[Author’s Note: All picks are final unless Robert Lee somehow gets into the tournament at the last minute.]
The winning weights at the Cal Delta will dwarf those from the Sabine. The 50 pounds that Chris Lane caught over four days to win at the season opener might have you in first in California after two days, and that’s a big “might.”
This is a place that has more than its share of 10-pounders and where 25-pound limits don’t necessarily merit a second look. What the two events will have in common, though, is that long runs will be the norm.
When the Elite Series visited the vast Delta in 2007 and 2010, the pros took off out of Stockton, which isn’t necessarily centrally located, but it’s far closer to much of the good fishing than Sacramento is, where this year’s derby will launch. Technically, this tournament is on the Sacramento River, but I have to assume that the sloughs, bays and tracts that have produced in past B.A.S.S. events will draw most of the competitors, and that’ll require the burning of a lot of gas.
As Derek Remitz showed in 2007, when he led at the Delta in only his second Elite Series event (he won the first), you don’t need to know how to run the tides to do well, but that example is the exception rather than the rule. Plenty of anglers who try to be on their best water regardless of the tidal stage typically get burned. So now, in addition to dealing with a day shortened by long runs to and from the launch site, anglers may only get short windows of optimum tides to make the magic happen.
Accordingly, while I’m not usually a big proponent of local advantage in Elite Series tournaments — all of these guys are good, and all of them do their homework — in this case, I think some past experience will come in handy. It’s going to be a track meet where a track record will help.
That means that I’ll likely favor Westerners, and their numbers have increased. Not including the various Japanese pros who have intermittently had Western mailing addresses, or guys like Brian Snowden who were born there but honed their fishing chops elsewhere, I count at least 18 current Elite Series pros who either still reside in the West or else learned to fish there and then moved eastward. The latter group includes not only recent Alabama transplants Aaron Martens, Kevin Hawk and Justin Lucas, but also longtime Texans Gary Klein, Byron Velvick and James Niggemeyer.
Among the remaining anglers, I’ll look to competitors who’ve spent ample tournament time on the Delta. Of the 108 pros who fished the 2007 Elite Series tournament there, nearly half no longer fish the Elites. Of the 93 who fished the 2010 event, nearly 30 percent are gone. Of course, they’ve been backfilled not only by former Westerners like Hawk and Lucas, but also by stout sticks like Jacob Powroznik and Randall Tharp. That means that some of the less talented pros have been replaced by stars, which makes picking even harder.
We don’t know how some of those newcomers will do, so I’m going to lean on anglers who’ve had proven success on the Delta, or who have the attributes — river skills, tidal water expertise — to do so.
The 2007 and 2010 events should be instructive, although they both occurred in mid- to late March rather than the first week of May. That may also influence your choice to focus less heavily on sight fishermen and more on those who excel later in the spring.
Here are my picks for Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing.
Bucket A: Skeet Reese
Skeet Reese, coming off of a win and fishing on his home waters, would seem to be the obvious pick here. I’m sure his ownership percentage would be high anywhere B.A.S.S. traveled, but the Delta has been especially good to him, with a fourth-place finish in 2007 and a runner-up in 2010. When the Bassmaster Tour (the forerunner of the Elites) competed there in 2003, he was fifth. He also had fifth- and 11th-place finishes in Western Invitationals on the Delta.
Normally, I’d shy away from him because of that high ownership percentage, but here it will be diluted sufficiently to allow me to pick him.
The past two winners, John Crews and Aaron Martens, are in his bucket. So is Remitz, who has finished second and 14th on the Delta and is fishing well, along with Westerners Ish Monroe, Dean Rojas, Chris Zaldain and Justin Lucas.
Skeet is the closest thing to a sure thing, so I’m riding the yellow horse for this event.
Bucket B: Greg Hackney
Only two Westerners are in this bucket, Clifford Pirch and Brent Ehrler, both of whom are exceptional fishermen and certainly have experience on the Delta. Also, while many people may think of them as finesse anglers, they both have big-weight wins in grassy water slugfests.
Still, I’m tempted to pick Jacob Powroznik, who has substantial tidal water experience.
Ultimately, however, I’m expecting that Greg Hackney, coming off a most un-Hackneylike 96th-place finish at Guntersville, will revert to form. While he’s not thought of as a tidal water freak, he’s definitely a river rat, and with 10th- and third-place finishes on the Delta, it’s clear he understands how it works.
Bucket C: Brett Hite
There are three Westerners in this bucket — Brett Hite, Josh Bertrand and Byron Velvick — and I’m betting that Hite will Chatterbait the heck out of them. He won an FLW Series tournament on the Delta in 2008, right after winning an FLW Tour event on Toho. Since then, he’s won on Seminole. Think he likes grass?
If that doesn’t convince you, recall that when Hite won on the Delta, his winning margin was more than 20 pounds, as he ended up with 106-11. After a disaster at the Sabine, he came back strong at Guntersville, another grass lake.
This is going to be a slugfest, and he’ll be loaded for bear.
Bucket D: Stephen Browning
The Red River isn’t the only moving water where Browning excels. He came in third on the Delta in 2007 and sixth in 2010, after finishing an average 46th in 2003. After an abomination at Guntersville, he needs to make a move if he’s to qualify for a third straight Classic, unless he wants to take his usual tough route and make it through the Opens.
The former Westerners in this bucket are Gary Klein and James Niggemeyer. Niggemeyer made the Top 12 the last two times B.A.S.S. was here (11th in 2007 and seventh in 2010). He’ll probably have a lower ownership percentage than Browning, but both should be solid value picks.
Bucket E: Jared Lintner
There’s loads of Western talent in this bucket with not only Jared Lintner, but also Brandon Palaniuk, John Murray, Kevin Hawk and Fred Roumbanis, all of whom should siphon off some votes.
Like Browning, Lintner needs to get his season on track after a bomb at the Sabine and claiming the last money spot at Guntersville. There’s nothing like home cooking to get that done, and he’ll have the historical knowledge to mix up a variety of tactics in key areas without wasting time. He struggled a bit in 2010, finishing 60th, but that wasn’t the worst part of his week. His truck and boat were wrecked as he was T-boned on the post-tournament drive from Stockton to Clear Lake. Under more normal, non star-crossed circumstances, he’s done well there in Bassmaster competition, finishing seventh in 2007 and seventh in the 2005 Western Open.
This week’s sign of the apocalypse: I made it through an entire column without mentioning KVD or Ike even once.