Few things in life are guaranteed: Taxes being the obvious, but February will bring bitter temps to most of the country at some point during the month’s 28 days. Sure, it could be warm and comfy, but I’m not going to bet on it.
When it comes to betting, I’d be putting my Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing season-opening ante on the anglers who will grin and bear the likely winter conditions. My selections reflect those who I know welcome a difficult bite, which is likely to be the case on Tennessee’s Cherokee Lake, February 9-12.
BUCKET A: HERREN
First off, Matt Herren is in Bucket A where he belongs, but right next to a bunch of other solid Elite Series anglers. The Alabama native is always very consistent, loves nasty conditions and has proven his prowess when the weather inadvertently takes a substantial portion of the field out of it before they even launch their boats. There’s a good chance it’s going to be cold, and I’m betting Herren has something up his sleeve for Cherokee.
Backup: Justin Lucas is coming off of a solid start at the first Open of the year, a fourth place finish on Florida’s Harris Chain. He’ll ride that momentum into the first Elite of the year. Plus, he is a very consistent angler just about anywhere he launches his boat.
BUCKET B: K. VANDAM
When a jerkbait is likely a key player, so will Kevin VanDam. Also considering that the Michigan native enjoyed one of his most dominant seasons in 2016, he’s still got an axe to grind in 2017. How can you not pick KVD in Bucket B? Well, there are a lot of other highly qualified anglers who will do well, but for my money I’m sticking with the G.O.A.T.
Backup: Arguably, this event will play to the northern angler’s skill set, and Dave Lefebre has the experience across the northern half of the nation to fit the bill. Plus, he’s been relatively quiet since he joined the Elites in 2016 — he’s due. If I were to substitute anyone for KVD, Lefebre would be first in.
BUCKET C: MULLINS
As much as it pains me to agree with my Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing pundit cohort Ronnie Moore, I have to completely agree with his entire assessment of Bucket C. There may not be anyone who knows Cherokee as well as David Mullins, who guides on the lake during his off-season. Watch for Mullins to steal the show on his home lake.
Backup: While I strongly believe in Mullins at this event, I may swap him out at the last minute for the “mulleted” one who hails from the same Motherland as myself — Minnesota. Not only am I a Seth Feider fan, I’ve found him to be the type who isn’t at all scared of gross winter conditions, and he learns quickly, adapts effectively and doesn’t make promises he can’t keep. He knew he was on the winning fish at La Crosse, and he told me he was going to pound the smallies at Mille Lacs. He did on both accounts. Be that as it may, he told me that 2017 is going to be different.
I believe him. No better place to start than a frosty Cherokee Lake; Feider will be a factor, count on it.
BUCKET D: WALKER
I like the fact that I can pick a strong local in Bucket C, then scroll over to Bucket D and do the same again. Walker is your best bet in Bucket D, period. He lives just down the road, likes nasty weather and after a difficult 2016, look for him to turn the tables.
Backup: Don’t overlook Brandon Coulter, who is also a local stick. He’s proven he belongs in the Elite Series. Having said that it’s hard to not consider Paul Mueller, too. Mueller is a Northerner through and through, and he knows how to battle the elements and adapt to cold-water bass. Either angler would make a fine selection as both are looking to make their marks on the sport.
BUCKET E: WHEELER
Indiana pro Jacob Wheeler knows what it means to win a top-level pro event, and he knows cold water. This choice is a no-brainer to me, he will come out of the Elite gates with a chip on his shoulder, and this ain’t his first rodeo.
Backup: It’s a tossup between Chad Pipkins, who has deep northern roots and something to prove after a very tough 2016 and Alabama’s Jesse Wiggins just won the first Open of the year in Florida. Pipkins is very comfortable with a spinning rod in his hand, and you can count on Wiggins riding his winning momentum into his first Elite appearance ever.