Fantasy Fishing: Fishing the unknown at Tenkiller

This season has been a constant reminder that in the sport of bass fishing, new equals excitement. As we near the end of the 2019 season with just one more regular event, I’m inclined to look backward.

As we moved into the first stop on the St. Johns River, there were loads of new names and new faces. However, the picture began to come into focus throughout the first five events, and a crop of anglers rose to the top. Now, in just a few short months, we have a much wider vocabulary full of new household names that will live on in the sport for years, likely even decades to come.

That’s the beauty of being the number one name in the sport. If you can prove your chops here, your name can live forever.

Along with the new faces come new and exciting venues to test your wits and your gut. Fort Gibson Lake was supposed to be in the first half of our season this year. Unfortunately, due to heavy flooding this spring, it had to be postponed. And due to that flooding, many of the ramps and facilities are still out of commission and unable to host a full-blown Elite event, plus the water is still well above full pool. If you read the article by B.A.S.S., you know that B.A.S.S. officials made a decision to move the ninth stop to Lake Tenkiller just down the road.

This lake should be relatively unknown to most of the anglers and will be a good way to see whose instincts are the strongest. They will have limited practice on a small playing field compared to what they came from on the St. Lawrence River and Cayuga. That means the most obvious spots will fill up with anglers, making the lake fish small resulting in tighter weights. The beauty of that from a Fantasy Fishing standpoint is that if you’re struggling on Day 1, just wait because Day 2 should change up the leaderboard considerably.

Tenkiller is a rocky, red clay bottom lake. It’s known in Oklahoma for being a “Southern Belle” of a smallmouth fishery. But make no mistake; this place has got some massive largemouth in it too. Don’t be surprised if you see a few topwater plugs first thing followed up with a crankbait of some kind. Jigs, drop shots and jerkbaits could also show up in a big way.

Let’s see who’s on the roster this time around.

BUCKET A: ZALDAIN

Chris Zaldain has been a backup for me in this bucket all season long, and he has absolutely crushed it every time I didn’t pick him. Well, that stops now. Zaldain has one of the longest resumes in the Elites, and that will serve him well in this limited-practice event. He has solid instincts and knows how to finesse them when necessary, but also isn’t afraid of the big baits that find those bigger than average fish. He is only a few points back of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year lead. I’m expecting him to keep making a charge.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT: COOK

Talk about stellar years. Drew Cook is in second in Toyota AOY points due to his consistency across the board. Honestly, I haven’t watched him very closely, but it seems like his name is always coming up in the coverage. He has two Top 10s this season with a 12th and an 18th behind that — all on different types of fisheries. He should be able to keep that train moving in the right direction here.

BUCKET B: COBB

It’s hard not to pick crankbait guys like Keith Combs here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a walking topwater and a jerkbait fished on main lake points will be key techniques at Tenkiller. That’s eerily similar to how Brandon Cobb brought it home just a few hours south on Lake Fork earlier this year. He started off his season with a pair of wins in the south but had a terrible northern swing and now he finds himself down in this bucket. The South seems to be his playground, and now he’s mad at ‘em. Watch out.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT: PIRCH

I know I was talking about Combs, and while he is certainly one to consider, someone who will definitely be under the radar here is Cliff Pirch. His experience with southern smallmouth will definitely show up, being a resident of Payson, Ariz., and having fished Havasu many times. He is consistently in the Saturday cut which means solid Fantasy Fishing points.

BUCKET C: MULLINS

Before the last event, my buddy reminded me that David Mullins is a stick when it comes to cranking. I went on to ignore that wisdom and what happened … Mullins smashes a fourth-place finish with — you guessed it — a crankbait. I’m not making that mistake again. He will find a way to fish his strengths and with all this momentum coming off Cayuga, he could find himself in position to fish for the trophy for the third time this season.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT: MUELLER

After his win, Paul Mueller took a nosedive and finished near the bottom of the standings four out of the last six events. However, he reminded us that he was still a force to be reckoned with at Cayuga, finishing in a solid 22nd place that was much better. He was one fish shy of a limit on Day 2, and that cost him a shot at a Top 10. He is a well-rounded angler who loves fishing offshore. If he can find something off the beaten path, he’ll have a strong showing.

BUCKET D: HUDNALL

This bucket is all about who is going to be the scrappiest. These guys are all clawing for the AOY Championship and ultimately, the Classic cut. If any one the top anglers in this bucket finish high, it should bump them up enough to get their chance. Hudnall has been fishing with a 300-pound gorilla on his back all season after getting disqualified from the Hartwell event after an unintentional rules infraction during practice. He has fished his heart out to get back in contention, and Cayuga showed us some of his grit. He brought me a 40-point bonus when he caught an 8-pound, 1-ounce monster. Who knows, maybe he can do that again. Either way, the kid has gumption and gets major props from me.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT: KENNEDY

Steve Kennedy has been trying to claw his way towards the Classic cut the last two events. He landed sixth on the St. Lawrence River and came out swinging on Cayuga. To his demise, he found himself with just one small keeper on Day 2, which dropped him down near the bottom. This has been his toughest season in years, however he isn’t mathematically out of reach of the AOY Championship. If he can land another Top 10 finish here, he’ll have a shot. He’ll be swinging for the fences, so expect a tank or a single digit finish.

BUCKET E: JOCUMSEN

I’ve actually been terrified to pick Carl Jocumsen since the Winyah Bay tournament where he hurt my feelings. I think this venue will be his best shot at a trophy out of any event this season. He has fished Lake Texoma a fair bit, which fishes very similar to Tenkiller. I think his big swimbaits will make a showing. Hopefully he can back up a few key bites with a few solid keepers, and finish his season strong. I’m pulling for ya buddy. Show us what you got.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT: CLUNN

Rick Clunn has a pretty awesome resume in Oklahoma. A few years back, he nearly took down the win on a flooded Texoma throwing some kind of crazy looking, twisty, swirly, only-Rick-Clunn-could-get-away-with-this, spinnerbait. I have heard that smallmouth are known to eat a spinnerbait. Maybe he’ll pull that thing out of the bottom of his tacklebox and take the field to school.  

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