Wow, what an Elite Series season it has been so far! Every 2016 tournament winner has in some way been a sentimental favorite, a throwback to history or a shout out to the future. More than any other year I can remember, this has been one where the yearbook will need to contain some extra pages.
After watching Rick Clunn, Britt Myers, Randall Tharp, Takahiro Omori and Kevin VanDam hoist their trophies, I really don’t know how you could have written a better story (although I’m sure that a hundred-plus Elite Series pros might disagree). In order to make it even more compelling and more unbelievable, you’d have to have Roland Martin, Shorty Evans, Emmanuel Lewis, Ryan Leaf and Sidd Finch in your brackets. Alas, I could not find them in my Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing rosters, so I’ll have to go with more conventional choices.
B.A.S.S. does not have much recent history on Texoma. There were three Central Opens on the Texas-Oklahoma border lake in 2007, 2008 and 2010, but comparatively few of the current Elite Series pros fished them, and even fewer did well. The winners were Brian Clark, Terry Butcher and Mike Pharr, none of whom fish the Elite Series today. If you go back to the last B.A.S.S. event there before that trio, it took place in 1998, when Jordan Lee was still carrying a lunchbox and watching Saturday morning cartoons.
I’m making my picks with an eye toward who’s fishing well and likely to adapt, but also with the hope that these storybook endings will continue.
BUCKET A: COMBS
I said it before Toledo Bend, and I’ll say it again. The old saying is right: “Don’t mess with (Keith Combs in) Texas!” While he’s hit one or two speed bumps along the way, his record in his home state is truly amazing. While we think of him as being deadly on east Texas lakes like Rayburn and Toledo, and south Texas lakes like Falcon and Amistad, he’s an assassin any time the water smells of Shiner Bock. He finished third here in 2010, 12th in 2008 and has multiple top finishes at Texoma with FLW. If you want a longshot, bet on him to fail. If you like safe bets, bet on him to excel.
I almost picked Jason Christie, who finished 17th here in 2007, and he is also semi-local. More importantly, he’s a winner, and after at least one B.A.S.S. win every year from 2012 through 2014, he’s gone winless since Dardanelle in May of 2014. He’ll change that soon.
BUCKET B: BROWNING
Like Christie and Combs, Stephen Browning is a proven winner. Right now, he’s inside the Classic bubble in 28th, but previously he made Classics by winning two Opens at the Red River. That route to the big dance isn’t available, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t make the Classic after missing it in 2016. He’s one of those sneaky-good anglers who makes it almost all the time – four of the last six – and he’ll need to feast on some relative home cooking (Texoma is only about four hours from his Arkansas residence) before heading north. He finished 10th at Texoma in 1998, and while that’s a long way back, it shows that he gets how the game is played here.
I was tempted to pick Brent Chapman, another Classic bubble boy who did well here in ’98, or KVD, who tends to win in streaks, but the latter’s ownership percentage is going to be too high for my comfort.
BUCKET C: FAIRCLOTH
I’ve had numerous Fantasy Fishing fans come to me in the past week and say that just when they finally gave up on KVD, he burned them and won. I picked Todd Faircloth at Toledo Bend, where there was every reason to believe that he’d be a hammer, and he just missed the money. That comes on the heels of a horrific 88th place finish at Wheeler. Right now he’s 48th in the AOY standings, but if you’ll remember last year he made an incredible late-season surge. He’ll do the same this year, and it will start on the northern edge of his home state. I can’t abandon him now, and you can bet that tears will flow if he wins.
It was tough for me not to pick Tommy Biffle for this one, as it is every time we play this game. While his limited B.A.S.S. finishes on Texoma have been poor, he’s due to win after going three years without one, an extra-long streak for one of the greatest winners in Elite Series history. It wouldn’t be a comeback of Clunn proportions, but it would show once again that the old guard is still a threat.
BUCKET D: KRIET
How do you solve a mystery like Jeff Kriet? I’ve been in the boat with dozens of Elite Series pros, and few have impressed me with their understanding of the game like Kriet. If firing on all cylinders, he should be in the Classic every year, yet he hasn’t been there since 2012. He earned the lone win of his B.A.S.S. career on Texoma in 1998, and there would be no place better to get things truly back on track than his home waters. In a season full of inspirational wins, it might be the best of them all.
Billy McCaghren is another angler whose personality gets in the way of us understanding his talents. It’s not that he’s ornery or difficult, just quiet. To borrow Don Barone’s words, “a working stiff.” After four straight misses, he needs a check – and a good one, at that – to get back on track to fish consecutive Classics for the first time in his career.
BUCKET E: CLAUSEN
There are lots of proven sticks in Bucket E – guys like John Murray, Chad Morgenthaler and David Walker who’ve shown an ability to win but who generally haven’t performed up to their abilities this year. Luke Clausen is a proven winner who has gotten smoked so far on the Elite Series, with four straight finishes of 82nd or worse. Of course, the horrible finish at Wheeler is attributable to being disqualified, and while I have no need to go into the “what ifs” of that situation, I have to rely on the fact that at some point he’s going to break out of the slump and demonstrate the talent that has made him one of the few pros to win both the Bassmaster Classic and the Forrest Wood Cup. If he were to win, it might explode the bass blogosphere with stories of redemption and theories of conspiracy.
We’ve seen rookies like Derek Remitz and Casey Ashley earn victories in the past, but it might be the hardest feat the sport has to offer. Obviously, Bucket E has a lot of rookies. Some of them are cannon fodder while others will go onto long careers in the sport. If Jay Brainard wants to fall into the latter category, and I’m sure he does, he’ll need to get the ball rolling in his home state but his record wasn’t quite lengthy enough for me to pick him.