Based on recent weather and the 10-day forecast, this should definitely be a late-winter to early prespawn event. The playing field is the same as the 2019 Bassmaster Classic, but the Elite Series will be there three weeks earlier with somewhat colder temperatures to endure.
Overall, you won’t find a lot of tournament data for this part of the Tennessee River during this time of the year for your research. Right now temperatures are uncharacteristically frigid in the Knoxville region.
Looking at the forecast, there looks to be relatively stable and moderate temperatures rolling into the event. I think they will help hold these fish in a prespawn mode where anglers will be able to capitalize on these big females when they are at their heaviest and hungriest. I am torn whether this will be dominated by flat-sided crankbaits or more of a jig and spinnerbait deal.
In my mind, the smart play is to build your Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing roster around anglers that excel at prespawn power fishing in an absence of grass, like to fish water with some color in it and that have TVA experience.
BUCKET A: LESTER
Brandon Lester nearly had a Top 10 at the season opener, and this next tournament should be right in his comfort zone. Lester cut his teeth up and down the Tennessee River. He may not have a ton of experience on this particular section, but he did make the Super 6 in the 2019 Bassmaster Classic out of Knoxville. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Lester leveraging the new Rapala OG Slim crankbait this week.
Notable alternative: I keep thinking this will be a cranking tournament, so for that reason I'm thinking Brandon Palaniuk. He is from Idaho, is tolerant of fishing in the cold weather and is comfortable with a crankbait in his hands. Palaniuk also finished 10th at the 2019 Knoxville Classic.
BUCKET B: GROSS
While Buddy Gross calls Chickamauga his home lake, his track record up and down the Tennessee River fisheries has been strong, to say the least. Gross had a solid St. Johns River tournament despite some late mechanical hurdles with this boat. I expect all of that to be resolved during this off week, and he will be ready to roll for this event.
Notable alternative: Micah Frazier did not have a stellar 2019 Knoxville Bassmaster Classic but having seen this water at a similar time of year should have some benefit. One thing that sticks in my mind: Earlier in his career he had a strong finish on Hartwell leveraging a Rapala Shad Rap, and to me that is the kind of pattern that could be very strong in Knoxville. Frazier also had some strong finishes in spring Bassmaster Classics.
BUCKET C: ROBERTSON
Matt “ON ’EM” Robertson definitely is not happy about his performance at the St. Johns River, and I know he still has a chip on his shoulder from is rookie appearance at the Knoxville Classic. Robertson's home water is Kentucky Lake, so he is familiar with this style of fishing, and I expect big things from him this week.
Notable alternative: Kyle Welcher is another angler who is no stranger to bodies of the water along the Tennessee River. Welcher also prefers to fish the sections of these fisheries that are the most river-like, so he should find stuff to make him feel right at home in Knoxville. It was a tough call for me to choose between Welcher and Robertson. Welcher was a workhorse for my fantasy team in 2020.
BUCKET D: MUELLER
Paul Mueller says that cranking is one of his favorite ways to catch bass, and some of the best finishes of his Elite Series career have been in cold water tournaments. Not to mention, it seems like Mueller’s biggest breakout events come when he is due. He guides all winter long in Connecticut, so the weather will not be a factor, and he is deadly when he can leverage his electronics.
Notable alternative: I am really tempted just to take the value Jason Christie brings being in Bucket D for this event, because chances are his performances will start to shoot him up the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings from here on out. This is really a coin flip deal for me, and I might swap to Christie last minute. If it feels like a jig and spinnerbait deal, Christie could be a monster in this event.
BUCKET E: PAQUETTE
Garrett Paquette fished the last Bassmaster Classic out of Knoxville, but he didn’t have a stellar finish. I am guessing he learned something from being part of that process, and his Michigan blood should help him handle the chilly temperatures.
Notable alternative: It seems like the overwhelming fan pick is Skylar Hamilton. He is a Tennessee guy, and he did fairly well at both winter Elite events at Cherokee Lake 2017 and Lake Martin 2018. Maybe going with the majority will serve you better than everyone that picked Rick Clunn at the St. Johns River.