th in late August on Oneida; 158th in late July on Champlain; and 143rd in late August on Champlain.
Takahiro Omori (2.9%): Best Bet
I like Takahiro Omori this week for two reasons: One, his career highlights on similar New York fisheries, and two, he’s more likely than other anglers in this bucket to catch a Carhartt Big Bass and earn you 40 bonus Fantasy Fishing points.Omori has done well in New York tournaments in late summer, with three Top 20s on Oneida, three Top 20s on Champlain and two Top 30s on Erie.
John Murray (0.9%): Dark Horse & My Pick
Although John Murray has been uneven on Oneida (he’s got a third place and a 92nd place), he’s been great on Erie, which translates better to the St. Lawrence River — 10th in mid-August, fourth in early August and third in late July.
By picking high-risk/high reward anglers the last couple tournaments, I’ve battled back from the 73rd percentile in Fantasy points to the 93rd percentile, so I’m going to keep riding that lightning and go all in on the strategy.
Tommy Biffle (15.4%): Counterintuitive pick
If forecasts indicate the weather will be terrible, pick Tommy Biffle. Despite being known for flipping largemouth dirt shallow, Biffle has impressive career highlights on New York fisheries known for smallmouth. He won on Oneida once in a late summer tournament, and he’s had four Top 20s there, too. On Champlain, he’s had two Top 5s in July tournaments.
By winning in La Crosse, Biffle has qualified for the Classic, so there’s no pressure for him to chase AOY points, so he can comfortably fish his style, come what may. And he won’t have to share the shallow largemouth he’s on, unless there’s bad weather. Remember, he made a Top 12 last year on Green Bay, fishing for largemouth in the Fox River, rather than for smallies out in open water.
Mike Iaconelli (52.7%): Safest Bet & Best Bet
Hailing from New Jersey, Michael Iaconelli began his career cashing checks with a spinning rod and light line in New York tournaments. When you consider his career highlights on fisheries similar to the St. Lawrence River in late summer, you’ll understand why everybody and his dog are picking him. He’s got two Top 10s on Oneida, a Top 10 each on Erie, Cayuga and St. Lawrence, and three Top 20s on Champlain.
Brian Snowden (0.4%): Dark Horse & My Pick
An Ozarks native, Brian Snowden is no stranger to fishing in deep, clear water. His career highlights in New York led me to take a flyer on him as a dark horse this week: 14th in mid-July on Champlain; 15th in early August on Erie and 24th in late July on Erie.
Nate Wellman (14.5%): Safest Bet
Nate Wellman’s Michigan roots and smallmouth experience make him a safe bet. Although he’s perhaps slightly overvalued at 14.5 percent ownership, his career highlights in similar tournaments explains his popularity this week: seventh in late August on Oneida and 13th, 34th and 34th on Champlain.
Charlie Hartley (5.6%): Best Bet & My Pick
I like Charlie Hartley better than Wellman this week because his ownership percentage offers a better chance to gain ground on the competition and because these Northern, deep/clear-water smallie tournaments are Charlie Hartley’s jam!
A likable guy who’s easy to root for, it’s often more difficult to put him on your Fantasy Fishing roster, as he makes fewer 50 cuts than many of his competitors. By his own admission, he sometimes gets so excited to catch fish — especially smallmouth — he “forgets” he’s in a tournament and does not manage his fish well and/or tosses out tournament strategy.
Still, most of the best finishes in his career have come on the St. Lawrence River and water like it. He’s got three Tops 10s on Champlain, two Tops 20s on the St. Lawrence, an 11th-place finish on Erie, and three Top 30s on Oneida.
No potential Dark Horse stood out to me in Bucket D this week.
Kotaro Kiriyama (2.1%): Safest Bet, Best Bet & My Pick
Pick Kotaro Kiriyama in Bucket E and don’t even think twice about it. I’m not even considering anyone else, especially Brandon Palaniuk at a whopping 62.1 percent ownership percentage. Palaniuk is a great angler and a fun, friendly dude, but his swing-for-the-fences habit makes him a risky Fantasy pick for me. And with such a huge ownership percentage, it’s like gambling $10 to win $5.
Kiriyama rarely makes my roster, either, except when deep, clear-water smallies are more than likely to win the tournament. You’ll understand why when you check out his New York career highs. He’s won on Erie before and has had two Top 20s there in late summer, and he’s got five Top 30s to his credit on Champlain.
Chad Pipkens (3.3%): Dark Horse
Rookie Chad Pipkens owns the Detroit River/Lake St. Clair. Prior to making the Elites, he finished third there twice, and also fifth, ninth, 10th and 14th.