Do you remember when the Elites first visited Lake Amistad back in 2006? The fishing was so good that immediately after the event ended a number of Elite pros bought property on Amistad.
I’m not saying that a bunch of them are going to make a land rush for South Dakota when this tournament concludes, but I’m pretty sure that at least a few will consider it.
It’s going to be that good.
South Dakota, which gained statehood in 1889, has been guarding bass fishing’s least publicized treasure for a long time, and now the Fralick family’s secret is going to get out. Despite the fact that the state fish is the walleye (and the state fossil is the triceratops, not joking), this is going to be a smallmouth beatdown for the record books. The winner may not top 90 pounds, but the number of 18-22 pound limits is going to hurt the scales – and a lot of thumbs.
So what do you look for on a venue that’s new to almost all of the field, where everyone is likely to catch limits, and the hard part will be catching fish that average just a few ounces more than your neighbors'? If you can’t look to tournament history, you can still recognize that the past is prologue.
Just as Bill and Ted consulted Socrates, among others, let’s go to some of our nation’s great statesmen for a bit of insight:
BUCKET A: K. VANDAM
The George Washington Bracket
“I cannot tell a lie.”
My pick: In basketball, they say “ball don’t lie.” Either it’s in or it’s out. Same thing in fishing, except it’s “scale don’t lie.” You weigh what you weigh and either you win or you don’t, and no one wins more than Kevin VanDam. He’s not out of the hunt in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, and no one’s better at covering lots of water and power fishing for big smallmouth. That’ll be the name of the game at the inland ocean called Oahe. He’s achieved everything else the sport can offer, so why not claim the first title in the Dakotas?
Wild card: Don’t count out Jacob Wheeler. I had the misfortune of picking him at the Sabine, where a self-reported violation 86ed his chances of doing well, but other than that miscue and a bomb at Martin he’s been exceptional, with four Elite finishes of 25th or better, including two in the Top 12, and a seventh-place finish at the Classic.
BUCKET B: FAIRCLOTH
The Thomas Jefferson Bracket
“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock."
My pick: Whether it’s Amistad or the Sabine or even the Delaware River, Todd Faircloth seems to adjust to new waterways better than many of his peers. He’s learned to handle big water in his native Texas and has the smallmouth game down pat, so look for him to excel in South Dakota. It’s especially important because right now he’s inside the Classic cut, but not by much. He’s always been able to catch bass anywhere they swim, and that hasn’t changed, and no one should expect him to miss the Classic for the first time since 2006.
Wild card: Jason Christie always seems to find a way to relate a body of water to the way he fishes at home. Oahe might be like nothing he’s ever seen before, but he’ll find a way to make it work, and he’s proven his smallmouth chops at St. Clair.
BUCKET C: COMBS
The Teddy Roosevelt Bracket
"Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
My pick: In big-weight tournaments, go with anglers who catch big weights. Keith Combs is a hammer on big-fish fisheries, and is no slouch with the smallmouth, either, as last year’s Mille Lacs victory showed. He might not catch them with a 10XD, but it’s pretty safe to say that the spinning rods will only be an option of last resort.
Wild card: Unlike Combs, Shin Fukae will probably have some spinning-rod presentations at the front of the lineup. Did you see him at the Sabine when he had a dozen or more rods on the deck? In a tournament where fish are likely to be caught in many ways, he’ll have his bases covered.
BUCKET D: J. VANDAM
The Abraham Lincoln Bracket
“Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”
My pick: There are lots of smallmouth gurus in this bucket, but if you look at JVD’s history, most of his best finishes have come up north on big water. Not many of these guys are intimidated by the rough stuff anymore, but he’s built his brand fishing in it, and baby needs a new pair of shoes to have a chance of making his third Classic.
Wild card: Dave Lefebre has begged, pleaded and ordered Thomas Allen not to pick him, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. He’s fished uncharacteristically poorly this year, but a 20th place in La Crosse might have him back on track heading into his wheelhouse of smallmouth country.
BUCKET E: HORTON
The Archie Bunker for President Bracket
“Sleeping dogs bark the loudest.”
My pick: Look, if you’re in Bucket E, you’re probably not having the best season of your career (if you are, you should probably look for another career). Nevertheless, there are plenty of solid sticks here, and one of them is likely to be bark loudly this week. I suspect it could be Timmy Horton, who won on tour as recently as last year. He guided on the smallmouth-rich lakes of the Tennessee River and won an Elite event at Champlain, so big water smallmouth won’t fool him.
Wild card: Russ Lane is another Alabama angler who has gotten out of his groove, but he too is solid in the north country, as evidenced by back-to-back-to-back money finishes at the St. Lawrence, Champlain and Mille Lacs last year, the last of which was a sixth-place finish.