I couldn’t have sucked more at Lake Champlain if I’d tried. That included picking one angler in the 80s, another in triple digits and three more who finished 59th or worse.
Fortunately for those with little left to fish for this season, the final event is a “win and you’re in” deal — a brilliant way to keep our attention. I’m going to treat it the same way for Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing purposes. As compared to the likes of Rich Lindgren and Coy Greathouse, I’ve got nothing going on, which means I’ve got nothing left to lose.
As with Champlain, ounces are going to matter in a meaningful way. Find the guys who have proven records with big, bigger and biggest smallmouths and lock them in. Bear hug them to your roster like there’s no tomorrow, and try not to look backwards at past failures. At this point, it’s all or nothing.
With that self-pitying preamble, here are my picks.
BUCKET A: FUJITA
My pick: I don’t care that he’s probably still on a high from this past week, dealing with overseas media requests well into the night. Kyoya Fujita still has an outside chance at Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year, he’s deadly with light line, and seems to excel in smallmouth theme parks. In addition to the victory, he was seventh at St. Clair. With the $100,000 from last week he probably added three more screens and six more transducers, enough to tell if a fish burps 50 miles away. I’m riding his fishing momentum.
My backup: Last year’s Century Club champ Jay Przekurat is an obvious second choice, but don’t sleep on Patrick Walters, who’s just three points behind Przekurat and won’t get nearly as much attention. He’s been all over the map at Lake St. Clair, but he’s a top 10 AOY guy. I expect him to rise rather than fall.
BUCKET B: JOHNSTON
My picks: Each of the Johnston brothers has generally kicked butt here, but Chris Johnston has been just slightly better, with a win and never finishing outside of the top six in four tries. He’s like money in the bank.
My backup: Cory Johnston has beaten his brother by four and one spots at the last two St. Lawrence Elite events. Maybe it’s his turn to bring the hardware back across the border.
BUCKET C: ITO
My pick: Taku Ito is the fan favorite and a past St. Lawrence winner. He’s never finished worse than 13th in three tries at the St. Lawrence. It’s been a tough year for him, but he had a great finish at St. Clair and a decent one at Champlain. Mathematically he may be able to get into the 2024 Classic without winning, but the direct route would be a lot cleaner.
My backup: Jacob Powroznik predicted on stage that it would take 105 to 107 pounds to win and that all of the Top 10 would top 100. If he’d guaranteed that he would be one of those 10 I’d push all of my chips to the center of the table on him, but his reticence forced me to take a more cautious approach.
BUCKET D: ZALDAIN
My picks: How in the heck did Chris Zaldain end up in Bucket D? While whatever’s ailed him to date this season may still affect his performance, his upside is too big to avoid picking him. He was fourth at the St. Lawrence in 2022, 11th in 2022 and ninth in 2019. Even though he’s from Texas by way of California, he has more B.A.S.S. tournament experience on the St. Lawrence than all but a few of the old-timers.
My backup: David Mullins hasn’t finished outside of the money at the St. Lawrence since 2015, and he has finished as high as seventh here. It’s not quite his wheelhouse, but it’s not, not his wheelhouse either. The usually consistent pro has had an off year, landing him in Bucket D, but a strong finish would be a saving grace of sorts heading into 2024.
BUCKET E: PIPKENS
My pick: When in smallmouth country, pick a brown fish guy in Bucket E, and Chad Pipkens is that guy. He’s finished as high as 10th here in Elite competition, and he came in 13th in the recent Open. He’s another guy whose middling performance this year is a mystery, and the Champlain stinker is puzzling. This is a good chance to take a risk and blow the doors off the event.
My backup: I wanted to pick 2019 Elite Series St. Lawrence winner Micah Frazier here, but he burned me at Champlain. I hope everything is OK with him, because that’s atypical for him, but I’ve got to stay away from someone without momentum. I’m a risk taker, but not that much of one.