Due to the state of things these days, this Elite season has had more false starts than an average Dallas Cowboy’s game. However, we’re officially cranking it back up, again, and heading to one of my personal favorite places to watch a Bassmaster tournament — the St. Lawrence River. Massive bags of smallmouth bass will be making their way across the stage. B.A.S.S. has been here many times over the last decade, and each time it seems like it outshines the last. Back in 2018, we saw a 27-pound bag of hammers and that is certainly very possible at any given moment along any stretch of the famed smallmouth river.
Most of the fish spawned up there over the past couple months and this event should set up to be a postspawn, deep-water beatdown. That said, there is always an angler or two that figures out how to do better than a 4-pound average up shallow.
If history rings true, it’ll take well over 80-pounds to bring home the trophy, and many of the guys in our field have broken that mark on this body of water in past tournaments. Some have even done it multiple times. If they have the history, I’m going to give each angler a grade based on their highest tournament total.
Look for finesse baits like drop shots and hair jigs to be major players, but don’t count out power fishing baits like crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits.
Let’s check out some picks.
BUCKET A: COMBS
When you think smallmouth, the name Keith Combs from Texas doesn’t come to mind immediately. But when you look at his track record up north, you realize that he is way more than a deep south one-trick pony. Combs comes in at a solid 84, which if you compared it to my report cards growing up, would be pretty dang good. He has some amazing history here and boasts some of the deepest experience on this body of water. He owns a fourth, eighth, 31st, ninth and 23rd in the past five visits here. He always finds something off the wall where the fish are not so pressured. He loves power fishing with crankbaits, jerkbaits and big jigs, but he can tone it down if he needs to. He is also a big-fish specialist and will figure out how to get larger than average bites.
Hard to pass up: Brandon Lester
Brandon Lester has the best grade of any of my picks with an impressive 94. He nearly won this event back in 2018 and might have run away with it were it not for one massive fish that he lost near the end of the event. He is very comfortable with his electronics and offshore fishing. It was very hard for me to pass him up, so much so that he may make the team come game day.
BUCKET B: HANSELMAN
Deep, clear water is a specialty of Ray Hanselman’s. He spends most of his time on Amistad — a clear, deep rocky reservoir. He gets a solid B- with an 81 last year. Any time you can average more than 20-pounds of smallmouth over four days, you get huge credit in my book. He hasn’t had the start to the season that he would like, but momentum doesn’t really play this season given how it’s shaking out. He came in a respectable seventh place last year.
Hard to pass up: Hank Cherry
Jerkbaits and smallmouth go together like hot fudge and ice cream. You throw a little Hank Cherry on top and you have a recipe for success. He’s had an up-and-down season, but this one falls in his wheelhouse. If he can make the jerkbait bite happen, you better watch out.
BUCKET C: PALANIUK
I’ve had Brandon Palaniuk on my short list to do well in several events, and it hasn’t worked out yet. However, we’re getting to his favorite part of the country to catch fish. Around half of his Top-10 finishes were on fisheries with big smallmouth. He won this event back in 2013 with 88 pounds, but he gets a grade of 89 with his 2018 finish. He lives for smallmouth, so while he hurt my feelings a time or two so far this season, I can take this one to the bank.
Hard to pass up: Chris Zaldain
Last year, Chris Zaldain had five Top 10s, one of which was a seventh-place finish here on the St. Lawrence. That finish landed him a grade of 78. Light line, deep water and swimbaits will likely keep him in the hunt, and I wouldn’t be shocked one bit to see him fishing on Championship Sunday.
BUCKET D: CORY JOHNSTON
This bucket is probably the most Fantasy-strategic pick of all of the buckets. As of right now, a massive 49% of the field is picking Cory in this bucket. I’m planning on rising and falling with the masses here. In 2019, he had major boat troubles that caused him to only manage 15 pounds on Day 1. He backed it up with a big bag on Day 2, but it wasn’t enough to get him back in it. He has had a dismal sophomore season, but this year’s Northern Swing could right the ship. I’m expecting him to put his smallmouth knowledge to good use, and if he can keep his boat running, he may just make a run at the trophy. I hate to give him a grade based on his 2019 finish because if he could have fished effectively, it would have been different. I’m going to give him an honorary 80.
Hard to pass up: Destin DeMarion
Destin DeMarion is a smart fella. When he isn’t fishing Elite tournaments, he is guiding for bass. He spends about half of his spare time down south in Florida, but he spends the rest of his time up north fishing for smallies. Because of his experience, he should have a good feel for what they will be doing up here. He also has a sweet video smashing big smallmouth on his YouTube channel. You should check it out.
BUCKET E: DIPALMA
Like every year, there are several names in this bucket that you wouldn’t think would be here, and Greg DiPalma is definitely one of those guys. An eighth-place finish on this body of water was the highlight of his 2019 season and also earned him a B with an 81. It has been a rough 2020, but he may be able to get things going here. There is a lot of time left in this season, but he will need every ounce he can get if he wants to make the 2021 Classic.
Hard to pass up: Chris Johnston
I’m hedging my bets here with the Johnston brothers. I feel like if I bet on Cory Johnston in Bucket D, I should go a different direction in Bucket E. That way, if they both struggle, it’ll only hit me in one bucket. That said, I plan on listening to my gut and it may scream at me if I don’t put him on the team. He finished in second place here last year. I may be extremely dumb for not picking him here. He has 54% ownership as of right now. If I can manage to average out at a decent finish between him and his brother, I’ll feel like I made a good choice.