Most of the pundits made their Classic picks awhile back, but good thing we waited to get Bassmaster TV analyst Mark Zona’s selections.
The conditions changed from winter’s frigid start, and it’s been mild in South Carolina as the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods approaches. Temperatures for the past several weeks have climbed into the 60s, and that’s altered how the tournament should play out.
“Two months ago, I would have given you three different anglers than I’m going with now,” Zona said. “A month ago, my three picks would have been Casey Ashley, Brent Ehrler and Aaron Martens, because if it was going to be typical Lake Hartwell, they are the best cold, deep-water anglers.
“Now that conditions are totally, drastically different, the three I would go with are (Greg) Hackney, Jason Christie, and I’m going to throw (Kevin) VanDam in there.”
Zona’s reasoning is that Hackney and Christie are two of the best shallow water fisherman on the Bassmaster Elite series, and the weather will allow them to concentrate on their strengths. The past two Classics on Hartwell were held in extreme cold, with Day 1 in 2015 a record low for the tournament at 10 degrees.
“Here’s the best thing for Christie and Hackney,” Zona said on Friday’s first day of Classic practice. “Those guys don’t need to get pried away from what they do. The last couple times, they could go out deep, which takes a lot of time in practice, or they can go shallow.
“In this practice, you can go shallow and take the deep factor out of their brain with how the weather has been. The way the lake is right now, the notoriously shallow water guys like Christie and Hackney don’t need to keep deep honest at all.”
Also, although neither has won a Classic yet, Zona said both Christie and Hackney are fishing strong and have been tabbed to win a championship. He thinks now just might be the time. Zona adds that conditions also could allow VanDam to break his tie with Rick Clunn at four Classic titles each.
“VanDam, I put in there for the simple fact that I think there’s going to be a lot of scattered fish,” Zona said. “I think it’s going to be a covering water tournament, and I think there’s going to be a lot of mid-depth range fish, and that sets up incredibly well for him.”
“It’s an obvious pick, and it’s not an obvious pick. He would not have been on my list a month ago. When those fish get in a mid-to shallow depth zone and are scattered, he becomes very, very, very powerful.”
When Ashley won in 2015, he brought in 50 pounds, 1 ounce over the three days. In 2008, Alton Jones had 49-7 to win. Zona thinks the warm temps will see the winner blow that away by averaging around 20 pounds a day.
“In all honesty, I think I’m low saying 59,” he said. “The fish are as big as they’re going to get all year, and they’re going to be up looking. I’m going to say 59 to 61 to win. Yep. Yep. Yep.”
Thank you, Mr. Zona, who you can see when Bassmaster LIVE gets under way for Friday’s Day 1 of competition at 8 a.m. ET. Zona joins Tommy Sanders and Davy Hite for three-hour segments each day, the second starting at noon.
Like for the first Elite on Lake Martin, Ronnie Moore and the author will air Facebook Live from the Classic each day, a half hour at a time starting at 7:15 a.m. ET and then for the Toyota Mid-day Report at 11:15 a.m.
For Wednesday’s Night of Champions, where Brandon Palaniuk is celebrated for his 2017 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, Sanders, Zona and Hite will conduct red carpet interviews of the gussied up anglers and their significant others from approximately 6:30-7:30 p.m. ET on Facebook Live.
Classic by the numbers
In the first Hartwell Classic, Charlie Hartley weighed the big bag on Day 1 to set the fishing world on fire. Hartley’s Classic lead was a career highlight, but his best of times turned into worst of times.
Alton Jones ended up leading on Day 2 and holding on with a three-day total of 49-7, and Cliff Pace was second more than 5 pounds back. The field averaged 2.57 pounds per fish, led by Fred Roumbanis’ big bass of 5-6.
Seven years later, hometown favorite Casey Ashley won with 50-1. He rallied past first-day leader Dean Rojas, who had the event’s big bag at 21-2, and held off Bobby Lane by a little more than 3 pounds. Aaron Martens had the big fish at 6-11. The average fish was slightly better than in 2008 at 2.65.
Last time, there were seven previous Classic winners in the field at Hartwell, three more than in 2008. This time, there are 11 anglers with 14 Classic titles, thanks to KVD’s four. With VanDam’s seven Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles, there are 19 AOYs among the competitors. Aaron Martens and Mark Davis have three each and Gerald Swindle has two.
While only KVD has more than one Classic title, he is among the four anglers in the field with a Classic as well as an AOY – Skeet Reese, Michael Iaconelli and Davis.
There are 15 anglers in the field with more than 10 appearances, led by KVD’s 27. It is the most experienced field in history, with an average of 6.17 Classics each.
With his AOY title, Brandon Palaniuk will receive the honors of leading the field out on Friday’s 7:30 a.m. ET takeoff. He’s followed by defending Classic champ Jordan Lee. The remaining positions were picked in a random draw, and the boats leave in reverse order on Day 2. Only the top 25 advance to fish Sunday, and they leave in order of standings, first to 25th.