The Elite Series is headed back to my home water and the Nation’s Capital for the first time since 2007, and making it even better, it’s an election year.
No, you cannot vote for the winner, but if the anglers can navigate our traffic and bypass our gridlocked politics, it promises to be a pretty good event. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago. At that time, the river was going through a tough spell. Many observers blamed the fishless conditions on a wide range of factors – the largemouth bass virus, decreasing grass, insane fishing pressure, and the proliferation of northern snakeheads, among others. Others claimed that there was no drop-off at all, but the proof was in the marina parking lots. I launched from one of the most heavily used ramps on a beautiful summer Saturday last year and saw a total of four bass boat trailers where there’d normally be 50 to 100.
The FLW Tour came in June, in my opinion the best time to fish the river for numbers of fish and varied ways to catch them. They brought plenty of top sticks, including past Potomac tour-level winners Jay Yelas, David Fritts, Scott Martin and Dave Lefebre. Clark Wendlandt won with 60 pounds even. I think that’s probably 5 to 10 pounds off the mark of what it’ll take the upcoming Elite event. The real barometer of how tough it was is what it took to finish in the top 50 – an average of 11 ½ pounds a day. In August, a time that’s typically tougher than June, I expect that the Elites are going to need at least 13 pounds a day to make the cut to Saturday, possibly more. It might not sound like much on paper, but it’s a huge difference on the water.
Why is the river fishing better? I honestly don’t know, and I honestly don’t care. Even if the lines are longer at the ramp, it’s worth waiting to get out there and feel like you’re chasing a pattern or a magic area, rather than just hoping to scratch out one fish here and one fish there. Some pros are going to report catching 30 to 50 fish a day. There was little to none of that last year.
So who’s going to come out on top? Well, the Potomac is a relatively egalitarian fishery where local knowledge plays a role but not a dominant one. Yes, it’s tidal and the tide will play a role in the outcome, but not like it would on the Delaware or the James where the flow is heavier. An angler can prevail by “running the tide,” but most major tour victories on the Potomac have come to anglers who’ve camped on one or two key areas throughout the tidal swings, staking a claim and milking those spots for all they’re worth. The grass looks beautiful right now, and while it’s possible that the tournament could be won primarily on hard cover – as Wendlandt did last year – my bet is that the majority of the top 10, top 20 and certainly the top 50 will rest their fortunes on grass in less than 5 feet of water. Look for flippers, froggers and anglers who rely heavily on swim jigs and Chatterbaits to do well. Most of the pros have been here several times before, a handful competing here for the first time about three decades ago, and the traditionally productive grass beds will see plenty of pressure and produce quite a few checks. As always, though, the pro who finds something a little bit off the beaten path substantially increases his chances of lugging home the big blue hardware.
Without further ado, and with no help from the folks at Gallup, Harris, Rasmussen or FiveThirtyEight, here are my picks:
BUCKET A: POWROZNIK
I know that I said above that this is a fishery where tidal experience will matter less than on others, but it still matters, and an angler who understands how the fish move with the tide, and how their attitudes change, will have an advantage. Jacob Powroznik may call the James River his home water, but he’s spent lots of time on the Potomac and other tidal rivers. Combine that with the fact that he seems to do well everywhere and he appears unlikely to stumble – and at third in the AOY race, he’s primed for another big win.
Almost Picked: Mike Iaconelli
Like Powroznik, Iaconelli is a master of the tidal game with hundreds of hours of experience on the Potomac, just a few hours from his New Jersey home. He won an FLW Tour event here in 2005, finished fourth here in the 2006 Elite event, and fifth in the 2000 Top 150. While he has eight anglers to pass to claim his second AOY title, he’s not entirely out of it and a win could help him make a push.
Politically Correct Pick: Toss-up between Swindle and Kennedy
Depending on how cynical you are, you fully expect some swindling to go on in the political process and it wouldn’t be a political machine without a member of the Kennedy family in office. This one doesn’t sound like he’s from Hyannis Port, but it may all be a ruse anyway.
BUCKET B: LEFEBRE
Like Powroznik and Ike, Dave Lefebre is a tidal river expert. Yes, I know that I wrote above that you don’t need to be a tidal expert to come out on top on the Potomac, but it sure helps with consistency. He won an FLW Series event here in 2006, and has four other top 10 finishes in FLW Tour or AAA level events since 2009, as well as seventh and 17th place finishes in B.A.S.S. Open events on the river. At 24th in the AOY race, he’s primed to make his first Classic since 2003, and a top finish here might cement it.
