We’re within sight of the finish line of one of the most topsy-turvy seasons in Bassmaster Elite Series history. We’ve seen rookies take big steps, veterans come back from the dead and then fade away again, and we currently have an Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year leader who’s overcome a triple digit finish to claim that spot.
As 100-plus anglers head to Michigan for the regular season finale, there’s a lot on the line for just about everyone. Some are hoping to cement a spot in the Classic, others are hoping to live to see the AOY Championship, and still others are hoping just to reserve a spot in next season’s field. We have four true rookies – Dustin Connell, Jamie Hartman, Jesse Wiggins and Mark Daniels Jr. – inside the Classic cut, and a bunch of stars outside of the cut who rarely miss the big dance.
They’ll duke it out on a familiar venue. If this was 20 years ago, when the Kim Strickers, Steve Clappers and even KVDs of the world were much more familiar with Great Lakes style fishing, then you might be justified in excluding pros from other regions from your team, but by now most of them have been to St. Clair, Erie or both, usually multiple times. Furthermore, St. Clair seems to fish shallower than the other Great Lakes style fisheries – it’s not solely a drop shot and tubing deal, you can catch them on crankbaits and jerkbait and swimbaits, too, thus further leveling the field. With that in mind, pick a mix of pros who’ve done well fishing smallmouths, have something to fish for, and show no fear when it’s all on the line.
Here are my picks:
BUCKET A: FEIDER
It’s tough not to pick Brandon Palaniuk here, because not only is he on a tear like Skeet in 2010 or Aaron Martens in 2015, but he’s a smallmouth guru and he came in second when the Elites visited St. Clair in 2015. But with Palaniuk and KVD collectively populating over 60 percent of the teams, neither of them likely provides much of an avenue for massive separation within your league, so go with Seth Feider, whose blood runs even bronzer than Palaniuk’s. At 21st in the AOY race, he’s primed to make his first Classic, and he doesn’t falter on smallmouth water. Last year, when he had to come out swinging in the last two events, he showed up ready to beat on the big boys, unfazed by the pressure or the competition. Pick him. Even if he doesn’t win, he’ll likely contend, and he certainly won’t bomb.
BUCKET B: SHRYOCK
After presciently picking Martens at Champlain, I was tempted to go with him again here, because when he gets on a roll in drop shot territory he’s virtually unbeatable, but 45 percent ownership is too rich for my blood. At first I had Alton Jones, a smallmouth fanatic from the unlikely location of central Texas, penciled into my lineup, but I’m playing a hunch here and switching to Fletcher Shryock. He’s currently 44th in AOY, just outside the Classic cut, and just inside the AOY Championship cut. This is a time to strap down his flat brim and go to work to make his second Classic. His track record on St. Clair and Erie is stellar, with a Top 12 in the last Elite here and a second and a sixth in Opens competition. There’s no better place to take his career to the next level than in his backyard.
BUCKET C: IACONELLI
While I generally don’t believe in “clutchness” among the full field of anglers, there’s a handful that seems able to turn on the afterburners when necessary. Mike Iaconelli currently has a streak of 16 consecutive Classic qualifications, which would have been broken a few years ago had he not won a Northern Open on Erie in 2013. Right now he’s in 55th in the AOY race, not only outside of the Classic cut, but also set to conclude his Elite season at St. Clair if he doesn’t leapfrog a handful of anglers. He’ll fish smart and get inside that 50 cut, but if you’re convinced that he’s too flighty to get the job done, go with one of my perennial favorites, Steve Kennedy, who likewise sits outside of the Classic cut, but inside of the Top 50.
BUCKET D: PIPKENS
Chad Pipkens is a no-brainer here, despite a high ownership percentage, primarily because his record on these waters is superlative. He finished fifth and 16th and Northern Opens on the Detroit River in 2010 and 2012, respectively. He finished fourth when the Elites visited St. Clair in 2015 and he was first on St. Clair in the 2014 Northern Open. He stumbled in the 2013 Elite and the 2011 Open, but the good far outweighs the bad. More importantly, he’s fighting for his career, because although he’s in position to requalify for the Elites through the Northern Opens (currently in ourth), that could get washed away in a single day on Douglas next month. At 79th in the Elites, there’s no guarantee he’ll requalify that way, and moving a few spaces up the ladder will increase those chances substantially. If you don’t like to go with the high ownership pick, try Paul Mueller, another northern finesse guru currently mired in the seventies.
BUCKET E: SNOWDEN
I’m really tempted to pick Chris Zaldain, another smallmouth hammer, in this bracket, but at 97th place he’s probably looking to press the reset button on 2017 more than anything. Instead I’ll go with Brian Snowden, who is closer to the top of the bottom quintile of the AOY race. His veteran savvy and Table Rock seasoning should enable him to do well on a venue (Erie/St. Clair) where he’s earned a check in four of five events