Tennessee doesn’t get the respect it deserves from the fishing world.
Ask most tournament fans to name the top fishing states and you’re likely to hear about Alabama and Florida and Texas and California. Despite the fact that the Volunteer State’s most ardent fans wear bright orange, they tend not to stand out in a crowd.
Maybe that’s because Tennessee’s fisheries are so diverse: There are of course the monster strings of Chickamauga, near Dayton; and storied highland smallmouth fisheries like Dale Hollow; and massive Kentucky Lake to the west, which has the indecency to not even be named after Tennessee. All different layouts, all different patterns – unlike Florida, which is closely tied to shallow water grass fishing, or California, which is the spawning grounds for swimbait warriors and finesse freaks alike.
Despite all of that, the world is going to take notice when Bassmaster Classic number 49 descends on Knoxville – one of America’s great college towns – in mid-March.
The playing field will be an expansive and complex multi-species fishery with the potential for big weights. At the same time, March in the Smokies is occasionally plagued by nasty weather that could make it a much more low-scoring affair. Accordingly, hedge your bets with locals who know how to adjust, finesse experts who can grind out bites under any conditions, and big bag hammers who will make hay if the sun shines.
Here are my picks, combined with odes to Tennesee’s rich sporting and musical history:
BUCKET A: DEFOE
The Peyton Manning Bracket
“Rocky Top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me.”
Wow. What a group of anglers. Bucket A features three Tennesseans who can win anywhere at any time, plus past tour-level champs including Jordan Lee, Jacob Wheeler, Brent Ehrler, some guy named VanDam, and reigning angler of the Year Justin Lucas. I’m normally hesitant to pick a hometown hero to win, but Ott DeFoe is no regular home court assassin. He’s won the last two Opens on Douglas, and no doubt has more history here than all but perhaps one or two of the other competitors. He shines in the Classic, too. This is his eighth straight appearance, and he’s only missed the top 11 places once. He’s probably hoping for things to be tough, which would enhance his local advantage.
If you’re turned off by the fact that DeFoe is a high-percentage pick, look to Wesley Strader who probably won’t have quite the gallery of on-the-water followers or quite as much Fantasy Fishing support.
BUCKET B: ELAM
The Pat Summitt Bracket
“The Tennessee Stud was long and lean
The color of the sun and his eyes were green
He had the nerve and he had the blood
There never was a horse like the Tennessee Stud.”
-Tennessee Stud, Johnny Cash
We were just getting to know James Elam’s talents after six years on the Elite Series and now he’s departing on the verge of his fourth straight Classic and on the heels of a 19th-place finish in the AOY race and a win at the Toyota AOY Championship. The former wrestler brings a workmanlike approach to the game and won’t garner much attention, but he’s shown that he can catch fish in just about every situation under the sun. He came close to the top at Conroe in 2017 and showed out well again last year at Hartwell.
One returning Elite who likewise wrestled before he fished is Clifford Pirch, and like Elam the multiple-time U.S. Open winner has shown longevity and consistency. This will be his sixth straight Classic and he’s just one more national win away from being a household name.
BUCKET C: B. LANE
Bucket C – The Dominique Wilkins Bracket
“Cold iron shackles, ball and chain
Listen to the whistle of the evenin' train
You know you bound to wind up dead
If you don't head back to Tennessee Jed.”
-Tennessee Jed, Grateful Dead
There are lots of “human highlight films” in this group, but Bobby Lane is the one who flies under the radar most frequently. Maybe it’s because he’s confused with his brother Chris, or non-brother Russ, but this will be his 12th Classic in a row, one of the longest streaks going. Last year he bombed in Greenville, but otherwise he’s been amazing, never missing the top 20, and finishing in the top 12 on six occasions. Can he and Chris become the first brothers to claim the title?
If you’re willing to take slightly bigger risk, look no further than Mike Iaconelli, who always seems to show up at the biggest moments. We don’t know if it’ll be because he’s leading the tournament, yelling at a dog, or experiencing some sort of outburst, but he will no doubt make his presence known. When his back is against the wall, that’s when he often fishes best, so bet on a big showing.
BUCKET D: WIGGINS
Bucket D – The Willie Gault Bracket
“The answers to all which are in front of me
The ultimate truth started to get blurry
For some strange reason it had to be
It was all a dream about Tennessee.”
-Tennessee, Arrested Development
Don’t ever count out the young guns who’ve been raised on a steady diet of tournaments straight out of the womb. Jesse Wiggins, not yet 30, has already won three Opens, and while he’s only appeared in two Classics, he’s qualified for them something like 312 overlapping times. His home in Alabama is enemy territory for the Volunteers, but so is Florida and he won there. He’s exceptional with a shaky head in tough conditions, but also handles a number of other techniques with aplomb.
Adrian Avena is another twenty-something who is wise beyond his years, having fished three Forrest Wood Cups. He’s as northern as Wiggins is southern, but they both understand how to attack new fisheries. He’s a solid pick if Wiggins isn’t your cup of sweet tea.
BUCKET E: REESE
Bucket E – The Reggie White Bracket
“There ain't nothin' like a Tennessee mountain top
Some straight shootin' neighbors that don't name drop
With a preacher man prayin' for peace but still packin' a gun
Singing karaoke in a double wide
With smoke so thick it'll burn your eyes
Oh oh, my sweet Lord I'll warn ya
Fall in love with an angel
You'll end up in California.”
-Tennessee Mountain Top, Kid Rock
I can’t believe that it’s been 10 years since Skeet Reese won his Classic trophy. He’s had some exceptional seasons since then, and has won four more B.A.S.S. events, but it’s hard to believe that he’s approaching his 50th birthday. For those of us old-timers, it seems like he just showed up yesterday. Fortunately for him, he still fishes with passion and skill – everywhere he goes — and there’s no reason to expect that he won’t win in what will be his 19th Classic, and seventh in a row.
If Skeet’s not your choice, another big hitter is Randall Tharp, a former Forrest Wood Cup champ who has lived in two of Tennessee’s neighboring SEC states (Florida and Alabama). Like Reese, he’s turning 50 this year, but shows no signs of slowing down.