Daily Limit: Shuffle the Classic deck

How might this field deal ‘em on Lake Hartwell

Same as a deck of playing cards, there are 52 anglers competing in the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.

Bear with the Daily Limit as we get stupid in assigning card and suit ranks for some of the competitors in a Fantasy Fishing look for the March 16-18 derby on Lake Hartwell. We’ll start by basing it on the game of spades, but allow us leeway to change to any card game. (Yeah, I’m throwing down that joker.)

Now, with 11 former Classic champs in the field, we’re two short of completing a suit, but we’ll fill it out in a bit. Let’s count all those Classic winners as spades, because any could get the right deal and trump their way to another title.

How about designating hometown favorite Casey Ashley as the strongest card in the deck, the Ace of Spades? After all, he won at Lake Hartwell in 2015, and it sure is beneficial to know the lake and its particulars – like an old brush pile the size of a football where he caught his winning fish last time.

Ashley was made the 2-1 favorite by a team of B.A.S.S. oddsmakers who rated this deck. In the Group A of Fantasy Fishing, Ashley is the overwhelming favorite, picked by a whopping 38.7 percent of players. He could become the first angler to defend a Classic on his home lake.

Yet the weather might be taking away some of his home-lake advantage. The event begins three weeks past 2015’s Feb. 20 start, which at 9 degrees remains the coldest ever for a Classic. That was beneficial for Ashley, but nasty isn’t expected this year at all. Highs each day for the past several weeks have averaged in the 60s, which will open up the table considerably.

And even repeating is a rare feat. Sure, there have been anglers who won more than one event on the same body of water, but a Classic? Well, only one angler has done that. Guess who? Uh-huh.

Kevin VanDam, who won two Classics on the Louisiana Delta, undoubtedly is our King of Spades. King of bass fishing. King Kong. The man in black (and red) had his streak of 24 consecutive Classics end when he missed qualifying for the last one on Hartwell, but in 2008 he finished third there.

VanDam, picked second in Group A by 12.3 percent, is also the only angler in the field with multiple titles. So, expect a hungry KVD to play his best hand for a run at a fifth title, which would break his tie with Rick Clunn.

Looking for the Jack of Spades? Go no further than Mike Iaconelli. Ike, chosen third most in Group A at 9.7 percent, was the last angler to qualify for this Classic, keeping alive the longest active Classic streak at 17. Ike is one of only two anglers who made the top 10 in each of the Hartwell Classics, and a win would cap an incredible comeback.

Some other spade cards that have the power to trump include Skeet Reese and recent champs Jordan Lee, Edwin Evers, and Randy Howell. Lump 2008 Hartwell champ Alton Jones in there, too. Any could rise up for a second title, but the odds are against that, too.

You’d have to go back pretty far to the last time someone other than KVD doubled down on Classic titles. George Cochran won his second Classic in 1996. Flip over a few more cards for the next multiple winner, Clunn, who collected his fourth in 1990, and the year before that was Hank Parker taking his second. Bobby Murray became the first and only other angler with two Classic titles in 1978. And that’s it. Five. What would be the odds of a sixth this year?

Other low spades are Luke Clausen, Cliff Pace and Mark Davis, who could build the right hands of five (wait, that’s poker) and take home another bracelet (that’s poker, too). Pace was second to Jones in 2008 before he won in 2013 on Grand Lake. Davis, fishing his 20th championship, won the 1995 event on High Rock Lake in North Carolina, about 200 miles northeast of Hartwell.

To fill out the spades, we need two more anglers, and they’re several with great history on Hartwell. Both Brent Ehrler and John Cox follow suit as they’ve won FLW tour events there. Cox won most recently in March 2016. Ehrler was the second favorite in the B.A.S.S. odds at 3-1.  

Ashley and Jason Christie also have FLW wins on Hartwell. With a lot of pundits predicting the Oklahoma angler will break through with a major soon, Christie tops the suit of hearts as the ace. The fourth choice in Group A at 9.5 percent, he was runner-up in 2016 on Grand Lake and is seeking the winner’s $300,000 jackpot.

Aaron Martens, behind only KVD (7) and tied with Davis (3) for Toyota Angler of the Year titles, comes in as the King of Hearts. He holds the record for finishing second in four Classics. Like Evers two years ago, Martens is a sentimental favorite of many to finally break through. “Ease his pain” are many fans’ hopes, not just a voice from above in “Field of Dreams.” 

The King of Hearts is known as the Suicide King. If you ask Martens, he might say he made some moves that cost him a Classic title, but that card name is a misnomer. It was initially designed as a war king drawing his sword for battle, and Martens has certainly done that in almost every one of his 18 Classics -- he has 10 top 12 finishes.

Other face cards for the Classic would have to be Bobby Lane (5 to 1 odds), who was runner-up to Ashley and fourth in 2008, and Jacob Powroznik, who but for a morning delay might have won last time. (I’m not about to tell either of these guys they’re the Queen of Hearts.)

There’s several others who would play as hearts, as in fans would love to see them win. Gerald Swindle, Brandon Palaniuk and Seth Feider would make a lot of people smile with a title.

Let’s move to clubs, and a verified ace in Ott DeFoe, who was 11th on Hartwell in 2015. He’s the top Fantasy play in Group B with more than 30 percent. Pundits say the lake is setting up for him to go all in.

The same goes for Greg Hackney, (15.4 percent ownership) whom many are predicting to cobble a winning hand for his first major. Hackney was fifth in 2008 and first out of the cut in 2015. Throw Jacob Wheeler (17.5) into the high cards of potential winners. Other clubs of double digit fantasy play include Matt Lee and James Elam, who are getting a lot of love in Group C.

Lone Star state’s Todd Faircloth is our Ace of Diamonds. Faircloth, picked by 16 percent in Group C, has a remarkable Classic record with seven top 10 finishes in 15th appearances. He’s among the best to never win a major, and if he gets the right deal could certainly take the pot.

Other diamonds in the rough are last year’s Elite rookie sensations Dustin Connell, Jamie Hartman, Mark Daniels Jr. and Jesse Wiggins. Each is receiving some decent play and could build a great hand with the right flop.

Guys like Hank Cherry, who infamously lost a potential Classic winning fish, and Jason Williamson are being picked out of Group D. The angler with the second largest percentage of fantasy picks is Micah Frazier, who has 38 percent of the Group E plays.

There are 12 anglers who will be fishing in their first Classic, and Boyd Duckett in 2007 was the last time a rookie has won. Caleb Sumrall might be one of interest, as he won the B.A.S.S. Nation title on Hartwell. He’s not getting much fantasy play, but sometimes a longshot fills out a gutshot straight on the river. It’s just the odds are against that, too.