Another year, another Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing campaign, another atypical start to the Elite Series season. Last year it was Cherokee, and this year’s frostbite special will take place in February at Alabama’s Lake Martin. With a large number of Elite pros coming from the region, this venue isn’t a stranger to many of them, but certainly it’ll throw even the experienced ones a few curveballs. I believe that foremost among those decisions will be the choice of whether to fish exclusively for spots, or largemouths, or some combination of the two. With that in mind, look for anglers who’ve mastered the two species conundrum. If they tend to get off to fast starts on tour, so much the better.
BUCKET A: DEFOE
Ott DeFoe is one of the craftiest and most consistent pros on tour, and he’s especially good with spinning tackle. Last year he started off with a top 10 at Cherokee, and many fans likely attributed that finish to his vast history there, but don’t be fooled – any time it’s cold and fish aren’t eminently predictable he’s going to be in the hunt. At some point the Otter will put together an AOY campaign and this could be that year. If it is, he’ll need to get out of the box fast. If you’re not feeling it, go with Brent Ehrler, another pro who’s going to add more hardware to his collection sooner rather than later. He’s ultra-versatile, and has six figures of spotted bass winnings on his resume.
BUCKET B: WIGGINS
It’s tough not to pick local hammer Kelley Jaye in this bracket that features five Alabama residents. Last year’s Fantasy Fishing champ told me that one secret to success is to pick anglers who are greatly unlikely to fall below the money line. For the same reasons I picked DeFoe, though, I’m going with super soph Jesse Wiggins. Not only is he a spotted bass expert, but he’s shown an ability to win repeatedly at B.A.S.S. I’m going with that chance for a huge payout over Jaye’s security.
BUCKET C: MCCLELLAND
Throughout his storied career, Mike McClelland has often been a jackrabbit at the season’s start, whether it be his 2008 Harris Chain Elite win or his victory last March in the first Central Open at Table Rock. With over 240 B.A.S.S. events under his belt, nothing is going to rattle him, and a jerkbait and a jig – two of his strengths – should play a role at Martin. If you don’t believe he’s likely to McStick it to the field, think about choosing Bill Lowen, who will spend the year riding his aluminum boat away from the crowds. It could pay off with his first B.A.S.S. victory.
BUCKET D: HITE
After an uncharacteristically tough year in 2017, Brett Hite will no doubt be determined to end his streak of missed Classics at one. His signature Jack Hammer might not come into play as a vibrating jig did in his March 2014 win on Seminole, but the Arizona pro is adept with a wide variety of techniques, and in environs not just limited to grass. If you think that his slump isn’t ready to end quite yet, consider Chris Zaldain, another versatile western pro who needs to bounce back from a surprisingly disappointing campaign after a string of strong years.
BUCKET E: FUKAE
He’s no rookie, but Shin Fukae is going to turn some heads among the doubters in his inaugural Elite Series campaign. After many successful years on the FLW Tour, he can catch them anywhere, in a wide variety of ways, but he’s especially deadly with finesse techniques – and that should be a game changer at Martin. If you’re not down with Shin, think about Ray Hanselman, a Texan who follows the motto of former Raiders owner Al Davis: “Just win, baby!” His resume may initially scream south Texas, but he’s no novice, and no one trick pony.