After a brief delay to accommodate this year’s Jordan Lee coronation in Greenville, the Bassmaster Elite Series picks up where it left off after Lake Martin, 575 miles and three states away in Orange, Texas.
It isn’t quite make-or-break time for the 110 Elite pros, but in a season that doesn’t allow for many slip-ups, the Sabine River is circled in red on everyone’s calendar. Rather than being a slugfest where limits are plentiful and an ounce or two difference per fish makes a huge difference, on the Sabine each landed fish is critical. In the 2013 event won by Todd Faircloth, it took only about 10 pounds to make the cut to Saturday. In the 2015 tournament won by Chris Lane, Paul Elias squeaked in with 11-10.
One 4-pounder – caught or lost – can mean the difference between not just winning and coming in second, but also an AOY title, a Classic berth or even requalifying for the Elites at season’s end. It’s not absolute – after all, Aaron Martens was 85th here in 2013, and still claimed the AOY trophy – but with the wide spread of weights it’s one where you want to bet on anglers who are able to scratch out bites under tough conditions.
The fishery won’t be the same as it’s been previously, due to newly limited waters and what I’m told are limited gas options after last fall’s hurricanes, so maybe we’ll see some new players. What makes picking this one so hard is that few anglers seem to be consistent on this occasionally-tough fishery. Some, like Faircloth, Dean Rojas, and Mike McClelland have done well multiple times, but A-Mart – 85th in 2013 and third in 2015 – is more typical.
Go with your gut, and go with anglers who are either capable of catching limits out of parking lot mud puddles or with those who can’t afford to have a second bad tournament in this still-early season.
BUCKET A: FAIRCLOTH
If anyone has “local advantage” in this derby, it’s the kid from Jasper. That’s not necessarily because Todd Faircloth is a small-fish river rat, but rather because more than anyone else he seems to have unlocked the key to excellence. He won here in 2013 and was ninth in 2015. I have no inside knowledge as to whether he scouted before it went off limits, but if he did he had one of the shortest commutes of anybody on tour. He’s in 22nd in the AOY race and a Top 12 here would position him for the AOY title that has thus far eluded him. If you don’t want to pick a favorite, go with Adrian Avena, whose mid-Atlantic river chops should serve him well after a relatively quiet start to his Elite career last year.
BUCKET B: IACONELLI
Mike Iaconelli’s track record at the Sabine is not exceptional by Ike standards. He was 83rd here in 2013 and 30th in 2015. After a solid start at Lake Martin he needs to keep the momentum going and avoid putting himself on the Classic cutline at year’s end like he did in 2017. No one is better at adjusting on the fly, and while some anglers may look for previous years’ hot spots to produce again, look for Ike to wipe the slate clean and go for broke. If you’re not convinced that he’ll get the job done, look to Aaron Martens, who has likewise been inconsistent on the Sabine, but whose track record will likely trend him toward his 2015 result over his 2013 stinker.
BUCKET C: KENNEDY
Steve Kennedy did not live up to pre-tournament expectations (either his own or his fans’) at Lake Martin, where no one would’ve been surprised if he’d won the whole thing going away. That’s the difficulty of picking him: He wins when he’s not “supposed to,” and bombs or falls short in situations that seem like a steel trap lock. He likely won’t put his swimbait to use at the Sabine, but with a much faster boat than the last time he was there, plus Power-Poles, he has tools to improve upon his 44th and 91st place finishes. Look for him to throw a Senko or his favorite swim jig and do some damage. But if you’re risk-averse, think about Mike McClelland, who finished 11th here in 2013, second in 2015 (when he ran to Houston) and 22nd in last year’s Open.
BUCKET D: LOWEN
Bill Lowen, the ultimate river rat, has a new skinny-water tool at his disposal, an aluminum boat that will allow him to skitter into the few places he couldn’t access before. His Ohio River bona fides led him to a fifth-place finish on the Sabine in 2013, but he stumbled to 58th in 2015. He finished 79th at Martin, and I don’t expect him to miss two Classics in a row, so the path back starts in Orange. If you think Lowen’s slump will persist, go with value pick Stephen Browning, another river guru who is playing with house money after his Open victory.
BUCKET E: COMBS
Seeing Keith Combs in Bucket E is certainly an oddity. He, like Faircloth, can be expected to win any time there’s a trophy up for grabs in Texas, even though the Sabine isn’t much like Rayburn, Amistad or Falcon. Nevertheless, he got off to a terrible start (98th at Martin), and it’s rare that he has two bad Elite finishes in a row – as far as I can tell, the last time it happened was in 2015. Don’t look for him to break the century mark, but look for him to break back inside of the Classic cut. If you think that playing small ball doesn’t suit him, though, go with Jacob Wheeler, a Sabine virgin and high-percentage pick who adapts as quickly as anyone in the sport today.