As the Bassmaster Elite Series embarks on the eighth-but-should-have-been-ninth tournament of the 2018 Season, just about the whole field is fishing for something. Whether it’s the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year trophy, a spot in the 2019 Bassmaster Classic, a chance to progress to the AOY Championship, the increasingly faint hope of requalifying for 2019, or just a last gasp of a pro career, you can probably count the “just happy to be here” crew on one hand.
Of course, that makes it a classic “trap” event – anglers who are humming “Rocky Top” (Classic dreams) or “Georgia on My Mind” (AOY Championship) may forget that they actually have to compete in New York in order to get back south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
By the time the tournament starts, it’ll be over seven weeks since any of them have made a cast in Elite competition, and that was 1,500 miles away at Lake Oahe. Smallmouth will once again be the moneymakers, so rely on brown-fish specialists in your picks, but you’ll also want to choose anglers who have the mental wherewithal to be rested, fresh and motivated after the long hiatus. If they have a track record of success on the St. Lawrence, that’s even better.
With those criteria and that backdrop in mind, here are my picks:
BUCKET A: BERTRAND
My choice: Josh Bertrand
This has the potential to be a career-defining season for Bertrand, who is currently in fourth place in the AOY hunt, just 20 points out of the lead. He hasn’t missed a 50 cut this year, and his track record at the St. Lawrence includes 16th-, 11th- and eighth-place finishes. He’s exceptionally comfortable on smallmouth water and needs not just a fourth Classic qualification, but some piece of hardware to move his Q-factor to the next level.
Safe bet: Kevin VanDam
Stating that KVD has a lot of experience on the St. Lawrence is the epitome of understatement. Evidence of this? He fished his first B.A.S.S. event on the big river in September of 1987, 14 months before Bertrand was born. He earned his first top three finish here before Bertrand turned 2 years old, and he won last year, 30 years after his first attempt. His name has become synonymous with power fishing for big smallmouth, but he can use the finesse gear, too. At 13th in AOY, he likely has no shot at the title, but he’s safely inside the Classic cut, which means he can take chances and go for blood – and he will.
BUCKET B: EVERS
My choice: Edwin Evers
Evers won here in 2015 and earned checks in both 2013 and 2017. While we associate him most closely with Grand Lake, he’s a force to be reckoned with in smallmouth country, too, with an Erie Elite win to his credit. He hasn’t missed a Classic since 2010, and right now he’s in 42nd with one “and a half” tournaments to go. He has to make sure first that he gets to the AOY Championship, and second that he gets himself in position to move up a few places on that relatively unknown fishery. The veteran handles pressure smoothly, and this venue sets up well to get him where he wants to be.
Safe bet: Chad Pipkens
While Pipkens has three consecutive money finishes at the St. Lawrence, they’re going in the wrong direction – from 10th to 32nd to 48th. Nevertheless, despite not-so-distant struggles to requalify, he’s having his best Elite season and currently sits in 24th. He stumbled where you might’ve expected him to do so, at Grand and the Sabine, but otherwise he’s fishing well and in prime shape to make his first Classic since 2016
BUCKET C: MUELLER
My choice: Paul Mueller
Two northeastern anglers – Adrian Avena and Paul Mueller – are in 45th and 46th, respectively, within sight of both the Classic and of missing the AOY Championship. They’re two young anglers with loads of experience under pressure, and I think Avena’s a consummate professional. But I just have a hunch that Mueller is due for a breakthrough after a period of flying under the radar. He’s a smallmouth junkie and really good with a wide range of clear water finesse techniques.
Safe bet: Alton Jones
If you value long-term experience, especially at this juncture late in the season, then Alton Jones is a reasonable bet. He’s currently in 64th overall, 52 points out of 50th. That’s a tough hill to climb, but he’s done well here in the past, including consecutive top 12s in 2015 and 2017, the former a runner-up finish to Evers.
BUCKET D: J. VANDAM
My choice: JVD
Which JVD is going to show up, the one who finished second here in 2013 and fifth in 2017, or the one who dropped to 81st in 2015? The sample size isn’t big enough to engage in meaningful statistical analysis, but I’m willing to bet it’s the former. He didn’t get the job done at Oahe (107th) and won’t be going to Chatuge, but this is a chance to recoup some pride and a big check on familiar ground, doing what he’s best at.
Safe bet: Lefebre
You can probably blame fellow scribe Thomas Allen’s bad mojo for Dave Lefebre’s subpar season, but he’s gotten back on track of late with 35th- and 20th-place finishes. He’s a northeastern guru, and he finished 23rd here last year, so there’s no reason to believe he can’t finish that high – or better – once again (especially if Thomas leaves him alone).
BUCKET E: SCHULTZ
My choice: Bernie Schultz
Few anglers on tour seem to relish the annual trek to New York more than Floridian Bernie Schultz. He’s been fishing the Empire State since before even Kevin VanDam (he competed in the 1986 New York Invitational on the Hudson) and consistently seems to be in the hunt. He’s a constant contender on Oneida, but he may be even better on the St. Lawrence. He’s finished 12th, 15th and sixth in three Elite competitions here, and he has also placed in the money in Open/Invitational entries that included three more top 20 finishes.
Safe bet: David Walker
Because he’s not flashy, Walker often doesn’t get the recognition that his career merits, particularly in a down season like this one. At 91st in the points, his 2018 efforts clearly do not indicate the full extent of his abilities. At this point in the season, he’d probably rather that it could all be over so that he could go home, hunt and regroup for next year (while trying not to think about the fact that he missed a home-state Classic). After doing this for three decades, though, he knows that the season doesn’t end until the last whistle blows. Expect him to treat the last event of his season as if it was the first of next season, and don’t be surprised if he adds another St. Lawrence check to his bank account – he has three of them in Elite competition.