Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain
And the wavin' wheat, can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain.
That sound you hear, whooshing from Kansas to Texas and back again, is not wind in this case. It’s the heavy breathing of 75 Bassmaster Elite Series pros tired from a long season of fishing and still jockeying for position.
With one full-field tournament left to go, everyone is after something – from AOY to Classic spots to a spot at St. Clair to pride to enough money to pay for gas to get home. Us pundits frequently write about how motivation play into our picks, and perhaps it does in some events, but if you’re not motivated to push on at this point in the season you really shouldn’t be an Elite Series pro. In other words, every one of them is ready to step on some necks.
They were thrown a monkey wrench when the venue was changed from Fort Gibson to Tenkiller. So was I. I’d written my column about Fort Gibson, then left the country on a remote fishing trip with minimal access to the internet when the switch was made. I’m pretty sure it was Ronnie Moore, trying to undermine my chances of beating him like a rented mule once again. Nice try, Ronnie, but I’m back, and I'm not giving up any ground.
The only problem is that I have no knowledge of how Tenkiller will fish. I expect it to be as tough or nearly as tough as Fort Gibson was expected to be, so my picks are largely unchanged. That’s especially true because not many current Elites have substantial experience on Tenkiller. Nevertheless, I’ll use that limited history as a guardrail and disregard it when it doesn’t meet my purposes.
From the social media scuttlebutt and the inquiries I’ve made, everyone seems to be downplaying the venue, claiming it’s going to be tough and that they just hope to catch five each day. Indeed, I’m sure most of them would rather be going to a known commodity rather than someplace that could prove unpredictable. Nevertheless, some of them will figure out viable patterns, and someone’s going to take home a six-figure check. Expect 15 pounds a day to be really strong.
With that as prologue, here are my picks:
BUCKET A: LOWEN
Gut Pick: Is there anyone better at catching five when the chips are down than the Turtle, Bill Lowen? It’s a tired explanation, but it still rings true – years of fishing the Ohio River made him appreciative of every bite and able to persevere when things are tough. He’s still within reach of the AOY title, albeit 26 points behind Scott Canterbury (in addition to trailing Drew Cook and Chris Zaldain) and this could be a prime opportunity to make up serious ground heading into smallmouth country in the AOY championship.
If Gibson is Your Guide: Stetson Blaylock finished second in the 2015 Central Open on Fort Gibson, so make of that what you will. More importantly, this year he’s shown that he can win, too. He’s only four points behind Lowen in the AOY race, and the resulting boost would be a fantastic addition to a career that already includes second- and third-place finishes in the FLW Tour AOY race.
BUCKET B: COBB
Gut Pick: Every time the Classic is held at Hartwell, we hear all of the Oklahoma pros mention how much it reminds them of the lakes back home. They may be referring to Grand Lake, but the exchange program doesn’t have to be limited to that one venue. Brandon Cobb showed how well he can do at home on Hartwell earlier this season, then backed it up with a second win at Lake Fork, much closer to Oklahoma. He’s playing with house money now, which is when many pros are most dangerous. Pick him.
If Gibson is Your Guide: Think about Hunter Shryock. He was 34th there in the 2015 Open, and like Lowen he has lots of experience on the tough fisheries of Ohio, where one missed 4-pounder can cost you dearly. He’ll grind out limits if things are truly as tough as they’re saying.
BUCKET C: HAMILTON
Gut Pick: Skylar Hamilton has quietly put himself just inside the Classic bubble this season, but he needs to keep his foot on the gas to keep it going. Four straight finishes in the 30s have allowed him to hold serve, but now he needs to hit a winner to assure his place at the big dance. I don’t know if the lakes of East Tennessee resemble Fort Gibson in any way, but he was 14th there in 2015, and his two top 10 finishes in Bassmaster competition have come in this part of the country.
If Gibson is Your Guide: Brian Snowden is one of the few pros who’ve fished all three recent B.A.S.S. events on Fort Gibson, with varying results – including a 27th place finish in the large Open field of 2015. He’s inside the Classic cut right now at 35th, and he would love to make it for the first time since 2015.
BUCKET D: KENNEDY
Gut Pick: The Steve Kennedy Express is a bumpy train to ride, and I disembarked a while ago. He’s struggled through a tough season, but that sixth-place finish at the St. Lawrence shows a glimmer of hope that he’ll close out this year with a bang. If he can’t make the swimbait deal work, look for him to fish a swim jig and a wacky worm into the money.
If Gibson is Your Guide: Chad Morgenthaler hasn’t had much Bassmaster experience on Fort Gibson – except a 2001 Central Open in which he finished 111th – but he’s got three skill sets that should come into play. First, he’s relocated to the Ozarks region to get a better handle on this type of fishing. Second, he learned to fish in Illinois, where the bite can be tough. Finally, he’s not afraid to put a flipping stick and nothing else on the deck and go to work.
BUCKET E: Clunn
Gut Pick: Despite some tough results this year (four finishes in the seventies, two in the fifties), Rick Clunn still shows occasional flashes of brilliance. He won at the St. Johns and was 15th at the St. Lawrence (too bad this is not St. Tenkiller). Frankly, if you’re in the “E” bucket at this point, things have generally not gone your way for much of the year, so it pays to take an angler who has shown the chops to occasionally pull out a top finish in recent history. That’s Clunn.
If Gibson is Your Guide: Dale Hightower fished two Opens on Gibson, finishing 35th in 2012 and 60th in 2015. He only lives an hour and change away from the new venue, so no doubt he has some history here and it’ll be a low-stress trip, as well as a chance to bank some cash.