Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
--Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
I’ve gone through periods of life when I fished only intermittently, and when I finally got back to the grind in some respects it was like starting all over again. I’d forget to plug in the trailer lights, or I’d leave the rear tie-down straps on at the ramp, leave my lunch at home or any one of a million rookie mistakes.
I don’t expect the Elite Series pros to be that way when they return at Eufaula. First off, most of them have been fishing throughout the down time, and the muscle memory won’t let them forget the obvious steps. More importantly, they’re all itching to get out there, fish for money, fish for points, and get to the scales to get moving toward the next Classic. B.A.S.S. has admirably committed to completing the season, but we really don’t know what’s going to happen going forward, so that squeezes the competitors a little bit tighter.
In other words, while all tournaments count the same, this one counts more, if that makes any sense at all.
These guys are all battle-hardened and tactically competent, but in the Venn diagram of regular fishing and tournament fishing, not everything overlaps. It’s a different skill set when money’s on the line. This one will be a complex derby not only because of the layoff, but also because of the time of year – look for anglers who excel when the spawn is over, but we’re not yet in the heat of the summer.
With that said, here are my picks:
BUCKET A: HARTMAN
MY PICK: Jamie Hartman may originally be from New York, but he thrives on southern cooking in June, as evidenced by last year’s victory at Guntersville. He started off strong at the St. Johns, and if he can notch another top 20 or even a top 10 here, that momentum may be unstoppable. Don’t forget, last year he finished 20th, first and third in New York, but there’s no chance he’s looking past Eufaula.
SAFE BACKUP: Buddy Gross was no doubt looking forward to Chickamauga in the springtime, and now he’ll get his shot at his home waters in the fall, but this one should set up well for him nonetheless. He’s a ledge beast.
BUCKET B: KENNEDY
MY PICK: Steve Kennedy may have as much experience on Eufaula as anyone in the field – it certainly dates back to before some of the young guns were born. I’ve made no secret of the fact that he tortures me in Fantasy Fishing because of his boom-and-bust tendencies, but this is his best time of year. In May of 2011 he won at West Point, just an hour up the road, and in June of 2017 he won at Dardanelle.
SAFE BACKUP: Brandon Lester just seems to catch ‘em, all the time, in all ways, everywhere.
BUCKET C: LOWEN
MY PICK: There are three Alabamians in this bracket, but I’m going with shallow water devotee Bill Lowen to make a move. While others are looking offshore or just outside of spawning areas, he’ll have some ankle-deep water all to himself and he’ll exploit it for everything it’s worth.
SAFE BACKUP: Ray Hanselman should get to exercise his substantial topwater chops this time of year, or maybe he’ll flip grass. Either way, it’s in his wheelhouse.
BUCKET D: CORY JOHNSTON
MY PICK: Cory Johnston came exceptionally close to winning AOY in his first year on the Elites before ending up eight points back, so his skills are not in question. Like Hartman, you know he’s salivating over those three New York derbies, so if he finishes well here that provides a launching pad to making another charge at the title.
SAFE BACKUP: Poor Hank Cherry. He won the sport’s biggest title and then the season shut down before he could bask in the glow. While he wasn’t able to ride the victory’s momentum in the following weeks, the break actually gave him ample time to settle down and focus on this tournament, rather than rushing right into the next one.
BUCKET E: LIVESAY
MY PICK: Lee Livesay did not get off to the same incredible start in 2020 that he achieved in his rookie year of 2019, but he has too much experience around grass and big fish to stay down in this bucket for long. My guess is he’ll win his first blue trophy before he finishes 84th again, as he did at the St. Johns.
SAFE BACKUP: Rick Clunn fished his first B.A.S.S. event on Eufaula in 1979, 40 years ago, and while his more recent string of finishes (2002, 2003, 2004) here were all over the map, he has as many top twelves on Eufaula (if not more) than many members of the field have in their careers. Don’t ever, ever sleep on him.