I’m not quite sure how to pronounce “Chatuge,” but I’m not going to let that deter me from carefully considering my picks for the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship. After all, I’m pretty sure that I can pronounce “St. Lawrence” and “Mississippi” and “Sabine” pretty well (“Oahe” presented a slight challenge) and it didn’t help my fantasy results one bit. Apparently, success is not measured by how you say it, but rather by who you’ve got on your team.
The 50 competitors who make it to this event are certainly not quite as confused as I am. In order to get to this point, they must be pretty dialed in and have had some success over the course of the year. Many of them are still fishing not only for a Classic berth or even a chance at the Classic bracket, but also for the financial rewards that come with each successive place in the standings.
It won’t be a cakewalk by any means. The lake is only about 7,500 acres, and there won’t be any secrets by the time the tournament starts. Furthermore, mid-September is often one of the toughest times to fish in the Mid-South, so while someone (or several someones) may get on something good, maintaining it for the duration of the event will be a greater than usual challenge – so look for anglers who excel at fishing in a crowd and making the most of a tough fishery.
Here are my steel-lock, ultra-easy-to-pronounce quintet of picks (along with five understudies):
BUCKET A: DEFOE
Logical pick: Ott DeFoe is currently in the no-man’s land known as fourth place in the AOY race, unable to claim the title, but unable to fall out of Classic contention, either. Nevertheless, a move of even one place up the leaderboard will pay him handsomely and a fall with cost him, so it’s not like he’s fishing for nothing. Chatuge is just a little over two hours due south of his home, and it seems like the type of situation that’ll suit him perfectly, with a mix of topwater, cranking and a variety of spinning rod techniques coming into play. He rarely pre-practices for an event, but he did for this one, and it just seems to be right in his wheelhouse.
Take a flier: Aaron Martens always seems to figure a little something out on tricky fisheries, and he was raised on the ultra-crowded waters of Southern California. Anyone crowding his best areas may get a “Hey bro!” to ward them off, but if fish are suspended or mobile he’ll have the proper bag of tricks to put a limit in the boat every day.
BUCKET B: WHEELER
Logical pick: Jacob Wheeler is another angler who can’t fall out of the Classic, but can’t move up terribly high, either. Normally I favor urgency, but in this case my first two picks are competitors who aren’t fishing for anything but some extra bank. He’s finished in the top seven in three of his last five Elite tournaments, and out of the money in the other two. One of those was a 103rd place finish at the Sabine, caused when he had to self-DQ one day. The good far outweighs the bad, and when he misses it’s usually not by much. Moreover, his Indiana roots taught him to fish in a crowd, so expect a bounce back from the near-miss at the St. Lawrence (55th).
Take a flier: By his normal standards, Casey Ashley seems to be having a tough year, but if you discount the 83rd in Waddington, he had four straight checks before that, including a second at Oahe and ninth in LaCrosse. He’s good with a spinning rod and like DeFoe he only lives about two hours away, so even if he’s not familiar with the particular lake, he’s comfortable with the type of lake.
BUCKET C: STRADER
Logical pick: Wesley Strader lives even closer than Ott or Ashley, and I have a feeling that this lake is going to fish like many of the East Tennessee impoundments where he excels. Don’t expect him to do anything off-the-wall, or tricky, just stick to fundamentals and put fish in his livewell every day. He’s pretty safely inside the Classic cut, but he’ll have to catch them to make sure.
Take a flier: Brent Ehrler is another superstar who has had an excellent season, but not a flashy one, with only one final-day appearance (Oahe). He struggled at the Sabine, but normally he excels in tough tournaments on clear water lakes. He’ll get his groove back in Georgia.
BUCKET D: EVERS
Logical pick: Edwin Evers is in the unfamiliar position of being one of the bubble boys for the 2019 Classic – currently 35th, only 15 points out of 30th, but also only 15 points out of 43rd. This tournament is critical to extending his streak of consecutive Classics to nine. He does so many things so well, and he’s good at handling pressure, that it’s hard to believe that he won’t embrace and conquer the challenge.
Take a flier: Based on the little I know of Chatuge, I don’t think it sets up completely perfectly for a river rat like Bill Lowen, but he’s surprised us before by finding his “own type” of water on lakes like Oneida and Clear Lake, places you might expect to be slightly out of his comfort zone. If anyone can find a spot to himself, he’s likely to be the one, and like Evers he’s teetering on the edge after missing the 2018 Classic, the first one he’s missed since 2010.
BUCKET E: CHRISTIE
Logical pick: Why Jason Christie? Why not? The guy seems to make every lake feel like his home water. Going to Hartwell? Reminds him of Grand Lake. Parking lot mud puddle? Reminds him of Grand just as much. Depending on how many double-qualifiers there are, he’s likely outside the Classic cut right now. While he’s nibbled around the edge of a Classic win multiple times now, you can’t threaten if you’re not in the derby. He hasn’t missed one since 2012. Don’t expect 2019 to break the streak.
Take a flier: Aaron and Ott may be great with spinning rods and electronics, but no one is better at putting that combination together when bumping rubrails in high pressure events than Shin Fukae. He may have to qualify for the Classic through the Classic Bracket event, but he’s far from out of it.