The 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series regular season has ended, and the field is now down to just 50 anglers — but there is still work to be done by specific anglers. Mille Lacs will be a warzone with specific battles going on throughout the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship.
The AOY battle is down to three anglers with Brandon Palaniuk, Jason Christie and Jacob Wheeler within an achievable window. The Rookie of the Year race will be decided by two Top 10 anglers in Jamie Hartman and Dustin Connell. Meanwhile the fiercest battles will be fought at the Classic cut line. This battle features roughly 20 anglers either on the good or bad side of that line. They are also in the conversation for one extra battle this year. The Classic Bracket is reserved for the first eight anglers to miss the Classic cut line when Mille Lacs concludes. Incentive is still on the table as those eight pros will go head-to-head with one Classic spot up for grabs the week after Mille Lacs.
I’m picking motivated anglers at Mille Lacs, those with skin in the game and money on the mind.
BUCKET A: CONNELL
My pick: Dustin Connell
It may be unorthodox to choose a rookie from Alabama that has never fished Mille Lacs before, but hang with me here. Connell is a special angler, and seems to be one that will last for a long time. He’s had his ups and downs this year, but he often creates a solid and above average finish out of a couple bites. At Mille Lacs he will have fun and he excels when he’s smiling and having a good time. Plus, he wants the ROY title badly. He only trails Jamie Hartman by 23 points.
Watch for: Brandon Palaniuk
BP is trying to make history at Mille Lacs. An AOY title is up for grabs and he has a lead going into the final three days of the season. Jason Christie took some points back in the AOY race at St. Clair, but if Palaniuk can replicate his finish from 2016 at Mille Lacs (11th) he will seal the deal and take home the AOY title.
BUCKET B: SWINDLE
My pick: Gerald Swindle
Demons. They often haunt anglers. Some are afraid to compete on fisheries that are out of their comfort zone and challenge their every thought and decision. Last year Swindle took one to the chin at Mille Lacs, but it all worked out as he still took the 2016 AOY title back to Guntersville, Ala. This year he is sitting in 14th, well within the Classic cut, and comfortably in the Top 20 (31 pts ahead of 20th). This means he can exorcise his demons and enjoy catching big smallmouth, pressure-free at Mille Lacs.
Watch for: Seth Feider
Winning at home is hard to do against this group of anglers. Feider swung his hammer last year and connected big time with a win on his home lake, and he did so in style with 26-2 on the final day of the season. This year he is in the Classic and has the chance to go back-to-back at his home lake. It’s hard to bet against him, and it has to be on a hidden checklist in Feider’s soul to win in his backyard once more.
BUCKET C: WALKER
My pick: David Walker
David Walker had a difficult 2016. His streak of Classics from 2012 to 2016 came to an end, and he was at the Expo in Houston instead of on the water. This year he bounced back and is 29th in points. He’s eight spots ahead of the unofficial cut line right now, but a solid finish will solidify his position and give him another Classic to look forward to come next March.
Watch for: Matt Lee
It’s been a fantastic 2017 for the two Lee brothers. Jordan won the Classic, and Matt has reeled in four Top 12s in the last seven events — he’s inside the Classic cut by a decent margin. He’s already fished a Classic back in 2013, but to accomplish the feat of qualifying via Elite Series points will give the third-year Elite some good vibes and confidence for 2018.
BUCKET D: BERTRAND
My pick: Josh Bertrand
Momentum is a major player in bass fishing no matter who tries to disprove that. Josh Bertrand has made the Classic every other year since 2014. He missed the Conroe Classic this year, which means he should be in the big dance at Hartwell. One more smallmouth tournament stands in his way, and there is probably no other way he would want to end his year than with a spinning rod in his hand.
Watch for: Jesse Wiggins
He’s already in the 2018 Classic via an Opens win earlier this year, but this rookie would love to cap off his first year on the Elites with a points qualification too.
BUCKET E: AVENA
My pick: Adrian Avena
Adrian Avena was the last man to make the Top 50 and clinch his spot at the AOY Championship. At first there was probably celebration, and then when he looked at the points he realized there was an uphill battle to be fought. He is 44 points behind the current Classic cut, but he is in striking distance of a Classic Bracket slot. Gaining valuable points at Mille Lacs could give him a 1-in-8 shot at the Classic. So you’re saying there’s a chance? He’ll take that.
Watch for: Kelley Jaye
Kelley Jaye has had his best year on the Bassmaster Elite Series so far and is in contention for his first Classic. He needs one more great tournament to get it done. At minimum he is in prime position for a Classic Bracket slot, but if he can garner the mojo he had from his two Top 12’s this year he might be just fine after Mille Lacs concludes.