Fantasy Fishing: Local flavor will dominate Martin

To be successful at Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing, you need to get off to a strong start. A strong start requires a good average in which to build your season upon. It all begins at the Bassmaster Elite at Lake Martin presented by Econo Lodge, Feb. 8-11.

To me, the goal is to land all five selections inside the Top-50 cut, and hopefully two to three of those in the Top 12.

It’s a tall order, but my goals this season include a finish well inside the Top 10 percent of all Fantasy contenders. If not better than that.

For the first event of the season, I’ve selected a group of pros that live in the region, and/or have a reputation for cold-water “gaming” — a term that indicates how anglers use their electronics to watch fish and their bait interact beneath their boat hulls. Almost like playing a video game.

I feel as though I’ve selected a few that are recognized as some of the best in the sport, and I expect checks out of each of them.

As the season progresses, it’s also worth noting the difficulty of the full schedule, and the uniqueness of each fishery. There is a tournament each month leading up to the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship in September, with a couple of back-to-back events that will surely challenge even the most seasoned veterans.

This year the AOY Champ will have earned his title; Fantasy Fishing contenders the same.

Based on how the schedule shapes up, here are a few anglers to watch in the AOY race as the season progresses.

Ott DeFoe: DeFoe has been in contention for the AOY title before, and he’s only getting better. He’s hungry, and he’s due — look for DeFoe to stay in the hunt all year long. It just might be his year for a couple of new trophies on his mantle.

Jacob Wheeler: The former FLW star is now an Elite Series star, and he’s proven to be as good as any pro on tour. He tasted victory last year, and smelled the AOY title, but fell just short. I bet he’ll improve on that this year, and keep everyone on their toes.  

Matt Lee: I think the elder Lee brother rediscovered himself last season, and his tenacity and drive to excel will push him even farther this season. An AOY contender? I think yes.

Jacob Powroznik: Before a difficult 2017 season, where he came back and managed to win the Classic Bracket Challenge earning him a berth to the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods, Powroznik averaged a fourth-place finish in the AOY race. He has something to prove this year, and I expect to see a redefined Jacob Powroznik.

Brandon Palaniuk: Would is surprise anyone to see back-to-back AOY championships from Palaniuk? I think not. ‘Nuff said.

Buckle down, hang on and choose wisely. The long-awaited 2018 Bassmaster Elite Series is about to kick off. And it’s going to be a fun one.

BUCKET A: CONNELL

Dustin Connell is coming off of a stout first season on the Bassmaster Elite Series where he earned the 2017 Rookie of the Year title, which included a victory at Ross Barnett. Connell is a spotted bass river rat who cut his teeth on Alabama waters. He’s proven he can hang with the best, and even beat the best. Now turn him loose on a lake close to his home featuring a species of bass he deeply understands, and will respond favorably to likely presentations he’s an expert at, and you have an angler who is very tough to beat.

Darkhorse: Jacob Wheeler came from behind and won Cherokee in 2017. He also made a run at the coveted Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title finishing third in overall points. He knows what it means to lead and win a major event, and he may be the best young angler on tour when it comes to finessing up bass through the extensive and intimate use of his electronics. Currently, Connell has lower ownership, but overall Wheeler is still a deal right now, and I may make the switch before Day 1 at Lake Martin.

BUCKET B: WIGGINS

Second-year pro Jesse Wiggins made a run at winning his very first Elite appearance at Cherokee last year. This fishery will respond in a similar way under likely similar conditions. He’s a hammer on clear-water spotted bass, hence his continued success on his home fishery, Smith Lake near Jasper, Ala. He is a tremendous finesse fisherman, and I think he’ll keep his momentum rolling after a quality 2017 freshman season on the Elite Series.

Darkhorse: Steve Kennedy has a lower ownership than I would have expected. He’s a pre-spawn machine, and he’s very good with finesse gear, so you can expect quality results out of the Alabama native. If the weather keeps on a warming trend, look for Kennedy to keep his consistency streak alive. In fact, I may change my selection to Kennedy before the final hours, if I were to be honest with you. I’d also bet you’ll see Matt Lee and James Elam with strong finishes at Martin as well.

BUCKET C: MUELLER

Probably the most undervalued angler in Bucket C, Paul Mueller is an outstanding multi-species and multi-tactic angler — maybe one of the best on tour. Plus, when it comes to utilizing electronics to catch bass, he’s also very accomplished. You can bet he'll “game” up a limit each day. He’ll be driving south from his wintertime ice-fishing adventures to use his Garmin units in the same fashion as he does through hard water. Expect Mueller to finish well, if not make a run at the W. Plus, he’s due.

Darkhorse: Matt Herren is a lifelong Alabama boy and knows the waters of Lake Martin well. After a tough finish in 2017 that will result in an uncharacteristic absence from the 2018 Classic, Herren will be fishing angry this year. And an angry Matt Herren should be feared. Justin Lucas should be easy points in this bucket — and I believe he’ll do well at this event. But with his dominating ownership his selection won’t move your overall ranking very much, especially if he knocks it out of the park.

BUCKET D: VINSON

Speaking of local flavor, Greg Vinson has been a quiet contender for his entire career on the Elite Series. But he’s been consistent, and he’s good on most bodies of water. One might as well assume Martin is as close to his home lake as any, he only lives half an hour from the shores of Martin. Will he put his first championship on the board here? Maybe, maybe not. But, you can bet he’ll have a target on his back during this event, and he’ll be in the hunt.

Darkhorse: If you’re looking for a couple alternatives in this bucket, Brett Hite, Chris Zaldain and Keith Poche are good selections for a multitude of reasons, and with relatively low ownership. Regardless, I expect each man to make a check at this event.

BUCKET E: FUKAE

A newcomer to the Elite Series, but a veteran professional angler, Shin Fukea will climb out of the bottom bucket right away. He fished the FLW Tour, and has now moved up to the Elites where he’ll certainly shine as the season progresses. He’s a deal at less than 10-percent ownership, and I think he’s a safe Bucket E selection. Look for Fukae to make his first check and challenge the game’s best bass fishermen at Lake Martin.

Darkhorse: Wesley Strader doesn’t belong in Bucket E, and he won’t be here for long. He’s a veteran of the sport and is a talented finesse fisherman. But because this is first season as a Bassmaster Elite Series pro, he’ll start the year in the bottom bucket. The ONLY reason I didn’t pick him is because his ownership is a bit too high for me. I know Fukae will do well, just as Strader might, but I’ll climb the standings more with a good showing out of Fukae. We’ll see!