Fantasy Fishing: Go for pros lurking just out of the spotlight

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Seigo Saito
The Classic may not be in Texas, but it's close enough. If you want a guy who almost always targets big fish, pick Keith Combs for your Fantasy Fishing team.

It seems like we were just at a frigid Grand Lake, watching Cliff Pace direct boat traffic and grind his way through a tough final day to win the 2013 Bassmaster Classic.

Until last year’s rodeo at Hartwell, that was the coldest Classic on record, one of several Grand Lake chillers in B.A.S.S. history, and Pace earned every bit of his prize money.

Now we’re headed back, but Pace is not. He finished a disappointing 95th in the 2015 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. For every cagey veteran who failed to make the cut, though, there’s a hungry newcomer ready to take a shot at the win.

We’ve had four new Classic winners in the past four years — Chris Lane, Pace, Randy Howell and Casey Ashley — none of them wide-eyed rookies by any means, but all of whom needed the victory to establish themselves as stars. While it’s entirely possible that we’ll see a repeat winner this time around, my money says it’ll be another newcomer, someone for whom this will truly be a life-altering event.

While the voting hadn’t officially opened at the time of this writing, I’m making a concerted effort to stay away from crowd favorites. Certainly the likes of Kevin VanDam or Jason Christie could win on any body of water at any time, but I believe that Grand, unlike some other Classic waterways, sets up to benefit the angler who doesn’t have an armada of followers from the get-go.

Last time around, with Christie and Iaconelli and Pace all fishing in the same general part of the lake, at times the water resembled an E-ticket ride or a giant washing machine more than the placid ponds of angling lore. Now, with the tournament moved back a few weeks, if it’s warmer, expect many of those who stayed home last time around because of the cold to join their more foolhardy friends.

By the end of the tournament — win or lose — Jason Christie may hope he never sees another bass boat for the rest of his life. While the folks at Grand were generally courteous, they were also mighty plentiful.

With that in mind, here are my Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing picks.

Bucket A: Palaniuk

Popular Pick: You know that Aaron Martens is going to win a Classic at some point, but in order to do so, you can’t have one bad hour, let alone a bad day. On the heels of his dominant season, it appears he’s gotten over any mental roadblocks that plagued him in the past — like forgetting his crankbait box in 2011. I don’t think he’ll miss the cut like he did in 2013, but I think he’s a year or two away from adding this piece of hardware to his mantle.

Almost Picked: This is a home field derby for Edwin Evers, and no one’s going to be surprised when he unlocks the Classic puzzle or the AOY puzzle, possibly in the same year.

My Pick: Brandon Palaniuk finished second on Grand in 2013, and he’s had three more years of seasoning since then to continue to dial in his prolific natural talents. You can bet he has some new crankbaits, jerkbaits or swimbaits he’s been working on that no one else will have, or he might end up winning with a bait that’s older than him. Nothing seems to faze him, which is good, because he’ll likely have more spectators than he did the last time around.

Bucket B: Combs

Popular Pick: If Jason Christie doesn’t command at least two-thirds of the votes in this bucket, I’ll be shocked, and while he gave up some of his good stuff to the masses last time around, I don’t think that’s even a fraction of what he knows on Grand. Still, the spectator traffic is going to be immense, and if he has to run and gun to pick off individual fish, they’ll inadvertently cost him quite a few casts per day.

Almost Picked: No one really talks about Matt Herren, so you’d probably make a killing if you picked him and he came out on top. While he finished a below-average 29th here in 2013, he recently told me about some places he found that could pay off if conditions turn sour. While others struggle to get a few bites, he could be culling — and he probably won’t have major boat traffic impeding his efforts until he claims the lead.

My Pick: Keith Combs. It’s not Texas, where he’s dominant, but it’s one state up. More importantly, in a big fish event, do you want the guy who’s used to fishing for a 10-pound limit or the one who thinks that any five fish that combine for less than 20 pounds should be considered bait? Go for the home run hitter.

Bucket C: DeFoe

Popular Pick: KVD. Everyone’s talking about his demise, but most of those same people are afraid NOT to pick him. He’s won at Grand before, albeit at a totally different time of year. Despite the naysayers, if he wins another Classic — or two, or three — I won’t be surprised.

Almost Picked: Todd Faircloth, like Evers, is going to win a Classic or an AOY — or both — at some point.

My Pick: Ott DeFoe finished 11th here in 2013. If there’s a jerkbait bite, or they’re chewing a Shad Rap, he’ll make something happen. After making the Classic relatively easily early in his B.A.S.S. career, DeFoe sweated it out until the end last year, and knowing that it’s not a sure thing will make him value the opportunity even more.

Bucket D: Bertrand

Popular Pick: Mike Iaconelli. There’s a still a dog on the bank at Grand that wants his revenge, but a combination of cold and crowds is right up his alley.

Almost Picked: Mark Davis may move a little bit slower than he did back when he won the Classic in 1995, but Mount Ida’s most famous resident still knows how to catch ’em. He’s talked about retiring, but I’m guessing he won’t do it until he has at least one more big trophy, or until he’s physically unable to compete.

My Pick: Josh Bertrand. I know that I chose Combs in Bucket B because of his Century Club tendencies, but here I’m going the opposite direction, choosing a young pro who’s an absolute finesse guru. If things get tough, the big hitters may whiff and guys like Bertrand may swoop in to pick up the pieces. It’s not like that’s all he can do, either. He’ll catch them in a variety of ways, and he won’t have an entourage while he’s doing it.

Bucket E: Watson

Popular Pick: I don’t know that there will be a consensus most-popular angler in this bucket, but I’m guessing that Albert Collins is the closest thing to a household name here. He fished the previous Classic at Grand, which is a plus, but he finished 48th — which is not.

Almost Picked: In a tournament where second place doesn’t truly matter, you want someone who knows how to catch a big string, and then another, and then another, and that’s Brandon McMillan. My only fear is that if the weather gets horrendous, the Florida crew may freeze their Sunkists off.

My Pick: James Watson. He’s competed on the tour level, he’s won in B.A.S.S. competition and he’s from the region. He may not win, but he could, and he’s unlikely to stumble.