Coming off Elite Series events at Grand Lake and Kentucky Lake, two venues that have frequently been on past Bassmaster schedules, now we’re heading to a comparatively unknown fishery in Lake Travis. Sure, there are tons of Texans on the tour, and some past FLW Tour participants have fished for six figures there in the years gone by, but this is the first time in recent memory it’ll host a big money postspawn event in comparatively high water conditions. All of that adds up to a new venue for almost everyone, which levels the playing field.
Yes, Texas has been the tournament capital of the world (sorry Alabamians!) for a while, but while the south Texans have driven east to Rayburn and Toledo, and the east Texans have driven south to Falcon and Amistad, rarely did the twain meet in the middle at Travis. That means we’re going to see some secrets exposed, and I think that fishing fans are going to be surprised by the weights that come in.
In February of 2007, Marylander Aaron Hastings won an FLW Tour tournament on Travis with a four-day weight of 40-10. A decade later, Arkansan Mark Rose won there with 59-02. Based on the Elites I’ve talked to who pre-practiced there (and there were a bunch of them), it’s going to take a lot more poundage to win this time around. The fish are healthier and more plentiful, and with lots more water in the pond all sorts of cover has grown up and become fishable. Anglers will be able to flip, swimbait, crank or utilize any of their favorite postspawn techniques.
As for me, Austin is one of my favorite cities. The tournament won’t launch out of Austin itself, but it’ll be close enough to enjoy the area’s many riches. In tribute to the many things it’s known for, here are my picks:
BUCKET A: THE WILLIE NELSON BRACKET
Pick: Josh Bertrand
In Willie Nelson’s adopted hometown, how can you not pick The Redheaded Stranger? Little known fact: Bertrand has made the Classic every other year since 2014, missing on odd-numbered years, but I believe this is the season that he breaks that curse. He’s earned a check in four straight Elite events dating back to last season and is coming off his best Elite finish since Cherokee at the beginning of last year. He’s one of those young anglers who’s been pigeonholed as a finesse expert, but truth be told he does a lot of things well, and he does them under the radar. Currently fourth in the AOY race, this could be his breakout year.
Alternate: Aaron Martens or Alton Jones Jr.
Who’s Pancho and who’s Lefty in this situation? Doesn’t matter, because AMart does well everywhere and AJJ hasn’t finished worse than 35th this year. He’s coming into his own, and he probably spent some time scouting Travis, which is just a short drive from home, before it went offlimits.
BUCKET B: THE BRISKET BRACKET
Pick: Brent Ehrler
Historically, the town of Lockhart, 20 miles or so to the south of Austin proper, has been the barbecue capital of Texas, but in recent years there has been a revival of world class smoked meats inside of the city limits. At stops like Franklin’s, patrons wait for hours for a tray of that smoky goodness. Expect Ehrler, who finished 56th here in the 2007 FLW Tournament and is a past TTBC champ, to avoid being satisfied by snack-sized fish. Instead, he’ll wait out the big ones and then feast.
Alternate: Chris Zaldain
The swimbait guru now calls Texas home, and we’re getting to the time of year when his favorite technique excels, as evidenced by his finish at Kentucky Lake. If you can stomach the ups and downs, he could produce a big win.
BUCKET C: THE STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN BRACKET
Pick: Hank Cherry
The sky may have been crying enough to raise the water level, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a jerkbait bite somewhere. Just look at Kentucky Lake, where Kelley Jaye made it work. Cherry has been in the middle of the pack in virtually every tournament this year, but you only need to look at the footage from last year’s Texas Fest at Rayburn to intuit that this might be a chance to break out of that rut.
Alternate: Chad Pipkens
Pipkens is often considered a valid pick only in events likely to be dominated by finesse techniques, but like Bertrand and Ehrler (see above), that’s just not fair. After struggling at Grand, he had his best Elite event since last year’s Okeechobee derby at Kentucky Lake, further proof that it’s not just open water that suits him. Historically, he’s struggled in Texas, so some might consider it a stretch, but a fisherman with his talents will break out of that single-state rut at some point.
BUCKET D: THE EARL CAMPBELL BRACKET
Pick: Ray Hanselman
It’s not a stretch to say that “Hanselman” sounds like “Heisman,” and Austin’s produced two of those. While Hanselman’s Elite efforts to date (a 14th and two bombs) might indicate that he’s more of a Ricky Williams than an Earl Campbell, they fail to demonstrate his full skill set, his potential or his winning track record. Texas is where he should get his Elite season on track. In 2015, he won three Costa Series events in his home state, on the very diverse waters of Amistad, Rayburn and Texoma, and things like that don’t happen by accident. Overtime:
He then went on to win the Costa Championship on the Ohio River, about as non-Texas a venue as you can find. Double OT: He’ll likely have a low ownership percentage.
Alternate: Alton Jones or Keith Combs
I wanted to pick the Waco area resident with a Classic win or the three-time TTBC champ (and native of Central Texas). They’re both legitimate contenders to win anywhere, and doubly so in Texas, but the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” and I can’t think of two less-weird people on the Elites than Jones and Combs.
BUCKET E: THE CONGRESS AVENUE BATS BRACKET
Pick: Jason Williamson
Tourists and locals alike gather beneath Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge to watch the world’s largest urban bat colony fly out – 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats strong! Williamson has had a tough season so far, finishing 97th and 104th in his last two events. Texas has been good to him, though. He was 12th in last year’s Texas Fest, eighth at Falcon in 2013, won at Amistad in 2009, finished fifth there in 2008 and was eighth again at Falcon in 2008. For some reason the state suits him – don’t go batty thinking about it, just ride the wave.
Alternate: John Murray
After struggling at Martin and Grand, Murray finally snuck into the money at Kentucky Lake, but now the season is getting to a time that suits his strengths. His lone Elite Series win? Last April at Toledo Bend. It’s not quite analogous, but expect him to continue to improve his results this year.