There is no doubt that at the end of the 2019 Bassmaster Elite Series season there will be fireworks — probably as exciting as any finish in recent history. Mathematically speaking at least half of the current Top 10 has a shot at the title, but as we say, that will depend on how Scott Canterbury or Chris Zaldain performs.
It’s really all speculation, but the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year champion will have earned it this year.
Remember, this tournament is just like all the other events as far as Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players are concerned; it’s the actual tournament weight-leading anglers who will score your points.
That said, there are actually two tournaments occurring at once: The wrap up to the points race that leads to crowning the Angler of the Year, and the actual day-to-day overall weight tournament. And that means there will be two trophies handed out. One for AOY and one for the weight winner after three days.
Perhaps to the same dude.
All Top-50 anglers will fish the entire event vying for AOY placement and the 42 Bassmaster Classic spots up for grabs. In all, $1 million will be paid out at this entry-fee free derby.
So make your selections based on who you think will catch the most and biggest smallmouth bass. Depending on where you are at in the Fantasy Fishing standings, it’s either time to play it safe and bank your points to maintain, or it’s time to go for broke and hope you climb the standings by picking an overlooked angler or two.
I decided to play it safe with obvious selections. Maybe I’m a coward, but I figured for my inner-office bragging rights I’d like to at least stay where I'm at. If I'm lucky, maybe I’ll climb a little bit.
If you are thinking like me, here’s how I’d suggest setting up your rosters, and then I’ll share a go-for-broke choice.
BUCKET A: ZALDAIN
If there is one angler on this entire list that every Elite Series pro should be scared of, it’s Chris Zaldain at St. Clair. My pundit cohorts agree as they both picked Zaldain, too. If he’s to have any shot at winning AOY, he needs to win this event with the heaviest three-day limit of smallmouth. My bet is on this guy to steal the whole show. How can you not pick Zaldain? Based on his near 42 percent ownership, I’m not alone in that feeling.
GO FOR BROKE: Brandon Lester is way undervalued here garnering only 4.8 percent ownership; he should be much higher than that. He’s been due a win for a few years now, and he’s been very close. He’s also more than adequately proven his smallmouth prowess each time the Elites head north. I think he’ll shine at St. Clair and make a lot of Fantasy Fishing players wish they had selected him to begin with.
BUCKET B: COMBS
Keith Combs won the weight side of the AOY championship the second time the Elites visited Mille Lacs in 2017. He’s good at catching bass everywhere he goes, especially on northern smallmouth factories like St. Clair. He’s got nothing to lose at this event; he’s safely inside the Classic cut sitting in 12th AOY, and he really has no shot at winning the title. Watch out for Combs.
GO FOR BROKE: Shane LeHew is in 11th place of the AOY points race. Quietly, he’s been climbing the standings, and he could make a lot of noise at St. Clair. He’s a super good deal in Bucket B attaining only 2 percent of the ownership — that’s a bargain.
BUCKET C: GUSTAFSON
This one is a little different for me. I’m picking Jeff Gustafson over the obvious choice of Chad Pipkens. I think Pipkens is very capable of winning this derby, but I’m hoping to gain a little edge on my office and pundit competition by making this selection. Gustafson is no stranger to big, rolling water full of big, angry smallmouth. He’s been close, too, and St. Clair plays right into his hands. Just watch.
GO FOR BROKE: I feel like Hank Cherry has been overlooked this year in Fantasy Fishing. But he’s fishing the AOY Championship because he’s good at what he does. Very good. He’s a finesse specialist and is long overdue for a victory making St. Clair a good place for him to be. If you’re looking to climb over your points-hoarding buddies, Cherry is undervalued at 2.1 percent.
BUCKET D: PAQUETTE
Garrett Paquette is going to pay out big dividends for me at this event. He’s dominating ownership at over 30 percent, but because he's a Michigan guy, I'm comfortable to make that bet. Plus, he’s been nothing but consistent all year long, and I’ve personally heard him say that he’s been greatly looking forward to getting to St. Clair.
GO FOR BROKE: Brock Mosley finished one spot behind Jason Christie in 2017 earning his second second-place finish in three events that season. He knows how to catch smallmouth, and he knows how to catch them on St. Clair. Even at nearly 10 percent ownership, he’s a steal. He’s been pretty quiet overall this year, and I bet that changes in Detroit.
BUCKET E: MUELLER
Paul Mueller won the Lake Lanier Elite earlier this spring, and it really wasn't any surprise because that event played right into his wheelhouse. He’s unafraid of big waters notorious for rolling out big, scary waves, and he knows smallmouth bass. I see Mueller pressuring the top spots at this event.
GO FOR BROKE: Derek Hudnall has proven he belongs at this level all year long. He missed Hartwell because of an accidental rules infraction, but he was there and waved the flag until the final bell rang running a boat for our Bassmaster LIVE and camera teams. He’s worked very hard to get here, and he needs to finish strong to climb into a Classic berth. He’s undervalued in this bucket, and if you choose him and he does well, you’ll jump all the Fantasy Fishing players who played it safe and made the obvious choice.