Fantasy Fishing: Go for gusto with power fisherman

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James Overstreet

Brandon Palaniuk looks to bounce back after missing the cut at the Sabine River.

I can hear Tommy Sanders already: “Welcome back to the Bassmaster Elite Series as we crest the halfway point in this, our 2021 edition, and this time, we make our way to Lake Fork in the great state of Texas, home of the state record and so much more. This event, unlike the rest of the season hosts what has become a mainstay in our season lineup, this will mark our third visit in just as many years. Given the time of year and the quality of our field, fireworks should be imminent, don’t you think Z?”

Thanks, Tommy, for the fantastic intro! And he is absolutely right. With the lake primarily in a postspawn phase and a shad spawn rapidly gaining momentum, this one will be one to watch. Topwater, walking-style baits and frogs should provide us with some great TV. Crankbaits and swimbaits will also make a showing, but don’t count out the sight fisherman and flippers to come in strong for the first day or two.

Lake Fork tends to have a love/hate relationship with most anglers. It can be absolutely brutal if you can’t get in step with the fish, but it can be a day for the record books if you dial them in.

When looking at past results, you tend to see a bunch of the same names near the top regardless of the time of year. Conversely, you also see many of the same names at the bottom. The point being that history will likely be a factor in this one more than most.

Unlike most lakes in Texas, Lake Fork did not see the massive surge of huge bass come up from the depths after the arctic blast, and tournament results have been skinny. Something to keep in mind though is that Lake Fork is a slot lake, and in typical tournaments, only bass under 16-inches and over 24-inches can be kept for weigh-ins. However, the beauty of this event is that the “catch, weigh, release” format allows anglers to weigh in and count all those pesky 3- to 8-pound slot fish toward their limits. Normally, they would get a disappointed sigh and quick release back into the lake.

While we may not see many fish over 10 pounds, we’re almost guaranteed to see one or two behemoths along with a bunch of fish over 6 pounds. The leaders should average 25-pounds or more per day. There should be several bags in the mid-30s throughout the event, and the possibility of a 40-pound bag is not out of the question.

Don't forget about our new Fantasy Fishing game Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge. At the end of this article, you'll find my picks. Good luck!

BUCKET A: PALANIUK

Bucket A is absolutely slammed with local guides, sight-fishing masters and topwater hammers. It won’t be easy to pick the winner from amongst these guys, but it’s really hard to pick someone who will likely bomb. Brandon Palaniuk has had a great season so far with his only blip being the recent tournament on the Sabine where he finished 61st. Palaniuk missed out on the 2019 event here, but he came back strong last fall finishing fourth. He has been competing here at the top level since 2014, finishing 10th and 16th in Toyota Texas Bass Classic (TTBC) events. He’ll likely be slinging a big swimbait and topwater, but if they’re up the grass for some reason, he has shown he can yank them out of that too. He’ll be tough to beat.

Don’t forget about: Steve Kennedy or Lee Livesay

It’s hard to just pick two anglers in this bucket, so I’ve got a few alternates for you.

A swimjig and swimbait in Steve Kennedy’s hands almost always translates to a good event for him. His record doesn’t really reflect that he is a shoe-in, but he has great momentum with back-to-back Top 10s and a 31st at the Sabine.

If Kennedy is too risky for you, go with Lee Livesay. When the Elites were here in 2019, Livesay was just a rookie. All the pressure from being a rookie fishing your home waters seemed to shake him up, leading to a middling finish. He is in his third season now and is quickly rising in the ranks. He gained most of his notoriety as a guide by helping people catch their personal best bass on giant swimbaits. If the fish cooperate, he’ll be putting on a Bassmaster LIVE clinic for us to enjoy.

BUCKET B: BLAYLOCK

Stetson Blaylock is another angler that quite obviously has the “love” end of the love/hate relationship with Fork. He loves to fish with big topwater baits and has fantastic history here. In past events in May here, he finished second and 16th and made a Top 10 last November. It seems like no matter the conditions, he can sense where the fish are going to be. After the Sabine River event, Blaylock admitted he has a special relationship with Lake Fork, and I’d bet he keeps the streak alive this time.

Don’t forget about: Scott Martin

Being from Okeechobee, Scott Martin is a killer sight fisherman. Really, anytime grass is involved, he could be a factor. He is also a force in the postspawn and will almost certainly catch some giants on crankbaits and swimjigs in this event. On top of that, he has decent momentum after coming off strong finishes at the last two events. He fished the TTBC event here in 2015 and finished strong in 14th, so it would seem he has a decent grasp of how it fishes this time of year.

BUCKET C: COMBS

Do I even need to write anything here?

Keith Combs is more or less synonymous with Lake Fork. He holds the all-time, three-day heavyweight record in professional competition on this lake with 110 pounds in early May, 2014. The next year he followed it up with a ninth-place finish. In Elite Series competition he has two more single-digit finishes in 2019 (seventh) and 2020 (second) making him the best bet in the whole field if history were the only factor. He will probably sling a crankbait on schools of big postspawners on his way to another Top 10.

Don’t forget about: Clark Wendlandt

If you want another solid Texas boy to place your bets on, Clark Wendlandt is your man. With the big bass bonus of 40 points up for grabs, he’ll be one to consider. He is one of the best sight fishermen in the world and will scrape up whatever giants are left from the spawn. Any creek on the lake is capable of a producing a giant, but you need trained eyes to spot them, and Wendlandt is certainly no slouch there.

BUCKET D: FRAZIER

Bucket D was definitely the hardest bucket for me. It was a toss-up between a bunch of anglers, but ultimately the nod goes to Micah Frazier. He had a tough event last fall, but when we were here in May 2019 he smashed them on topwater for four days to finish in third place. Look for him to do that again this time around.

Don’t forget about: Chad Pipkens

The infamous “New Personal Best” song/rap was recorded — nay, discovered — on this body of water. If fishing doesn’t work out, Chad Pipkens will be able to live comfortably on the royalties, but given his fishing record on Fork, it’s unlikely it will come to that. The last two times we were here, he finished eighth and 18th in 2019 and 2020 respectively. In both events he leaned heavily on a crankbait.

BUCKET E: ZALDAIN

Chris Zaldain has been a heartbreaker this season, but with seemingly the whole fantasy fishing field picking him, it gives just cause to go with the crowd. He resides just two and a half hours from Lake Fork these days and has spent many days out there in the last few years getting himself familiar. This event should line up perfectly for him to fish his strengths. He got beat to the punch in Houston at the Sabine River event. It’ll be pedal to the metal this time if he wants to right the ship. To give him a little bit more street cred, he has a pair of 13th-place finishes (2019 and 2020) and a 27th (2014 TTBC) in prior events here.

Don’t forget about: Kelley Jaye

A jerkbait is a deadly postspawn weapon, and few can do it better than Kelley Jaye. His season is going the wrong direction at the moment, but a few 8-pounders on a ripstick can get you tracking right in a hurry. He missed last year’s event due to medical reasons, but he will certainly be excited to get back out there this time around.

DRAIN THE LAKE PICKS:

  • Stetson Blaylock 
  • Brandon Card 
  • Brandon Cobb 
  • Keith Combs 
  • John Crews 
  • Matt Herren 
  • Lee Livesay 
  • Kyle Welcher