With the talent level increasingly leveled off throughout the Bassmaster Elite Series field, it’s getting harder every year to choose a Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing team. Simply put, just about anyone can win anywhere at any time. The challenge is amplified during the Bassmaster Classic, however, because the incentives are different from every other tournament – there’s no reason to fish for points.
You’ve heard the cliches before:
• There’s only one place that matters;
• Second place is the first loser;
• Fortieth place is the same as a top five;
• No one remembers who finished second (that’s not really true – as Jim Bitter or the late Aaron Martens might’ve argued); and
• I’m swinging for the fences.
Obviously, Fantasy freaks want the eventual winner on their team, but that doesn’t mean they can let their other choices fall by the wayside. All-or-nothing pros are a high risk, high reward choice – choose them with caution.
There’s also the matter of the fishery. This venue isn’t the Tennessee River in the sense that name conjures up Lake Guntersville or Kentucky Lake. It’s fertile, but it also offers a lot of choices. The Elites came in 2021, and of course this same derby was here in 2019. Some of the anglers competed in FLW or local events on these waters. That information can be used wisely – or it may lead you astray.
And let’s not forget that it is the Classic. Some anglers deal well with the pressure and the schedule overload. Others do not. In other words, this all is an inexact science at best. I’m melding a spoonful of history, a dash of past performance and a healthy serving of gut feelings into my picks. Here they are:
BUCKET A: PALANIUK
My pick: It’s hard for me to believe that I first saw a youthful Brandon Palaniuk compete in a Classic a dozen years ago – and he’s still young! He showed out in New Orleans that year, and he continues to impress anywhere he fishes coast to coast, with the ability to close out wins in any situation. He’s going to win the big one at some point, and he’ll do it in grand style. Why not here, where he has a 10th-place finish in the classic and a 37th-place finish in a regular season event? It’s as good a place as any and will mark the next step in his long path of greatness.
Solid alternate: If you think that Palaniuk will have too many spectators or will otherwise misread the situation, consider home-state favorite Brandon Lester, who was sixth in the 2019 Classic.
BUCKET B: WALTERS
My pick: Like Palaniuk, Patrick Walters showed from the start that he’s a stone cold killer, and while the start to this year hasn’t been exceptional, that has allowed him to fly under the radar. He’s finished in the top 12 in his last two Classics, and if forward-facing sonar and/or jerkbaits come into play, expect him to cut that finish down to single digits.
Solid alternate: If you’re convinced that it could be a shallow-water, backwater affair, go with John Cox, who was third here in 2021.
BUCKET C: POWROZNIK
My pick: I waffled on this bucket for a bit, but I ultimately chose Jacob Powroznik. He was 22nd in the 2019 Classic before leaving and then returning to B.A.S.S. He’s at his best when bass are around shallow cover, either spawning or getting ready to do so. He doesn’t have much momentum through two regular season events, but that’s even more reason to go for broke. (Sorry, I had to invoke at least one cliché here.)
Solid alternate: I wanted to pick Taku Ito, not for his smallmouth magic, as I don’t expect it’ll be won that way, but rather because I don’t know a fishing fan who wouldn’t love to see that celebration – myself included.
BUCKET D: DAVIS
My pick: My one real gut pick – Will Davis Jr. I don’t know much about him except that I’ve used a bunch of his dad’s spinnerbaits over the years, and in the few B.A.S.S. tournaments under his belt he’s been more than solid. Plus, even though he’s an Elite now, it would be a feather in the cap for the B.A.S.S. Nation guys.
Solid alternate: If you just can’t make your pick based on limited info, go with Clifford Pirch who fished a Classic here and came in 24th in the 2021 Elite. He might’ve done better than 18th in the Classic if he’d had his water to himself – he shared a key structure with another competitor. I saw him use some jumbo baits to catch fish, which tells me he’s willing to put it all on the line. (Sorry, another cliché.)
BUCKET E: HUFF
My pick: Cody Huff is another young pro who really seems to be getting his footing established. He hasn’t missed a check since Lake Fork last May, including a second-place event on Pickwick which – you guessed it – is on the Tennessee River. Another partial gut, partial info pick for me.
Solid alternate: Shane LeHew has momentum this year, including a ninth-place finish at Seminole. This is his fourth straight Classic so he won’t be wowed by the lights. The only thing that concerns me is that he’s finished 50th and 53rd in the last two.
See you in Knoxville, friends. It’s going to be a good one.