Almost Picked: Adrian Avena
Ok, I’m now four-for-four picking tidewater experts after writing that it’s possible to do well on the Potomac with limited experience with the tides. So much for election year promises. Avena is on the bubble (currently 36th) of qualifying for his first Classic, and like Lefebre he should be thankful for the chance to cement his spot in a comfort zone. He finished third in last year’s FLW Tour event that Wendlandt won.
Politically Correct Pick: Alton Jones
Jones is the most recent Bassmaster Classic winner to be invited to the White House (the other was Mark Davis). I’m told that Ray Scott always dreamed of having a Classic on the Potomac with the boats led in a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue. Doubt it will happen given the current state of security in the Nation’s Capital and the increased security post 9/11, but it would’ve been cool.
BUCKET C: BROWNING
This was the toughest bracket to pick, but I’m casting my vote for the River King, currently in 45th place in the AOY race. Stephen Browning needs to move up if he’s going back to the Classic after missing the 2016 iteration of the event. He’s been here seven times in B.A.S.S. competition, and he’s finished in the top 50 on five occasions, including two top tens. I know that I said above that a swim jig and Chatterbait may make waves, but if there’s a square bill bite as well Browning may be one to ride that to a top finish.
Almost Picked: Fred Roumbanis
With the grass super-healthy, you can count on most of the field to try to make a hollow-body frog work for them. It’s a risky path to follow, because you can just as likely be a zero as a hero if the pressure increases or the fish get a little bit nearsighted. Lots of others will no doubt give up on it and instead pursue the flipping bite in those same areas. Look for Boom Boom to have a frog rod on deck no matter what, and with a few good breaks he could come out at or near the top. He’s been here twice in B.A.S.S. competition and got a check both times, including a top 12 in 2007.
Politically Correct Pick: Cliff Crochet.
Seriously, isn’t it time for a Cajun President? How great would those State of the Union addresses be? State dinners would be so much more fun with Abita, boudin, crawfish and perhaps some fried Sac-au-Lait.
BUCKET D: MORGENTHALER
After a dreary start to the season with 92nd, 68th and 86th place finishes in the first three Elite events, Chad Morgenthaler seemed to get back on track with quality finishes at Toledo Bend and Texoma. Besides being in Texas, what did those two tournaments have in common for him? He kept a flipping stick glued to his hand for most of the week. Cayuga left Chad hanging, but if he sticks with the braid/tungsten/D-Bomb triumvirate in Maryland, the grass could be very kind to him.
Almost Picked: Timmy Horton
Horton’s 1999 Top 150 win on the Potomac is the stuff of legends. Rookie angler needs a check, struggles throughout practice, only to find the mother lode on the last day as he idles and sees birds diving on a little-known rock jetty in the middle of a bay. He ended that season as the Angler of the Year. Unfortunately, he’s suffered on the Potomac since then, with 131st, 54th and 73rd place finishes in B.A.S.S. competition. This would be a good time to get his fishing back on track, in the place where his professional ascent started.
Politically Correct Pick: Koby Kreiger. Many fishing fans shouted “the fix is in” when Powroznik effectively sat out a session at the Niagara River to try to let Kreiger get to the next round. Depending on your tolerance for conspiracy theories, Kreiger may be your man.
Also considered, Cliff Prince. With multiple family dynasties seemingly ruling the political class, and Stacey King no longer fishing with B.A.S.S., it might be time to have a Prince ascend to the throne.
BUCKET E: CLAUSEN
As he continues to suffer through an atypically un-Clausen-like season, Luke Clausen likely has no chance to make the Classic, but he can right his ship before the year is over. In addition to a wealth of tidal experience on waters like the California Delta, he won the 2011 FLW Tour event on the Potomac. In the three FLW Tour events on the river prior to that, he finished 25th, 30th and 31st. If he doesn’t rebound here, something is more wrong than we know.
Almost Picked: Bernie Schultz
Whether it’s in Florida or New York, Schultz seems to excel on shallow water grass fisheries. His 13 B.A.S.S. events on the Potomac date back to 1989, and while he hasn’t always been high on the leaderboard, he has fished his way to four top 15 finishes. In a 1998 Top 150 tournament eventually won by Denny Brauer, Schultz led earlier in the event before eventually finishing 5th.
Politically Correct Pick: Clausen again.
Per Wikipedia: “In 2012–13, a proposal on the White House's website urging the United States government to build a real Death Star as an economic stimulus and job creation measure gained more than 30,000 signatures, enough to qualify for an official response … The White House response … stated ‘the Administration does not support blowing up planets’ and questions about funding a weapon ‘with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship’ as reasons for denying the petition.” If there’s anyone who has the force necessary to kill the Death Star of a bad season, it’s Luke.