None of my fellow Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing pundits are old enough to remember it, but back in the 1970s there was a comedian named Ray Jay Johnson, who as far as I can tell became famous on the basis of one line. Someone would refer to him as “Mr. Johnson,” and he would smugly reply, “You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, or you can call me … [and so on] … but you doesn’t has to call me Johnson!”
Since we only had three or four television channels at the time, and no internet, this passed for funny. I didn’t know why then and I don’t know why now, but the dude probably made more money spouting off this nonsense on Miller Lite commercials than most of us will make in a lifetime.
What does this have to do with this year’s iteration of Fantasy Fishing? About as much as the pistol grip rods and possum belly tackleboxes.
It reminded, me, however, that we have only one Bucket A, and both Chris and Cory Johnston reside therein. Their names are easy enough to confuse in the best of circumstances, but on the St. Lawrence, where they both excel, you only get to pick one Johnston. Pick wisely.
In fact, you’re going to have some tough choices to make in each of the five Buckets. At this point in the season we have anglers fighting for Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year positioning, Classic berths and for spots in next year’s Elite Series field. Slipups are deadly. Almost all of them have been to the St. Lawrence River at least once, if not multiple times, including in Elite Series competition. It’s not a new playing field, and they all know that anything short of big weights means going home on Day 3.
Here are my gut check picks who I believe will have my back — and their own:
BUCKET A: JOHNSTON
Gut pick: I went with the numbers on this one and chose Chris Johnston over his brother Cory – as well as over solid alternates like Brandon Palaniuk and Brandon Lester. He’s a bit higher up in the AOY race, and while there may be too many anglers between him and the title for a meaningful shot, don’t be surprised to see him close the gap.
Solid backup: The other Johnston, Cory. He knows the same places and has actually won more recently here in B.A.S.S. competition with an Open victory in 2021.
BUCKET B: GUSTAFSON
Gut pick: Would it surprise anyone if we had Canadians in the first, second and third spots in the final standings here? It wouldn’t surprise me, and that’s why I have Jeff Gustafson penciled in for my Bucket B pick. He’s well within the Classic cut to return to Knoxville, where he earned an Elite win last year. While he hasn’t been as good on the St. Lawrence as his running mates, he hasn’t finished worse than 18th in three Elite tries.
Solid backup: Count me among the many fans who would love to see Taku Ito make it back-to-back victories up here. After all, “smallmouths love Taku.” Like Gussy, he seems to be safely inside the Classic cut, but another good finish here would cement that position.
BUCKET C: DOUGLAS
Gut pick: Josh Douglas has made his living and his reputation as a smallmouth guru, and while he’s not a true rookie, his first year on the Elites has been a mixed bag. There’s time to work back into the Classic cut, and most of that will take place on smallmouth-rich waters, so that puts him in the driver’s seat – starting now.
Solid backup: Chad Pipkens is closer to a Classic berth than Douglas, but he too will have to gain some ground if he wants to do anything other than work the Bassmaster Classic Expo in Knoxville. He’s been all over the map on the St. Lawrence, from 10th to 94th, but since hitting bottom in 2018 he’s gotten better on each subsequent visit.
BUCKET D: SCHULTZ
Gut pick: After a long and successful career, Florida pro Bernie Schultz is fighting for a spot on next year’s Elite Series. Fortunately for him, the next stop of that effort is at the St. Lawrence, where he’s competed since before some of the current field was born – and hasn’t lost a step in recent years. He was eighth last year, 15th in 2020 and 12th in 2017, so he knows where they live.
Solid backup: Brock Mosley is having a distinctly non-Mosley-type year, which is why he finds himself in Bucket D. He’s a good smallmouth angler, but he finished third out of Clayton in 2020 by mostly chasing largemouth with a JackHammer. He could do either, or mix and match, for a top finish this time around.
BUCKET E: COMBS
Gut pick: The wheels seem to have fallen off of Keith Combs this season, which potentially makes him a huge bargain in Bucket E. He has three Top 10 finishes on the St. Lawrence in B.A.S.S. competition. If he can get those power bites to fire up this week, he could eclipse 90 or even a hundred pounds.
Solid backup: On the flip side of Combs’ power excellence, Japanese rookie Daisuke Aoki is known for his extreme finesse skills. If the key spots get crowded and the fish show some reluctance to bite, he could have a season-defining performance in New York.
Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge
• Josh Douglas
• Mike Iaconelli
• Taku Ito
• Chris Johnston
• Cory Johnston
• Jonathan Kelley
• Brandon Palaniuk
• Chad Pipkens