Fantasy Fishing: Don't count out power fisherman

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Shane Durrance

Keith Combs is coming off his best finish of the 2021 Elite Series season at Lake Champlain.

Wow! The squad absolutely blew out the doors last week on Lake Champlain. If fans thought the fish catching there was amazing — which it most certainly was — this week's Farmers Insurance Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River should be the grand finale of all grand finales!

Before we break down the lake and talk picks, it’s important to note that the winner of this event will be given an automatic berth into the 2022 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell. At the moment, more than 40 anglers will be awarded with an entry based on Bassmaster Angler of the Year points, while the rest of the field will be fighting over the additional spot.

All the guys outside of the cut line have a very good reason to fish their guts out, and it may make for a surprisingly volatile leaderboard. You will almost certainly see more anglers swinging for the fence by making long runs or fishing for five big bites rather than culling through numbers. It will definitely make for some good TV.

While it took a mixed bag of largemouth and smallmouth to take the trophy last week, this event’s track record should guarantee that smallmouth bass will make up all but a small percentage of the fish weighed. The smallies should all be through spawning, so they will be a bit more spread out.

Typically speaking, that would pose an issue, but on a fishery where the population is so massive, that just means most of our anglers will have plenty of places to fish. With Lake Ontario in play this week, it should make it that much more exciting. Who will stay close, and who will make a run? Who will find ‘em up shallow, and who will smash ‘em out deep?

Let’s jump into it.

BUCKET A: PALANIUK

If it weren’t for an absolutely dominating performance by the Great Llama Seth Feider, Brandon Palaniuk would be on a short list of anglers vying for the AOY title. He has had a great year by all typical metrics with only one blemish, a 61st on the Sabine. Now, we’re in his favorite part of the country to do damage, and that shows by his results on this body of water. His record here speaks for itself:

2020: 10th
2018: seventh
2017: third
2015: 19th
2013: first
2021: first again? I’m banking it’ll at least be close.

Don’t forget about: Chris Johnston is two for two here, blasting just short of 100 pounds of brown beauties last year. He was second in 2019, and I wouldn’t put it past him to make a long run to find unpressured fish. He won’t likely have the spawning fish he had last time, which nudges him out of my primary pick, but I’ll be shocked if he isn’t there come the final day. 

BUCKET B: ITO

We all can now confirm that Taku Ito “loves the smallmouth.” Before fishing the Elites last year, he had never intentionally targeted them, but he has certainly come into his own adding a sixth-place finish here to his growing list of top finishes. He is coming off a hot start at Champlain where his bite died off after the first two days. Hopefully he can correct what went wrong last week, put that light line to work and come out strong.

Don’t forget about: Chris Zaldain is hard to pass up. If you’ve read my articles for any length of time, you know that there always seems to be one that is on the other side of a very balanced teeter-totter. Catching big smallmouth is something for which he was built. Light line and patience before and after the bite give him an edge. Get too horsey and you’ll probably come to weigh-in with some tales of heartbreak. He may have some antics, but I promise he benefits from it. With solid finishes of 11th, ninth, 17th and 16th on his resume, he clearly has something dialed in out there.

BUCKET C: COMBS

When you’re looking for a guy who is stellar with light line and a fairy wand, you should stay far away from Keith Combs. But, when you’re looking for a guy who thrives on momentum, stop here, build a house and raise a family because he’s a great bet. This year has been one of the worst seasons of his career, but things went right for him at Champlain, and that should serve him well. He will not be doing the same thing as everyone else, and that should allow him a few extra bites. Expect him to power fish his way to a great finish. His past results are 44th, fourth, eighth, 31st, ninth and 23rd.

Don’t forget about: It’s hard to not root for Carl Jocumson every single event. His passion and energy are certainly contagious and worth putting stock in. However, the biggest reason to be in his corner is his newfound love for active sonar. He has been without it up until recently, and it definitely deserves some credit for his great finish on Champlain. If those smallmouth would have kept biting, he may have made the final day. His win and several top finishes have come in smallmouth tournaments so this one should fit squarely in his wheelhouse.

BUCKET D: MICAH FRAZIER

Micah Frazier is one of the anglers to take a trophy here in the last few years. He found a mega-school of behemoths and drop-shotted them perfectly for the win. He is certainly talented enough to find a few groups and milk them for all they’re worth this time around. He really only has one rough finish here, 70th back in 2017, but a win plus a fifth-place finish last season give me the confidence to pick him up this time.

Don’t forget about: The bottom buckets are nearly always a mystery to me. Guys like Paul Mueller along with several others simply don’t belong here. However, this tournament could give him a good finish to close out the season, not to mention a shot at the 2022 Classic. He is a hammer when fishing light line, vertically, using his graphs. He also clearly knows how to win with two wins the last three seasons, one of which was a light-line “videogame” tournament on Lanier. His season has been rough with only one decent finish, but if he wants to keep his streak of one trophy per year alive, this is his last chance to do it.

BUCKET E: DEMARION       

If you watched Bassmaster LIVE, you heard Zona saying that Destin DeMarion is fighting for his Elite Series career. You could see the fire in his eyes at Champlain, and he posted a very impressive sixth-place finish. That bumps him up a bit, but he can’t get comfortable yet. In the past, he has spent about half his time guiding for smallmouth in this part of the country and knows what he’s doing. I’m banking Champlain was just the shot in the arm he needed in order to get the wheels on.

Don’t forget about: Justin Atkins is an angler that we haven’t seen nearly enough of this season. He is only a rookie by definition, but this dude has accomplished more in his short career than most will in a lifetime. He is a shark with his electronics and isn’t afraid to gamble which may lead to the unicorn Bucket E winner. And with that automatic Classic entry up for grabs, it gives him a good reason to drop the hammer.

Drain the Lake 

When I set out my Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge lineups for the season, I made my late season picks and worked backwards. With that in mind, I am finally able to put my all-star team of smallmouth specialists to work. I am just inside the top 10%, and I’m hoping to make a jump with this team.

  • Destin DeMarion 
  • Seth Feider 
  • Austin Felix 
  • Jeff Gustafson 
  • Chris Johnston 
  • Brandon Palaniuk 
  • Chris Zaldain
  • Paul Mueller