This is going to be a fun tournament, for sure. Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players can expect to see bass caught deep, on docks, maybe on beds — you name it. But what will the winning pattern be? That’s the gamble, and you’d be best served to go with your gut.
I think the bluebacks will be a factor, but veteran experience will win out here in my mind. The anglers who are adept and accomplished at making adjustments on the fly, and who are good at catching them one way on cast, and a different method the next will be in contention come Championship Sunday.
My struggle is there are so many likely candidates that it was hard to pick. For example, Seth Feider, Matt Herren, Steve Kennedy, Clark Wendlandt, Matt Arey, Shane Lineberger, Jason Williamson, Hank Cherry — to name a few — all have a very legitimate shot at this thing.
And frankly, it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see one of those anglers I just listed hoist the trophy over their head.
But, I made things difficult on myself and went with mostly low-ownership pros this time around hoping to make up some ground in the standings.
Let’s dig in:
BUCKET A: PIRCH
Clifford Pirch has experience on Hartwell earning two 13th-place finishes in previous Bassmaster Classics on this lake, and he’s a renowned clear-water finesse master. Plus, Pirch is way overdue for a win, and I’ll happily push all my chips to the center on a Pirch/Hartwell victory. The Golden Ram is coming to South Carolina, be ready for it.
Dark Horse: As hard as it was, I didn’t pick my Minnesota brutha from another mutha, Seth Feider, in Bucket A. He’s just as likely to push the envelope as Pirch at Hartwell, and I expect him to be a safe pick. He’s good when spotted bass are on the menu, but he’s also a hammer when it comes to docks — his home waters of Lake Minnetonka basically doesn’t offer undeveloped shoreline. He knows how to jerk a bass from a dock — wait and see.
BUCKET B: AUTEN
Todd Auten made a late charge at Lanier a month earlier, and he’s a renowned local spotted bass specialist. He may seem like an unlikely pick, especially since I know so little about him, but what I do know is he has a fire lit in his belly. Look for Auten to make the Top 10 cut, if not challenge the top spot.
Dark Horse: If there are bass on beds, you can’t overlook Drew Benton. He’s probably one of the best sight fishermen on the Elite series, and if he can find some spawners, look out. He proved his worth last year at Texas Fest on Lake Travis — also an ultra clear fishery, so he has the chops to catch them any way they’ll bite. I’ll bet on a big finish for Benton at Hartwell.
BUCKET C: JAYE
Kelley Jaye knows spotted bass, and he knows how to work a jerkbait as well as anyone. If the bass are anywhere near spawning, they’ll eat a jerkbait, and that makes Jaye very dangerous. Look for the Alabama pro to challenge a Top 10 finish, perhaps his first Elite victory.
Dark Horse: I mean, you can’t overlook Paul Mueller here. He won Lanier, and you can bet that not all Hartwell bass will be shallow. He’s confident on this exact type of fishery, but he’s been there and done that making him very flexible and willing to adapt to changing conditions. Mueller might be a factor for the second time in a row. I’d not count him out, period.
BUCKET D: GUSTAFSON
Newcomer Jeff Gustafson led Day 1 at Lanier, but his pattern fell apart and he fell all the way to 48th. Don’t let that fool you, however, he knows spotted bass and he knows Hartwell. He needs a big finish to climb back up in the points, and he’s got an axe to grind too. Gussy will arrive with an agenda, and that should scare other Elites.
Dark Horse: I don’t think you can go wrong with Jason Williamson here either. He’s still looking to prove himself among the new faces of the Elite Series, but he’s got veteran status on most of them — he knows how to finish big events. Williamson won’t be intimidated by fish or fishermen; he’ll arrive at Hartwell to prove that.
BUCKET E: HARTMAN
Jamie Hartman had an impressive rookie season posting five Top 12s on the Bassmaster Elite Series, not many other rookies can even comprehend that. He’s good, but he needs a big finish to get back in the swing of dominating tournaments, and as a stud finesse angler I’ll bet Hartwell is where he turns that ship around. Look for a solid showing, or if the original Hartman shows up, maybe a win.
Dark Horse: Chris Groh has not had a good start to his 2019 season; something that I know really irks him. He’s very capable with a spinning rod in his hand when the fish are suspended or deep, but if there are docks in play, too, look out. I think Groh will turn his season around at Hartwell — he has to and he knows it.