Balance finesse with power on St. Clair

DETROIT — Although this week’s tournament will be won again on smallmouth, Lake St. Clair is much shallower than the St. Lawrence River and features much more vegetation, both submergent and emergent. So don’t load your Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing rosters with just drop shotters and tube draggers. Power fishing tactics like crankbaiting and spinnerbaiting will be in play as well, as will topwaters, jerkbaits and big swimbaits.

But Lake St. Clair is not the only fishery in play this week. Also fair game are several connecting waterways: the Detroit River, which hooks up Lake St. Clair southward to Lake Erie, and the St. Clair River, which links Lake Huron to the north of Lake St. Clair.

The Great Lakes are a drop shotter and tube dragger’s dream but will require long, risky runs to get to four days in a row. So be sure to balance your roster with both power fishermen and finesse guys willing to make a long run.

I’ve handicapped the buckets to highlight the best bets, safest picks and dark-horse, high-risk/high-reward picks.

Pick and choose from this menu as your strategy needs dictate, based on where you are in the Fantasy Fishing points race. If you’re protecting a lead, for example, make safer picks. If you need a Hail Mary to save your season, make a few high-risk/high reward picks.

Bucket A – VanDam, Martens or Evers?

KVD (53.9% ownership) – Best Bet

Although Kevin VanDam’s recent history in tournaments won on smallmouth does not contain any Top 12 finishes (18th and 16th on Lake Erie in 2007 and 2008; 19th on Green Bay last year; 14th on St. Lawrence River earlier this month), few observers doubt he’ll be fishing on Sunday this week.

Why? This is his last chance this season to make a Top 12, and he’s in third place in Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) points. If AOY leader Edwin Evers were to stumble here as Skeet Reese did on the St. Lawrence River (finishing 93rd to fall from the Top 5 in AOY points), VanDam would have to pass only Aaron Martens to win his eighth AOY title.

This tournament plays to VanDam’s strengths better than it does to Martens’. As reported earlier, VanDam is in the best position of the three AOY leaders to do well here because he considers Lake St. Clair “home water.” He’s also an expert on the connecting fisheries, and his preferred power-fishing tactics work here on smallies.

I’m not convinced KVD will win this tournament, but I’m very confident he’ll be in the Top 12 – unless the weather is foul. If the weather is fair, the winner will likely be the angler that runs to Erie four days in a row for 25-pound limits of smallies. But only a few anglers can afford to make that gamble. Those below the Classic cut line will have to take some risks, hoping to win. Anglers who have a Classic berth locked up will fish more conservatively.

Aaron Martens (20.2.%) – Safe Bet

Martens is a safe bet in any tournament in which smallmouth and finesse fishing will be a factor. It will be interesting to see if Martens runs to big water to drop shot, or if he power fishes on St. Clair or one of the rivers. Although he’s known as a finesse specialist, he claims he enjoys power fishing better.

Martens’ history in late-summer smallmouth slugfests suggests he’s a safe bet to place in the Top 12 this week. He had a second and ninth on Erie in 2007 and 2008; third on Green Bay last year; and fifth on the St. Lawrence River earlier this month.

Edwin Evers (10.3%) – Dark Horse

If AOY leader Evers needed to win this tournament to qualify for the Classic or to win AOY, I’d give him good odds to do so. He won a late-summer smallie tournament on Lake Erie in 2008 and finished third there in 2007.

But Evers doesn’t need to win this week in order to win AOY – that’s the only reason he’s a “dark horse.” With a 30-point lead on Martens and a 39-point lead on KVD, Evers needs only to avoid disaster. Therefore, he’ll most likely follow a conservative game plan and bring in three consecutive 18-pound-plus stringers to finish close to where he did in the smallmouth derbies last year on Green Bay (31st) and earlier this month on the St. Lawrence River (25th).

But with Martens and KVD on one’s heels, trying to coast to an AOY victory might be riskier than an aggressive game plan aimed at a Top 10.

Evers told me prior to the St. Lawrence River tournament that his goal was to make Top 10s in both final tournaments, so he wouldn’t have to worry about being run down from behind. Listen to the interview here.

See picks for Buckets B, C, D and E on the next page.

Bucket B – Murray or J. VanDam?

