After the warm temperatures of Florida, the Elites are coming back to a dose of reality in Knoxville, Tenn. Despite temperatures expected to get up into the 50s during practice and competition, fish should still be in a pre-pre-spawn mood, and shorts and T-shirts will no longer be the anglers’ outermost layer.
This is a solid and fertile fishery, although not quite the same as the sections of river that comprise lakes like Guntersville, Kentucky Lake or Chickamauga. Despite lots of area to cover and a solid dose of diversity, look for river specialists who understand how current – or a lack thereof – factors into early-season strategies. This event will take place a couple of weeks earlier than the 2019 Bassmaster Classic won here by Ott DeFoe, so give those anglers who competed in that event extra consideration, but don’t let their past performance be the determining factor.
BUCKET A: HACKNEY
My pick: I picked Greg Hackney at the St. Johns, and he delivered with a runner-up finish. He’s been on a mission since last year, and while he didn’t compete in the 2019 Classic, he’s deadly any time the venue is a river. Look for him to flip a jig or a bulky creature bait for five bigs a day.
Solid backup: Hank Cherry finished fifth in a 2007 FLW Tournament in Knoxville, and coming off a Sunday appearance in Palatka there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to ride the momentum train.
BUCKET B: BLAYLOCK
My pick: Stetson Blaylock is one of the most solidly consistent anglers on tour, with 16 top-10 finishes in 59 B.A.S.S. events. He’s been in the top 30 almost half the time and has finished below 50th only twice in his past 19 events. If he’s going to win a Bassmaster Angler of the Year title eventually, it’s high performances at wildcard events like this that’ll help him get it done.
Solid backup: The only thing that could make Jeff Gustafson happier this week is if the competitors were forced to drill holes through the ice to catch their fish.
BUCKET C: LOWEN
My pick: The shallower the fish get, the more comfortable Bill Lowen will be, so while this derby might not exactly be in his wheelhouse, it’ll help him get out of the Florida funk. It’s not that he does terribly in the Sunshine State, just that the St. Johns rarely provides him with a top finish. Look for him to go digging further into the dirt than other competitors, sniffing out fish they miss.
Solid backup: Reigning AOY Clark Wendlandt finished ninth here in a 2010 FLW event.
BUCKET D: ZALDAIN
My pick: Chris Zaldain may have finished 12th in the 2019 Classic, but you should recall that he busted a massive 21-12 bag on Day 2. If the Megabass Magdraft comes into play, and the current stays right, he could run away with this one. After finishing 79th at the St. Johns, many anglers would be hesitant to put all of their efforts into such a big-fish approach, but Zaldain is one of the best at balancing the long ball with playing station to station.
Solid backup: Scott Martin nearly won an FLW Tournament here in 2007. He’s a threat to win anywhere, but that should give you extra ammo to pick him.
BUCKET E: MOSLEY
My pick: Brock Mosley hasn’t suffered consecutive finishes below 60th since the middle of 2018, and last year he appeared to turn a corner with three top-10 finishes. The only stinker in his 2020 campaign was the St. Johns, so I’m betting that will be the same case with his 2021 season.
Solid backup: Former Rookie of the Year Jake Whitaker fished the 2019 Classic in Knoxville, and he needs a good finish to get back on track for his fourth straight Classic berth.