I endured an epic thrashing at St. Clair, but so did likely daytime Emmy winner Ronnie Moore, so I remain ahead of him in the standings and on target to achieve my goal of beating him like a rented mule. Truth be told, I’m jealous of his youth, his talent, his access to the pros, his airtime and his incredible career trajectory, so I take solace in whatever little victories I can get.
Now we’ll reconvene approximately half of the Elite crew at Mille Lacs for what promises to be an incredible smallmouth slugfest on what we’re told is the No. 1 lake in the nation. A handful of the remaining 50 have nothing to fight for except pride, having claimed a Classic spot but having little chance of earning any other award, but for many of these guys there remains something on the line – a legitimate shot at AOY, Rookie of the Year, or a spot at Hartwell in March.
Last year it took an average of 20 pounds a day to sneak into the top half of the field, and local-boy-made-good Seth Feider won with an average of 25 pounds, 7 ounces per day. This may be spinning-rod territory, but you need to go with anglers who are more than limit getters. With that in mind, here are my picks:
BUCKET A: DEFOE
But for a bomb on the St. Lawerence, DeFoe would be right in the thick of the AOY race, with every other finish meriting a trip to the money man, including Top 12s at Cherokee, Okeechobee and Champlain, three diverse waterways, two of them smallmouth factories. He was good but not great last year at Mille Lacs (14th), but don’t expect him to do any worse than that, and he’ll likely be better because he’s exceptional with a spinning rod and his electronics. Everyone except for Dustin Connell continues to be pleasantly surprised by super-rookie Jamie Hartman, who needs to keep his foot on the gas to win the Rookie of the Year race. I was rewarded the one time that I picked him, and I’m tempted to do so again, but I have a hunch on DeFoe this time around.
BUCKET B: FEIDER
Seriously? You’re picking someone other than Seth Feider? I’m surprised that there are so many contrarians out there that he doesn’t even merit half the votes so far. He won by 6 1/2 pounds last year, and this year he’s matured substantially. Right now he’s in 15th in the AOY race, a lock to qualify for his first Classic. If you’re dead-set against it, pick his barber, who probably got some awesome unneeded waypoints and has a lot of time to explore them. Or if you’re truly against the whole state of Minnesota, go with Brent Ehrler, who finished second here last year.
BUCKET C: CHERRY
There’s not a Yankee in the bunch and this bucket is chock full of anglers who finished in the middle of the pack last year, so my default choosing mechanisms go out the window. I’m looking for Hank Cherry to work some magic with a jerkbait while most others drop shot. He fared poorly (44th) last time around and can’t do that again if he wants to stay inside the Classic cut and qualify for consecutive championships for the first time since 2013-14. Matt Lee would be another good choice, but as of this writing he’s pulling over 40 percent of the votes, so look at Clifford Pirch as an alternate. He has the same number of AOY points as Lee, but has done it much more quietly.
BUCKET D: KENNEDY
I dropped off the Steve Kennedy train a little early once again, missing out on a quality finish at St. Clair. My temptation to pick him is bolstered by the fact that he was 15th at Mille Lacs last year and is currently just on the cusp of a Classic qualification. Alton Jones likewise needs a good finish to make it back to the Classic – he’s 33rd in the AOY race, to Kennedy’s 37th — but he’s coming off a surprisingly disastrous event at St. Clair. I’m very tempted to pick Jones, but this late in the year I need to give Kennedy and his swimbaits one last hurrah.
BUCKET E: LEFEBRE
He’s got some climbing to do to qualify for consecutive Classics, but Dave Lefebre thinks like a northern smallmouth. Last year he finished third behind Feider and Ehrler and the only thing that would be surprising is if he doesn’t make the Top 10. If you’re not a Lefebre groupie like fellow scribe Thomas Allen, go with Brock Mosley, who has reportedly joined a support group led by Aaron Martens for anglers with multiple runner up finishes. Don’t ask how or why a young pro from Mississippi got so good on northern bronzebacks, just pick him.
Alternate Picks: Fran Tarkenton, Kent Hrbek, Jesse Ventura, Al Lindner, Brandon & Brenda Walsh (count as one pick).