It seems that every year my editors demand Fantasy Fishing picks earlier and earlier. The way things are going, I figure that at this time next year I’ll be prognosticating the results of the tournament-deciding Fish-Off between Vegas Iaconelli and Alton Jones III in the 2041 Bassmaster Classic at China’s new Lake X.
Seriously, we haven’t even held the first Open or either of the two Elite Series events that precede the 2017 Classic and they’re already asking for my Classic picks. That’s the bad news. The good news is that with a relatively small field, this is a comparatively easy picking process.
Whether it comes at the beginning of the year, the end of the year or midstream, the Classic is a different breed of tournament. You don’t get a lot of rookies or Cinderella stories coming out victorious because the time management, spectator management and fishing pressure usually weed most of them out. For that reason I’m not necessarily picking anglers who have the most Classic appearances or titles under their belt, but those who have shown a steely determination and ability to get the job done.
BUCKET A: COMBS
Keith Combs has won at Conroe before – Where in Texas has he NOT won? — and despite the fact that every owner of a floating piece of fiberglass or tin in the state will likely be in his wake, nothing seems to rattle him. Obviously this bucket is filled with hammers. All but one of them has won in B.A.S.S. competition, and five have won either the Classic, the AOY, or both. But the bottom line is that Combs is going to do well, he knows how to win, and if he wins and you didn’t pick him, you’ll probably want to grind your eyes out with a cheese grater.
If you’re put off by the idea of Keith’s spectator gallery, bet on Todd Faircloth, who has many of the same advantages but likely won’t be quite as swarmed.
BUCKET B: OMORI
Tak got his groove back in 2016, with his first B.A.S.S. victory in over a decade. It’s part of a rejuvenation plan that hasn’t seen him miss a Classic since 2011. In many respects, he’s as Texan as anyone in the field, having developed his game at Fork, but he may not have the pressure on him that others like Combs, Faircloth or the Altons will be faced with.
If Tak doesn’t float your boat, try Jacob Powroznik, who has won in Texas (Toledo Bend) in the spring and is a tremendous sight fisherman.
BUCKET C: J. LEE
The younger Lee brother has quickly shown his chops on tour and promises to be a contender for years to come. It’s not a matter of whether he’ll win both individual tournaments and titles, but rather when he’ll win them. In his first Classic, he stumbled early, then made a top six. The momentum that he ended 2016 with may be interrupted, but at most it’ll be a hiccup.
If you’re not ready to bet on youth, go with Dave Lefebre. He’s already won on Conroe (the 2009 TTBC) and three times in FLW Tour competition, on relatively diverse waters including Smith Lake, Kentucky Lake and Old Hickory. His wins have been spaced out, too, so maybe he’s due for another.
BUCKET D: EHRLER
Ehrler is another TTBC winner, although his victory came on Fork, but he’s another one who is proven to be unflappable. After eight FLW Outdoors wins, including the 2006 Cup, his first Classic last year was good, but not great. This one could mark his B.A.S.S. breakthrough.
If Ehrler isn’t up your alley, go with Steve Kennedy. It’s always hard for me NOT to pick him in Fantasy Fishing. You know he’s going to win again and you’ll feel like a dummy for not choosing him, but the caveat is that he also has no fear of the bomb.
BUCKET E: STRADER
When you think of anglers from East Tennessee, you probably think of a bunch of clear water freaks wielding 9 foot rods to toss little tiny jigs under a bobber, or perhaps babying their favorite balsa flatside that runs right on one out of every 12 casts. Strader can do those things, I’m sure, but after two decades on the FLW Tour, he’s also remarkably versatile as evidenced by last year’s early season Open win at Kissimmee, and a previous March FLW Tour victory at Ouachita. Dude even has a signature series glide bait, so you know he’s been thinking about big Texas bass for a while.
If that’s not your idea of a strong pick, go with Charlie Hartley, everyone’s sentimental favorite.