Right now the only people who want to put Ross Barnett further into the rear view mirror than I do are the pros who finished worse than 100th and the staff of the Weather Channel. It was a great event, with rookie Dustin Connell fending off half of Kalamazoo in the quest for the big blue trophy, but it wasn’t so great for my Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing choices.
Four events into the season – five if you count the Classic – and we’re in a situation where none of the clear-cut favorites have taken home the top prize. With capital-R Rookies like Connell and Jesse Wiggins high on the scorecard, along with little-r rookies like Jacob Wheeler and overlooked vets like Tim Horton and John Murray winning too, it has been a season of surprises. Despite the fact that I’ve rarely had reason to cheer any of my team members on Sundays, somehow I’m still in the 88th percentile.
I’m expecting Sam Rayburn, one of the most storied fisheries in Bassmaster history, to push me back over 90, but expectations aren’t everything. At the beginning of the year I’m sure all of the crankers circled this one on their calendars, but after ridiculous amounts of rain the shoreline cover is flooded. The offshore guys may catch them, but it won’t be the only way to catch them. Nevertheless, Rayburn may be the best lake in the country now – everybody is going to catch lots of fish, so pick anglers who can separate themselves with a big bite or three every day. Here are my picks:
BUCKET A: K. VANDAM
If three wins last year didn’t prove to you that his alleged slump was a crock, then perhaps VanDam’s current fifth-place standing in the AOY race, bolstered by a runner-up result at Ross Barnett, will do it. He may no longer be head and shoulders above the rest of the field every day, but he’s still a threat any place that bass swim. Not only has he won at Rayburn before, but it should fish much as Toledo Bend did last year, when he won it primarily with a crankbait rod, but supplemented that bite with a spinnerbait. He may not wear the bill off of some 6XDs, 8XDs or 10XDs, but he’ll almost certainly wear the skin off of his thumb. If you can’t get that through your tinfoil, non-truth-believing hat, go with Todd Faircloth, who is quietly having a very good season and who likely knows every bush, tree and blade of grass on the tournament venue nearest to his Jasper, Texas, home.
BUCKET B: COMBS
Ugh. Another bucket, another uber-popular pick. So much for being a contrarian. Although Combs didn’t reward my faith in him at Conroe, that was a different type of event, when his deep-water wheelhouse wasn’t the dominant pattern (even though it was the winning pattern). Rayburn will be right up his alley, with lots of fish offshore. Even if that’s not the only pattern in play, it will be in play, and he has enough places to make it work. As he indicated in a recent Bassmaster.com column, that’s when he’s most comfortable that he has a chance to win, and winning’s the name of the game. If you’re dead set against picking a prohibitive favorite, go completely against the grain and look seriously at Bill Lowen. He was fourth at Rayburn in his rookie Elite Series season on the Elites, and after a stumble at Toledo Bend he no doubt needs and wants some revenge on East Texas.
BUCKET C: REESE
After starting his year with two absolute clunkers that had him far, far below fishing’s Mendoza Line, Reese is back on track with two straight regular season checks, including a ninth-place finish at Ross Barnett. I’d expect him to junk fish or mix it up a little more than VanDam and Combs, but he’s still deadly with a big crank (albeit his SKT Magnum instead of the 10XD). He’s still in the bottom half of the pack in the AOY race, and if he doesn’t want to miss the Classic for the first time since 2012 he’ll need to slide himself into position before the Elites head to smallmouth waters. If Skeet’s up-and-down record in East Texas doesn’t float your boat, go with Dean Rojas, who has done well on neighboring Toledo Bend and who should be able to push the frog bite issue. Someone, or perhaps several someones, will make the Top 12 with a frog, and Rojas could be the man.
BUCKET D: POWROZNIK
After choosing three budget-busters, Powroznik is a bargain in Bucket D. He’s never fished a B.A.S.S. event on Rayburn, but he’s been stellar on Toledo Bend, and did very well on Texoma last year. Texas seems to agree with him. At 67th in the AOY race, if he can turn a corner at Rayburn and maintain it through Dardanelle, he could make a heavy push in smallmouth country – maybe not to contend for the AOY title, but certainly to get another shot at a Hartwell Classic. He finished fifth there in 2015. If you don’t want to pick Powroznik, look at Alton Jones Jr. or Gary Klein, two Texans at opposite ends of the career spectrum, but both with loads of knowledge of how to attack Rayburn.
BUCKET E: OMORI
Takahiro has had some clunkers at Rayburn over the years, but he’s also had more than his share of superlative finishes. His career there dates back to 1992, when he finished 304th (not a misprint), but he’s also been eighth (2006 Elite Series), second (2002 Central Open), first (2001 Central Invitational), second (2000 Central Invitational), 10th (1999 Central Invitational) and 11th (Central Invitational). His adopted home state should be good to him again, enough to pull him out of the triple digits in the AOY race. If you’re not wowed by Tak’s record, go with James Niggemeyer, a similarly struggling veteran with a strong track record at Big Sam, including two ninth-place finishes.