To say that my performance at Sam Rayburn was poor would be generous. I ate some serious propwash in Lufkin, with only two of my five anglers making the cut to Day Three, none of them making it to Championship Sunday, and an average finish of 61st place. That hurts worse than watching Shaw Grigsby wrench a deeply-embedded hook out of the meat of Jason Christie’s hand.
Somehow, I’m still in the 87th percentile overall, which means that lots of other competitors either aren’t filling out their brackets, or else they’re as flummoxed as I’ve been.
I’ve thought a lot about my past brackets and why they haven’t been exceptional, and I feel like a big part of it is because I keep waiting for a summertime bite to happen that just hasn’t developed throughout much of the deep south. Sure, if the Elites were going to be on Kentucky Lake in June I’d focus on ledge hammers, but Toledo Bend, Ross Barnett and Rayburn haven’t been full-on offshore slugfests. There have been some fish caught that way, particularly at Toledo where John Murray cranked up some of his winning catch, but it hasn’t been the dominant approach.
That’s why my new strategy is to go back to basics, to the lure that produces tournament winning bags coast to coast, 12 months a year, in all water colors – a jig. It might not be the single winning lure next week, and the guys who do well at a potentially muddy Dardanelle are going to have to be versatile enough to change each day, but they’ll all be strong in shallow water heavy cover conditions, places where a jig excels.
With that in mind, here are my picks:
BUCKET A: HACKNEY
Hard to stay away from Jason Christie here. Not only is he leading the AOY race, he hasn’t missed a check all year and finished second at Toledo and seventh at Rayburn. Perhaps even more notably, he won the last time the Elites were at Dardanelle. Unfortunately, I am constitutionally unable to pick such obvious favorites, and I’m looking for the Hack Attack to get me some points while everyone else rides the Christie train. Hackney is no slouch at Dardanelle, either, with a third-place finish in 2014 and an eighth-place finish in the 2007 Major to go along with a money finish in 2009. If the lake is muddy and fishes small, look for him to pick apart a discrete area and take home the hardware.
BUCKET B: SWINDLE
I’m tempted to pick Randall Tharp here, because other than the worst bomb of his Elite career at Toledo Bend he’s having an exceptional season. His 80th-place finish here in 2014 scares me a bit, because other than the Delaware River it was the worst finish of a very good rookie season. Therefore I’m going with Swindle, who isn’t fishing quite as well as he did last year, but coming off an eleventh-place finish at Rayburn things are just getting better. In 2014, he finished just 4 ounces behind Christie, and he was also in the money in 2009, and finished 14th in the 2007 Major. Look for the little brown jig to make an appearance. If that doesn’t work, he’ll switch to a black jig. Keep it simple, stay in the money, lather, rinse, repeat.
BUCKET C: HERREN
Lots of good jig fishermen in this bracket, headed by Mike Iaconelli who finished sixth at Dardanelle in 2014. Matt Herren had a clunker in that tournament, ending up 72nd, but he was ninth in 2009. At 51st in the AOY race, he needs a good finish to make up some ground before the tour heads north. The stakes are slightly less critical for Ike, who is all but assured to do well in brown fish country. Furthermore, Herren has alternated good finishes with bad ones this year (ninth-94th-29th-95th-eighth-60th), and this one should be on the upward swing.
BUCKET D: BIFFLE
Skeet Reese remains a potential bargain in Bucket D, and I’m tempted to pick him again, but he burned me with a 98th-place finish at Rayburn. Not sure if he just zigged at the wrong time, or if there’s something wrong with his game. He was 12th at Dardanelle in 2014, sixth in 2009 and 18th at the 2007 Major. Instead, I’m going to take a flier on another angler who has burned me before, the up-and-down Tommy Biffle – just because I know he’ll throw a jig. Well, also because he’s finished in 30th and 35th the last two times the Elites have visited, and tied for 18th in the 2007 Major. After missing checks in the first four Elites, he was 29th at Rayburn. This one seems to set up well for him, whether it’s flipping his jig into shoreline cover or dragging a Biffle Bug over mid-range ledges.
BUCKET E: LUCAS
There are lots of solid pros in Bucket E this time – names like Grigsby, Omori, Zaldain, Schultz, Chris Lane and Morgenthaler – any one of whom could break out and win this and create no surprise among the pundit class. Again, it has been an atypical year and there might be an explanation for their troubles so far, or there may be no explanation at all. I considered Terry Scroggins for a long time, as he’s twice finished in the 20s here, but ultimately went with Justin Lucas. He burned me earlier this year, but he finished 26th at Dardanelle in 2014, and made it into the Elite money line for the first time this year at Rayburn. He’s too talented to stay in the hole he’s dug for himself much longer.