And just like that, we are on to the final event of the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series. If past years on the St. Lawrence River are any indication, there is no more exciting way to finish it off than to have 60 bags of smallmouth over 20 pounds with the heavyweight tournament granting the victor a coveted and extremely rare smallmouth Century Club belt. In fact, there are only two others in the history of B.A.S.S., and it went to our top finisher and the runner up at our event last year.
According to research, this year is going to top even last year’s record-setting weights. That, and our entire field has been sharpening their forward-facing sonar skills (from here on out referred to as FFS) all season, and even more so in the last two events. The game has certainly made a shift in the last few years. Now, it is less about finding key structure where the bass are holding tight and more about tracking these bass down with your scope whether they are on something specific or not. No matter how you feel about FFS, there is no denying we have seen drastic leaps in the fish catches and final weights in smallmouth tournaments where it dominates.
With that in mind, many of my picks will be strategically centered around that technology. There will inevitably be some guys that catch big bags of smallmouth shallow, but the bulk of the field will be plucking them from the depths. Drop shots, moping techniques, spybaits and other typical baits will show up. That is, unless you’re Kyoya Fujita, in which case he’ll have a number of crazy, hairy-looking contraptions on the front deck.
Let’s jump into some picks.
BUCKET A: PRZEKURAT
Last year, Jay Przekurat blew the covers off the record books with a staggering 102-pound, 9-ounce total weight of smallmouth bass. This place has always had the potential, but he was the first one to actually achieve a 25-pound-plus average per day with this species. He likely won’t have to do anything but retie his lures after this week at Champlain. He’ll be on the prowl and only casting when he sees a good one. As I’m writing this, Przekurat is finishing up Championship Monday on Champlain and will have some incredible momentum coming off a Top 10.
Don’t forget about: Joey Cifuentes III
Joey Cifuentes III narrowly missed the final day of competition on Champlain, finishing in 11th. He has two wins to his name this year, primarily by riding on the wings of FFS. He is leading the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year race and will want to finish strong so he can take down that title. With Kyoya Fujita right on his tail, he should be extra motivated.
BUCKET B: JOHNSTON
The second angler to claim a smallmouth Century Club belt was Cory Johnston. His record is impressive on the St. Lawrence River. Just a few weeks ago, he scored a runner-up spot here in a massive 212-angler Bassmaster Open field. The fish were primarily spawning and hadn’t begun to gorge themselves on gobies. After a month or so of all-you-can-eat, those same fish will weigh a lot more. In five trips, he has finished in second, second, fourth, seventh and 36th. That 36th place finish included terrible boat problems that all but took him out of one day of competition. That anomaly shouldn’t even factor.
Don’t forget about: Chris Johnston
Truth be told, there is every bit as much reason to pick Chris Johnston here as there is to pick his brother Cory, if not more. At the end of the day, I will likely just pick the brother who has the least ownership. Chris has never finished outside the top six! His finishes are sixth, fifth, first and second. That’s stout. Expect to see at least one Johnston brother, if not two going into the final round on Sunday.
BUCKET C: GUSTAFSON
I’ve learned the hard way that in this game, there are no guarantees. Some guys that should do well by all available metrics can find themselves on the struggle bus. But when it comes to consistency on this body of water, regional awareness and momentum, Classic champ Jeff Gustafson certainly is your man. He has a ton of experience here. In four trips, he has 23rd, 18th and a pair of 12th-place finishes to his name. Champlain wasn’t kind to him, but since he is defending his Classic title, he can really swing for it.
Don’t forget about: Takumi Ito
Takumi Ito’s year hasn’t been quite what he expected. He climbed more than 10 spots in the AOY standings after Lake Champlain and can see a possible berth into the 2024 Bassmaster Classic on the horizon. I was surprised to see him struggle on Day 2 at Champlain, but he rallied on Day 3 and wrapped up in a respectable 30th place. Given that his first win came on the St. Lawrence River in 2021, he’ll have everyone in his corner, cheering him on.
BUCKET D: REDWINE
Alex Redwine made quite a splash at Lake Champlain, and like Jay Przekurat, is currently wrapping up Championship Sunday in a virtual three-way tie for second place going into the day. He clearly is fishing his strengths as a northern angler. Looking back at his history, he thrives when he gets to the back half of the season. In three trips to New York smallie fisheries, he has two 12th-place finishes and a 26th. Two of those finishes were on the St. Lawrence River. As he continues to find his feet in the Elite Series, he will continue to show up near the top of the results. He is a sniper with his electronics and will certainly use that on his way to another good finish.
Don’t forget about: Jacob Foutz
Another overlooked angler, Jacob Foutz, was my ace in the hole at Champlain. He was relatively overlooked in Bucket E and smashed them during the entire event. He went out in 10th on Championship Sunday with nowhere to go but up. I’m wondering if I may be missing a big opportunity to pick him again. His only professional tournament finish was last year’s tournament here where he finished 27th. Had he not stubbed his toe at the first two events of his rookie season, you might have seen this kid holding the AOY trophy. He’s a hammer.
BUCKET E: PIPKENS
There are a couple of really surprising anglers who are in the bottom bucket and while no one deserves to be at the bottom, I guess someone’s gotta do it. That doesn’t mean, though, that they can’t make a great run at the last event. Chad Pipkens is a strong northern contender and has an infatuation with smallmouth bass. This clearly hasn’t been a good year for him, so momentum won’t be on his side. He has a ton of tournament data here and it’s a little bit all over the place, but it does include three top 20 finishes. In order to avoid getting beat in the ninth inning by Rich “HellaBass” Lindgren again, I need to avoid a bomb in this bucket. Pipkens seems like he could be just the ticket to secure a decent finish and get some good points. Of all the anglers in the bucket, he has managed more Fantasy Fishing points than any other angler.
Don’t forget about: Micah Frazier
Nothing has gone Micah Frazier’s way this year, and unfortunately that’s just part of the game. He should be a shoo-in going into the St. Lawrence River. In fact, he has won here in 2019 and backed up that performance with a fifth place in 2020. He definitely has the skills to do well here. If he can keep the wheels on, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge
• Kyoya Fujita
• Cooper Gallant
• Cody Huff
• Taku Ito
• Shane LeHew
• Brandon Palaniuk
• Jay Przekurat
• Alex Redwine