Just when they thought that they couldn’t hit a better multi-species fishery than the St. Lawrence, the Elites have been immediately thrust back into the brown/green divide on massive Lake Champlain. It probably won’t take 90 pounds to win, or 35-plus to make it to Saturday, but this week’s venue presents a more substantial conundrum: unlike the St. Lawrence, where it was almost a steel trap lock that smallmouths would win, here either species could claim the trophy, as could a combination of the two.
While most of the pros hammered the fish last week and are likely to do so once again at the “Sixth Great Lake,” my team suffered mightily on the St. Lawrence. Bernie Schultz saved me with a Top 12, but Kennedy stumbled and Shimizu stuck a dagger in my heart. Now I’ve gotta go big or they’re going to relegate me to the B League.
BUCKET A: HARTMAN
The average Bucket A angler has about 8,654 percent more Elite Series experience than Jamie Hartman (numbers may be slightly off), but the rookie has shown himself to have New York ice water running through his veins. Four Sunday appearances in a season is more than a coincidence – it’s a pattern, and if he didn’t fail before the home state crowd at the St. Lawrence (he ended up seventh), there’s no reason to believe that he’ll stumble at the New Yorkiest of New York fisheries. Just as he pushed his chips to the center of the table last fall by essentially becoming homeless to go pro, I’m going to show that same confidence in him this week (although my house is not on the market). If you can’t bring yourself to bet on a rookie late in the season in Bucket A, go with Kevin VanDam, who’s finished ninth and 27th here in Elite Series competition, and who wants to claim his eighth AOY title, making Palaniuk pay for his lone slip-up earlier in the year.
BUCKET B: MARTENS
Aaron Martens has yet to crack the top 25 this year in B.A.S.S. competition. I repeat, he has not cracked the top 25. That will change…this week. He was 11th in the Northern Open here in 2014, and finished 16th and 30th in Elite competition a decade ago. If you’re convinced it will be won on smallmouth, Josh Bertrand and Clifford Pirch are also good bets, but if you think AMart has no chance and you’re willing to swing for the fences, bet heavily on Ish Monroe, who’s probably already fueling up his boat for the run to Ticonderoga with nothing but braid rigged up.
BUCKET C: KENNEDY
I’m ready to ring his neck, because after he pilloried me for not picking him at the Classic, I got on and off the Steve Kennedy train at all the wrong times. He hurt me at the St. Lawrence, where I expected him to do well, but I’ll want to attack my face with a cheese grater if I drop him now and he rockets back. He was third here in 2007 and 15th in 2006. Granted, that’s a lifetime ago, but he’s in 51st in the AOY race now and needs a strong showing to make it to the Classic. If you don’t have the stomach for his ups and downs, go with Adrian Avena, a northeastern hammer who won a AAA event here years ago to jumpstart his career.
BUCKET D: PIPKENS
With his injury problems seemingly behind him, Chad Pipkens is ready to do what he does every year, make hay while three months of sun shines on the north country. After a pretty dismal start to the year, he’ll need to make a late season push in the Elites, or through the Northern Opens (where he’s currently seventh) to requalify. While he probably wasn’t satisfied with the 48th place finish at the St. Lawrence, he was seventh at Oneida. Despite some earlier Champlain struggles, he was 16th in last year’s Northern Open here. If you’re not sold on him, go to the largemouth extreme with Tommy Biffle, who has two Champlain top fives in Elite competition.
BUCKET D: MORGENTHALER
While Chad Morgenthaler didn’t do as well as expected on grass lakes like Okeechobee, Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn earlier this year, he’s spent a lot of time on Champlain in the past, and he’s likely to bet it all on big green flipping fish. He’s shown an ability to win in the grass – albeit in Florida – and he could pay off big time and turn his season around at the same time. If you’re convinced that he can’t turn his momentum around, then go with another grass expert (who happens to love smallmouth, too): Shaw Grigsby, who finished seventh here in 2007.