John Murray (1.5%) – Best Bet

When I wrote earlier this summer about how to use ownership percentage to your advantage, I explained an opportunity similar to that which makes John Murray the best bet this week in Bucket B, where only 1.5 percent of Fantasy Fishing players have put him on their roster, and 61.3 percent own Jonathon VanDam.

Many Fantasy Fishing players know Jonathon VanDam has made a name for himself in the last two years as a smallmouth specialist, winning last year on Green Bay, placing second earlier this month on the St. Lawrence River, and finishing fifth in the 2012 Northern Open on Lake St. Clair. But only a few seem to be aware of Murray’s impressive history in summer smallmouth slugfests — fourth and third on Lake Erie in 2007 and 2008; 14th in 2001 on Lake St. Clair; and 12th earlier this month on St. Lawrence River (although he went against the grain and fished for largemouth). So at 1.5 percent ownership, Murray offers a much better payoff than JVD at more than 60 percent ownership.

Jonathon VanDam (61.3%) – Safe Bet

If you are protecting a lead in your Fantasy Fishing league, it might make more sense to pick JVD than Murray. You won’t gain much ground on the field if he lives up to expectations, but you won’t lose much if he stumbles.

David Walker (1.1%), Boyd Duckett (0.8%) – Dark Horses

Skeptical that Murray or Jonathon VanDam can notch back-to-back Top 12 finishes? Take a flyer on David Walker or Boyd Duckett.

Bucket C – Gamble on Ike?

Bernie Schultz (4.7%) – Best Bet

Although Bernie Schultz has finished out of the money in three Lake Erie tournaments since 2007, he excels in smallmouth tournaments with an alternate shallow bite.

Greg Hackney (1.9%), Michael Iaconelli (44.3%) – Dark Horses

I’m as surprised to put Hackney on this list as you are to see him here, but his numbers in some similar smallmouth tournaments speak for themselves – 12th and fifth on Lake Erie in 2007 and 2008, and 25th last season on Green Bay. If you took KVD and JVD in the buckets above, take a little risk here and go with Hackney. If he turns in a historically consistent finish, you’ll be one of only a few to reap the reward.

Iaconelli is a “dark horse” this week because he needs to win this tournament in order to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic. He told me this week in an interview for my Fantasy Fishing Insider podcast that he plans to “swing for the fence” and gamble on a high-risk/high-reward game-plan to win. “So I’ll probably do really well or really bad,” he said.

Bucket D – Pick ’em

I’m not super excited about any of the choices in Bucket D. A few anglers have had one or two standout performances in similar tournaments, but those finishes are countered by some bombs.

Kevin Short (4.3%) – Best Bet

Kevin Short does not have multiple Top 12s in summer smallie tournaments, but his overall average in such tournaments is better: 12th in the 2010 Northern Open on Detroit River; Top 40s on Erie in 2007 and 2008; 28th in the 2012 Northern Open on Lake St. Clair.

Derek Remitz (2.2%), Jami Fralick (1.2%) – Dark Horses

Neither Derek Remitz nor Jami Fralick are fishing as well as they did earlier in their careers, but if there’s a place to end this season on a high note, it’s on a Northern, smallmouth fishery, where the native Minnesotan and South Dakotan have had previous success.

Bucket E – Pipkens for the win?

Kotaro Kiriyama (3.4%) – Safe Bet

Kotaro Kiriyama’s impressive résumé in summer smallmouth derbies makes him the safest bet in Bucket E – fourth in the 2000 Classic on Lake Michigan; firstin a 2008 FLW event on Detroit River/Lake St. Clair; 14th and third in 2007 and 2008 on Erie; and ninth on St. Clair in a 2001 Bassmaster Tour event.

Chad Pipkens – (21.9%) Best Bet

Rookie Chad Pipkens has owned the Detroit River/Lake St. Clair in mid-level events, prior to making the Elites, having finished third there twice, plus four Top 20 finishes. In the Elite Series, he can now boast a 10th-place finish on the St. Lawrence River.

Brandon Palaniuk (64.3%) – Dark Horse

Although he won on the St. Lawrence River last week and was second on Green Bay last year, can lightning strike again for Palaniuk? A lot of Fantasy Fishing players think so, as indicated by his 64.3 percent ownership.

Palaniuk has now qualified for the Classic, has a fresh 100 grand in the bank, and has no mortgage to pay and no mouths back home to feed. Why wouldn’t he swing for the fences and try to win again? He’s going to. That means he’ll be a hero or a zero.