Through eight regular-season Elite Series events, here’s what we know … we don’t know squat.
We had a New Yorker win in Alabama, an Australian win in Oklahoma, a Connecticut Yankee win in Georgia and – turning the tables – a Georgian win in New York.
Jamie Hartman, who won at Cayuga in his home state of New York, was also the guy who claimed the crown at Guntersville. Brandon Cobb may have been expected to win at Hartwell, but few of us expected him to take that same mojo to Fork.
We’ve seen the Oklahoma derby get pushed back, and then moved to a different site altogether.
Dependability and predictability has gone out the window, especially when it comes to Fantasy Fishing. Your best bet all year would’ve been to try to stack up some combination of Canterbury, Zaldain, Drew Cook, Bill Lowen and a Johnston to be named later. That might’ve won you the top prize, if indeed it was possible.
The biggest monkey wrench of all was the outsized rookie class, who many pundits and fans expected to struggle, but when the casting started they proved us all wrong. Eight of them are currently inside of the Classic cut and 10 will fish this week. For a long time, it seemed that a true rookie might claim the AOY title outright.
Into that mix comes Lake St. Clair, a known commodity. Not all of the pros fishing there this week have competed on the big bowl in B.A.S.S. competition. It might have been in an FLW event, or some other tournament, or just for fun, but they’ve likely been there before. For those who haven’t, it’s not the hardest lake in the world to figure out. It’s relatively easy to amass consistent weights in the teens. The hard part is breaking through with those 20-pound-plus bags.
There is motivation up and down the line, but sometimes it just comes down to a gut feeling, so that’s how I’ll make my picks, too, but I’ll also provide a sentimental favorite as a backup.
BUCKET A: ZALDAIN
GUT PICK: Chris Zaldain
Has anyone ever had such an incredible season punctuated by such incredible disappointment as Chris Zaldain? He’s in the AOY hunt, and seems to have his Sundays booked from here to eternity, but starting at Lanier, continuing through the Classic, and now to four straight Top 10s he always seems to fall just a bit short of the blue trophy. Will he be around it at St. Clair? You can almost guarantee it, and if he claims that and the AOY title in the same week poor little Nebo may get relegated to riding back to Texas in the truck.
SENTIMENTAL BACKUP: Brandon Lester
Lester is one of those energizer bunnies who keeps knocking out top finishes, but doesn’t get much press because he’s quiet and humble. He hasn’t missed an Elite cut to Saturday this year. Don’t expect that to change in Michigan.
BUCKET B: HARTMAN
GUT PICK: Jamie Hartman
The dude just wins. They’re up north. He’s back to fishing the way he did during his rookie season. Pick him.
SENTIMENTAL BACKUP: John Crews
Like Lester, Crews goes about his job in a workmanlike fashion, without drawing much attention to himself. He’s been a moral hitching post for his Elite peers in this year of upheaval, and has nevertheless taken care of business. He has a strong track record at St. Clair.
BUCKET C: PIPKENS
GUT PICK: Chad Pipkens
The guy was fishing with one arm most of the season and still kicked butt. With a baby on the way and eating home cooking, along with an Open win at St. Clair in 2014, look for a big show.
SENTIMENTAL BACKUP: Jeff Gustafson
Gussy’s in the Classic, but a lot of his thunder has been stolen by the high-flying Johnstons. Most Americans assume they’re all the same. They’re not. He’s due for a breakout performance.
BUCKET D: PIRCH
GUT PICK: Cliff PIrch
The Golden Ram is a dropshotter extraordinaire with lots of St. Clair experience. He’s assured of a spot at Guntersville, but despite three runner-up finishes in B.A.S.S. competition he’s never won. That could and should change sooner rather than later.
SENTIMENTAL BACKUP: Garrett Paquette
It’s hard to feel sorry for a 24-year-old with a Century belt, but Paquette’s solid campaign has been overshadowed, at times, by fellow rookies like Drew Cook, Patrick Walters and Lee Livesay. His odds of making the Classic are solid, but he will have to show up and catch them to hold court.
BUCKET E: MUELLER
GUT PICK: Paul Mueller
Sometimes it’s unclear which Paul Mueller will show up – the electronics wizard who won at Lanier, or the one who occasionally puts in fair to middling performances. Right now he’s the first man inside the Classic cut, and he set the one-day Classic record the last time it was at Guntersville, so expect him to put in an extra-concerted effort to catching them this week.
SENTIMENTAL BACKUP: Ed Loughran III
As a fellow attorney who has known Ed for over 20 years, and who ran in overlapping circles throughout our childhoods, I can’t help but pull for him. He’s living the dream for desk jockeys like me, and got this far with a clutch performance at Tenkiller – then jetted back home to be in court this week. He was fishing the Great Lakes when some of these guys were in diapers or not even born.