Fantasy Fishing: Is there a local advantage?

Last year the Lake Murray Elite Series event won by Drew Benton was one of my favorites because we saw anglers doing well by doing what they do best – whether that meant sight fishing, chasing a shad spawn, chasing a herring spawn, staring at a screen or “just plain fishing.” Nine of the Top 10 averaged 20 or more pounds a day on a lake where many of them did not have much Bassmaster experience.

They’re headed back a bit later this year, but expect more of the same, perhaps exchanging much of the bass spawn with a bit more summertime fishing. Once again, though, we’re going to see anglers using every trick in the book to get the job done. My strategy is to focus on pros who either have experience on Murray – there were three South Carolinians in the top nine – or who excel at this weird transition time.

Here are my picks:

BUCKET A: Stepping up to the plate

My Pick: There’s an atypical amount of young talent in Bucket A, which I suppose should be no surprise since it seems like a different rookie (or three) makes a splash in each event. It just feels like it’s time for JT Thompkins, last year’s EQ points champ, to take his turn. After starting the season strong, he bombed in Palatka and it’s time to get things back on track in his ROY chase. It’ll be nice to win the trophy and have only a short ride to get it home.

Solid Backup: If you’re not all-in on the rookie phenoms, go with Brandon Lester, who finished 19th at Murray last year and is riding the momentum of 12th and 13th place finishes in Florida.

BUCKET B: Out of stater

My Pick: It was tough not to pick the home state favorite here, but when others look out, John Cox always seems to find something tricky inside. He was 5th at Murray last year, and had a good-but-not-exceptional-for-him Florida swing. Now it’s time to ride the General to some more hardware.

Solid Backup: It was hard not to pick Patrick Walters, my preseason AOY choice, at Lake Murray. He’s exceptional everywhere, but particularly on the lakes of his home state. He was 4th at Murray last year and needs to reverse the tough slide that he endured in two Florida events.

BUCKET C: The Other Carolina

My Pick: The two Carolinas may have an interstate rivalry, but bluebacks are bluebacks and docks are docks. Shane LeHew was 14th at Murray last year but currently sits just outside the Classic cut. He needs a good one in his neighboring state to get back on the right side of the fence.

Solid Backup: If you believe that there will still be spawning fish, Drew Cook should be your pick. Even if there aren’t, it’s probably unfair to characterize him as a one trick pony. You can’t qualify for five straight Classics without more than an arrow in your quiver. He was 7th at Murray last year.

BUCKET D: The Blueback king

My Pick: If there’s a good herring spawn going one, expect Brandon Cobb and his topwaters and flukes to finish high. If there’s not, expect him to finish high some other way. He’s exceptional on all of the South Carolina lakes and finished 6th at Murray last year. This year has been a minor disaster for him so far, but there’s plenty of time and casts in front of him to get things back in the right direction.

Solid Backup: I kind of wish that Jason Williamson was in a different bucket. It was a toss up between him and Cobb and ultimately I went with Cobb, but J-Will was 9th at Murray last year and knows how to approach these types of lakes, even when the bite gets funky.

BUCKET E: The one northerner

My Pick: In an otherwise tough season, Lake Murray was Mike Iaconelli’s second best finish last year – just one spot behind his 10th place finish at Seminole. So far this season he’s had similar poor results, with one good finish (14th) at the Harris Chain, one disappointment and two bombs. This tournament is tailor-made for his frenetic style – expect him to use anything from a reverse-falling centipede to a frog to a big mop jig to amass his catch.

Solid Backup: Matt Robertson is another mystery this year. He was a solid 29th at Murray last season, and that was his fifth best regular season finish. He’s yet to cash a regular season check in 2024 – clearly the talent is there to change that in a hurry.

Falcon Rods Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge

• Todd Auten
• Stetson Blaylock
• Hank Cherry
• Jacob Foutz
• Mike Iaconelli
• Shane LeHew
• JT Thompkins
• Alex Wetherell