Fantasy Fishing

Fantasy Fishing: Conventional wisdom or value picks?

In a schedule filled with big-fish factories and compelling storylines, one that has already produced multiple Century Club belts, Lake Fork stands out. It’s a place that the average angler dreams about — a fishy amusement park where you could catch your personal best individual fish and personal best limit in the same day.

For tournament pros, however, that’s a mixed blessing. Yes, you could have a great tournament with multiple big limits. That could still not be enough to contend. You could also miss the boat entirely.

The Elites have visited Fork in each of the past three years, not always in the same month, but the megas always show up — for someone, or a group of someones. They’ll be caught again this time. One factor to consider is that the lake has been very low. It is always one of the smaller fisheries on the schedule, but now it’ll fish tight and after multiple visits there are very few secrets left. The winner may have to stake an early claim to one particular area, fish “the spot on the spot,” or luck into the right milk-run — and then avoid crashing into a just-under-the-water stump on the way back in.

For Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players, this tournament presents a special challenge. There are several high-percentage favorites. Do you pick them, or do you try to find an undervalued option? While not all of my alternative options are truly under the radar, I’ll offer up one pick based on gut and/or history, and another based on past performance. Here they are:

BUCKET A: COOK

My pick: Drew Cook’s finishes at Fork have been all over the map: sixth, 65th and 31st. If he’s going to take the next step in his career, he’ll need to show that the worst of those three was an aberration. He’s already taken one major step forward this year, and a good finish at Fork will keep him in the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, where he’s currently sixth.

‘Numbers don’t lie’ pick: Brandon Palaniuk is a threat to win anywhere, and Fork has produced two high finishes for him in recent years — fourth and 14th. That would be exceptional for most pros, but that likely just represents empty space on the mantel for the past AOY. He’s currently 10 points behind AOY leader John Cox, who also has a good track record on Fork.

BUCKET B: CHRISTIE

My pick: There can’t be any more unfinished business … can there? Since he made the decision to mount a return to B.A.S.S., Jason Christie has been on a tear. I thought there might have been a letdown after the Classic victory, but his win at Chickamauga shows that I was dead wrong. Anglers get on these little tears, and when they do it’s foolish to bet against them, so I’m pushing my chips to the center of the table on the champ at Fork.

‘Numbers don’t lie’ pick: Seth Feider is normally thought of as a northern smallmouth guy, but flipping up big green fish is actually his preference. Texas has been very, very good to him. He’s finished 12th , 11th and sixth at Fork. He’s currently just inside the Classic bubble, and while the late-in-the-year Northern events should be good to him, there’s every reason to believe that this one will too.

BUCKET C: MOSLEY

My pick: After a tough start to the year, perennial AOY contender Brock Mosley bounced back at Chickamauga with a runner-up finish to his tormentor Jason Christie. He’s outside the Classic cut right now, and smart money says there’s no way he’ll miss it. He had a Top 10 on Fork in 2020 and a money finish last year. Expect him to rattle off a bunch of single digits in quick succession.

‘Numbers don’t lie’ pick: Jay Yelas hasn’t quite been the Jay Yelas of old since he returned to B.A.S.S. a few years ago, but one place where he has shown flashes of brilliance is on Fork, in his old Texas stomping grounds. He’s finished 17th, third and 12th there, and if he keeps it up it could prove to be one of the greatest value picks in this draft.

BUCKET D: LIVESAY

My pick: It’s no secret that Lee Livesay has probably spent more hours on Fork than anyone else in the field, and his incredible victory last year did nothing but reinforce how well he knows the place. I hate picking someone with a player percentage this high, but I’d feel like an idiot if I skipped him and he garnered another century belt. So I’ll go with conventional wisdom in this case.

‘Numbers don’t lie’ pick: Like Feider (see above), Chad Pipkens is normally thought of as a northern smallmouth guy, and the association may be even more apt, but the Texas pig factory has been quite good to his bank account too. He’s finished eighth, 18th and 28th on Fork and seems to have something figured out as he vies to get back inside the Classic bubble.

BUCKET E: COMBS

My pick: Keith Combs hasn’t been the expected big fish hammer over the past few seasons, and particularly not this year, but if there’s any place that can rejuvenate him, it’s a big bass fishery in his home state. Making it even better, it’s a time of year when some percentage of the fish should be congregated offshore. Look for him to wear the paint off of a 5XD or 6XD and take home some hardware.

‘Numbers don’t lie’ pick: If Combs’ high ownership percentage scares you off, consider Skylar Hamilton, who has finished 30th, 10th and 17th on Fork and who wants to qualify for his third Classic.

Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge

• Keith Combs
• Lee Livesay
• Darold Gleason
• Chris Zaldain
• Jason Williamson
• Clark Wendlandt
• Masayuki Matsushita
• Frank Talley