Early in 2018, reports started to trickle back from Bassmaster Elite Series pros who’d pre-practiced on South Dakota’s Lake Oahe that we were about to have a smallmouth beatdown the likes of which we’d never seen before. One pro told me that he’d have packs of smallmouths – big smallmouth – chase a lure back to the boat. When he’d pull it from the water, they’d all dart to and fro trying to find that easy meal.
A variety of circumstances conspired to squash those expectations. Mark Daniels Jr. won with just under 70 pounds for four days. It took just over 9 pounds a day to make the cut to Day 3. Not quite the history-maker I was expecting, but somehow, I have a feeling that a mere 18-plus pounds is not going to get you paid this time around.
The tournament is in August, as opposed to June in 2018, and they’re launching from a different location, closer to what may prove to be the best areas. We don’t have much history to go on – just a single Elite tournament – with most of that field gone out to different pastures. When picking a team, it pays to look at momentum, versatility and flexibility. Sure, go with known smallmouth hammers, but also make sure they’re the type that can catch the evil brown fish in a variety of circumstances – from the Great Lakes to Tennessee to the desert lakes of the Southwest. I believe that there will be more 20-pound bags this time around, but I also believe that the weights will flip-flop a bit from day to day.
I am mostly going with gut picks, but if you don’t like my choices, consider anglers who have something to prove.
BUCKET A: GUSTAFSON
My pick: It’s hard not to pick Brandon Palaniuk here, but his near 50% player percentage margin means that a top finish won’t distinguish you from the pack. Think instead about other dedicated smallmouth hammers like either Johnston brother, or in my case, Jeff Gustafson. Gussy is not only a northern smallmouth hammer, but he won on the Tennessee River, so it’s not like he specializes in a single strain.
Something to prove: With his Bassmaster Open and Elite wins this year, as a technical matter, Brandon Lester doesn’t have much left to prove to anyone. However, for an angler who is remarkably versatile he finished a worse-than-disappointing 90th on Oahe in 2018. He’s fourth in the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, with an outside shot, and anything but a top finish likely eliminates him.
BUCKET B: PIRCH
My pick: Of the remaining Elite anglers who fished Oahe in 2018, Clifford Pirch was the highest finisher, at third. In fact, he was the only current Elite in the Top 10. At 19th in the AOY race, he seems to have his spot locked in for the 2023 Classic, but after missing two in a row I can’t imagine he’ll leave much to chance. They should be eating a finesse bait like a drop shot or a Ned rig, so expect him to excel.
Something to prove: Gerald Swindle, like Pirch, is well inside the Classic cut (22nd), but unlike Pirch he doesn’t have a good Oahe finish to inspire confidence. The noted junk fisherman was 65th here in 2018, and another result like that could put a lot of pressure on him heading into La Crosse.
BUCKET C: PIPKENS
My pick: Michigan smallmouth expert Chad Pipkens was 28th at Oahe in 2018, one of 10 current pros who finished between 21st and 40th. Depending on the number of double-qualifiers, he may be just a few spots out of the Classic, with a smallmouth lake and a familiar dual-species river all that’s left to tread. He’s made the last three Classics and certainly doesn’t want the streak to end.
Something to prove: With a good finish at the St. Lawrence, Brock Mosley moved into shouting range for a Classic berth. Currently he’s 54th, and depending on the number of double-qualifiers he could be just 40 or so points out. He was 98th here in 2018 during his third year on tour. If he wants to fish in Knoxville, he has to figure out way to make Oahe work for him.
BUCKET D: FRAZIER
My pick: Past Elite winner Micah Frazier had a decent but not remarkable 39th-place finish at Oahe in 2018, and with a low player percentage this is the type of gamble I’ll need to take to make up some ground against my fellow pundits. He’s been all over the map this year, starting with 10th- and 13th-place finishes in Florida, followed up by 92nd- and 85th-place efforts. He made four Classics in a row (and five of six) before missing in 2022. To miss two straight could be crushing.
Something to prove: John Crews is not having a season befitting his long record of success, and Oahe seems like an odd place to try to turn that around. He was 87th here in 2018. Nevertheless, not much is going to faze the tour veteran and past Elite winner, and while he may not have a huge ownership percentage, few of us will be surprised if he earns a top finish.
BUCKET E: IACONELLI
My pick: Mike Iaconelli’s return to the Elite Series hasn’t quite gone the way any of us expected, but there’s no doubt he will right the ship at some point. He was 29th at Oahe in 2018, and this is just the type of adapt-on-the-fly, “fish the moment” event that made him famous. He’ll pair his northern chops, finesse excellence and go-for-broke attitude to come out on or near the top. What does he have to lose?
Something to prove: Based on my conversations with Japanese pros prior to the season, I expected Daisuke Aoki to become a star. That has not happened yet stateside for the noted finesse guru, but with a space in the Elites guaranteed next year if he wants it, this would be a good time and place to show that he belongs.
Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge
• John Crews
• Skylar Hamilton
• Jamie Hartman
• Mike Huff
• Mark Menendez
• Jay Przekurat
• Gerald Swindle
• Matty Wong