After bombing at the Sabine, I’m back to take another crack at a river system. We’re leaving the beef, boudin and crawdad country of East Texas (and the off-limits waters of Louisiana) for cheese curd and Spotted Cow territory, 1,200 miles due north in Cheeseland. I’m hoping the change of venue will do me some good.
I’d like to be able to rely on local knowledge, but there’s not a Wisconsinite among the 100-plus Elite anglers. Flowmaster Seth Feider is about as close as it comes, and he has a good track record here, but so do anglers from all over the map. This is one of those fisheries where everyone’s going to catch ‘em, and the difference maker will be those guys who figure out a way to catch 2 3/4-pounder versus 2 1/4-pounders.
That’s what makes it so hard to predict – you look back at a lot of solid pros’ records here and they’ll have one finish in the top 12, one in the middle-third of the field, and one near the bottom. Which angler will show up?
I’m told that it has been a wacky spring up there, with a colder than normal April followed up by a warmer than normal May. Anywhere else, that would have the fish in funk, but I’ll be surprised if less than 90 percent of the field weighs in a limit every day. It’s the rare fishery where five big smallmouths are likely to outweigh five largemouths, and unlike the Sabine, the chance of catching a 6- or 7-pound green fish to make up a deficit is exceptionally small. It can happen, but it’s not something to rely upon.
So go with anglers who adjust quickly, have found their 2018 groove, and understand northern waters – regardless of where they are from.
Here are my picks:
BUCKET A: SKEET
My Pick: Skeet Reese
The man in yellow has been good in La Crosse in the past, with fifth-, 30th- and 36th-place finishes to his name, but just as importantly he’s been on fire of late. After finishing as the runner up at Kentucky Lake and in 24th at Travis, he once again made it to Sunday at the Sabine, ending up eighth. That has him in fourth in the AOY race, behind two other former winners of that title. It’s been almost a decade since he’s notched a major title and he’s certainly capable if things line up right.
Alternate: Ott DeFoe
Ott won here last time and finished 15th and 27th previously, so he seems likely to make one or two cuts again. There’s something just a touch off with him this year, because while his performances have generally been solid, he’s missed three cuts by a single ounce each time.
BUCKET B: FEIDER
My Pick: Seth Feider
Go with the Flow. He was the runner-up to Ott last time and in the two intervening years his fishing has improved substantially.
Alternate: Brandon Palaniuk
Palaniuk has a bittersweet history here, with a near win nullified by a culling mistake, as well as another check. He’s exceptional on northern dual-species waters, and, like Feider, is an even more complete angler than he was the last time the Elites came here, if that’s possible.
BUCKET C: HOWELL
My Pick: Randy Howell
The Flat Top is kind of the anti-Feider Flow, but Howell has always done well on grassy northern waters, and has quietly amassed three final day appearances in La Crosse, never finishing better than 10th or worse than 11th. He’s currently outside the Classic bubble, and with an ongoing string of seven straight qualifications, this is a perfect opportunity to move to the other side of the line.
Alternate: Edwin Evers
After multiple runs at the AOY title, Evers is having a decidedly un-Edwinlike year, and currently sits in 48th in the points race. He’s never missed the money here, and twice has made the Top 12. Expect to see him on Saturday for sure, and no one will be surprised if he’s fishing on Sunday as well.
BUCKET D: JONES
My Pick: Alton Jones Sr.
Alton Jones finshed third here in 2016, after finishing 20th in 2013 and 61st in 2012. If that upward trajectory continues, there are only two possible spots for him to occupy. After a near-disaster at the Sabine, he’s way down in the points standings, and if he’s going to make a run at Classic number 20 he’ll need to come on strong to close the season.
Alternate: Cliff Crochet
Just because I’d love to see television footage of him “trowing dat frawg.” He has a Top 12 here, a 60th-place finish, and a 107th. Choose him at your own risk, but the rewards could be huge.
BUCKET E: H. SHRYOCK
My Pick: Hunter Shryock
There are lots of quality veterans here, including Tommy Biffle, who won here in 2013, but also had a 96th. They’re hard to choose from because they all have at least one unsightly blemish on their La Crosse resumes. I’m looking for a rookie to break out in this bracket, and a northerner like Shryock could be the one. He’s had a tough start to his rookie season, but if he’s going to hang around long-term he’ll need to make hay while the sun shines, and that should be on grass-laden waters, where he’s had the most success in the Opens.
Alternate: Kyle Monti
Poor Kyle Monti had the misfortune to start his Elite Series career on a season when there was no early tour stop in Florida. Normally Sunshine State rookies get at least one taste of home cooking to start things off right, but he had no such luck. The Wisconsin grass is a lot like Okeechobee, so look for either Monti, Shaw Grigsby or Bernie Schultz to do well.