Despite having no clue that the Damiki Rig wasn’t a form of modern dance, I still managed to do pretty well in Fantasy Fishing at Cherokee. I had the winner, Jacob Wheeler (one of the easiest “E” Bucket picks in history) as well as fellow Sunday qualifiers Paul Mueller and Ott DeFoe. Brandon Lester made the cut to Saturday, leaving all-world hammer Brent Ehrler as my only pick who was done on Friday.
They’re all great sticks, but I’m not picking any of them at Okeechobee, although I’m sure any of the five could claim a victory there. My reasoning for avoiding them? They’re too dialed in on the spinning gear right now. I know that all of them can flip and pitch and crank and frog, but I want what Skeet Reese would refer to as “One Rod Todds,” guys who are most in their element with 65 lb. braid and who’d rather leave the eggbeaters at home.
When it’s going to take 80, 90 or 100 pounds to win, I don’t want someone who even has light line in the boat. It could be won winding a swim jig, a Chatterbait or a soft swimbait, but my money’s on the guy who puts the 8 foot (or longer!) XXH rod in his hand and goes to work.
BUCKET A: THARP
This bucket has my two picks for the AOY title, Randall Tharp and Keith Combs. They both love to flip, they’re both exceptional at it, and both survived what promised to be their greatest hurdle this year by finishing eighth and 13th, respectively, at Cherokee. Tharp won the 2012 FLW Tour event here with 101-12, including two bags over 30 pounds. He’ll be happy to go out with just big jigs and a pocket full of Z-Craws and as the only Floridian in this bracket, I’ll give him the edge over Combs, who has upcoming tournaments at Conroe, Rayburn and Toledo Bend to get his revenge.
BUCKET B: FAIRCLOTH
In Bucket A I chose the Floridian over the Texan, but here I’m going the other way, taking Todd Faircloth over Bobby Lane and Terry Scroggins. Faircloth always seems to do well in Florida, and finished 11th here in 2012. After a 43rd place finish at Cherokee he needs to get his season back on track if he wants to make a serious run at his first AOY title. He was born flipping grass and is also a superlative sight fisherman, so look for him to excel no matter what stage the fish are in.
BUCKET C: HACKNEY
None of Hack’s five B.A.S.S. wins have occurred in Florida, but there’s no more patient flipper on tour than the 2014 Angler of the Year. If he’s convinced that there’s a 35-pound limit under a mat the size of a Volkswagen, he’ll stay there all day, and he’ll probably be right. He finished ninth at Okeechobee in the 2013 Wild Card after a disappointing 82nd place finish in 2012. Like Faircloth, he snuck into the money at Cherokee and now needs a good finish before the Classic to get some momentum going.
BUCKET D: JORDON
I’ve been waiting a few years for KJ to return to his old self, the one who made mincemeat of Big Fish Award records. Like Tharp, he won an FLW Tour event on Okeechobee (in 2005) and historically when weights have been high, that’s when he’s at his best. Last season he had a great tournament in the year’s second event, at WInyah Bay, before struggling for much of the rest of the season. He qualified for five Classics in a row from 2007 through 2011 before missing the next five – if he wants to start a new streak, this would be a good place to lay the groundwork for it.
BUCKET E: BENTON
Bucket E usually has a standout or two surrounded by many anglers who are all but sure to be also-rans. That’s not the case this time. It’s tough not to pick Skeet Reese or Justin Lucas, or maybe Brett Hite with a Chatterbait, or Chad Morgenthaler, who always seems to pluck a good check out of the Florida grass. Benton is my pick, though. He won an FLW Tour even there in 2013 at the age of 25, and even though he comes from the other end of the state, expect him to get the job done anywhere in Florida.