So many things are different about this year's Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk. New lake. Different time of year. Lots of first-timers.
But for all meaningful purposes, one thing’s the same as always. There’s only one place that really counts. Sure, second pays well and a trip to Day 3 may be a moral victory, but no one is gathering points at Ray Bob. You can trot out whatever cliché you want to explain it: Swinging for the fences; hero or zero; second is the same as last.
No one wins a Classic by planning it safe, and if a shakey head ends up in the mix I’ll have to write you all an apology. Go with riverboat gamblers, guys who have nothing to lose and aren’t afraid to finish last. Here are my picks:
BUCKET A: BIRD
Big hitter: More than perhaps anyone else in the field, Cody Bird has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The veteran tour pro who seemingly had given up the big stage aspirations not only qualified for his first Classic at nearly 60 years old, but he’ll compete just two hours from home. He claims not to have fished Ray Roberts much, but because he’s not on tour he’s likely had more time to pre-practice there than anyone else, and even without that advantage he has decades of experience on similar Texas waters.
On deck: With his recent win at the James River, Brandon Palaniuk has won at just about everything the sport has to offer – B.A.S.S. Nation Championship, Open tournament, Elite tournament and Bassmaster Angler of the Year. It’s only a matter of time before the future Hall of Famer adds a Classic title to the list.
BUCKET B: KENNEDY
Big hitter: Steve Kennedy has traditionally been the ultimate hero or zero angler, and while he’s moderated the swings a bit he still lives in that rare guilt-free air. If there’s a big bait bite to be had, expect him to chase it. And even if there’s not he should still contend – in the last Texas Classic, at Conroe, he was in contention until the end.
On deck: Frank Talley might not be in the conversation now had he not shown his winning ability last year at Guntersville. He only lives a few hours away, and like Bird he has loads of experience on Texas waters in June.
BUCKET C: LOWEN
Big hitter: Texas is getting pounded by rain right now, which should make the skinny water bite more viable. If there are three quality limits to be had up dirt shallow, look for recent first-time Elite winner Bill Lowen to find them, catch them and make the people out deep look like they missed the boat.
On deck: He may not be a Texan, but June in the deep south is a time that’s right in the wheelhouse of Buddy Gross. While Ray Roberts may have both deep and shallow bites, if the fish are in between those two extremes I’d normally expect him to be in the conversation up until (and perhaps beyond) the final cast. He might’ve been my pick until he revealed a pre-tournament injury on social media.
BUCKET D: AUTEN
Big hitter: In his fourth Bassmaster Classic, held last year at Lake Guntersville, Todd Auten finished a personal-best second. Since his return to the Elites in 2019 after a 10 year gap, he’s been a steady presence and is among the best vibrating jig anglers on tour. He’s also exceptionally quiet and won’t garner a lot of attention, so he may have areas all to himself until the final hours.
On deck: When in doubt, pick a Texan, and Brad Whatley has the chops to get it done. The only reason he wasn’t my pick in this bucket is because he’s having a tough 2021 so far.
BUCKET E: MATSUSHITA
BIG HITTER: Bucket E isn’t as big of a gamble in the Classic as it is in regular season events, but it does present some challenges in terms of name recognition. I’m riding with Masayuki Matsushita, who won last year’s Open at Sam Rayburn slinging big plastics.
ON DECK: If you want the steadiness of an Elite competitor in this bracket, consider Ed Loughran, who just seems to get better as his late-in-life Elite Series career progresses.