This week the Elite Series will visit one of its most favored stomping grounds, massive Kentucky Lake. The tour has visited five times previously – in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 and for BASSfest in 2015 – so it should be easy to look back at past results and pick a winner, right?
All of those prior events have occurred in June, with most if not all of the leaders fishing far offshore on the lake’s famous ledges.
This time around we’re at the beginning of May, and after a drawn-out winter things might even be a little bit behind schedule. I’m not saying you can rule out past winners like KVD and Edwin Evers – you never can – but rather that you’re going to have to assess whether a particular thoroughbred is as adept with a flipping stick as he is with a 10XD.
Look for anglers with solid histories on the TVA chain, focusing in specifically on those who can pattern a bite with a flipping stick, a vibrating jig, or even a topwater. The big bass could be in the bushes, chasing a shad spawn, or even gorging on big gizzards, so key on the “tweeners,” anglers who have a demonstrated history of finding fish that have left the beds but not yet made it out to their summertime haunts.
BUCKET A: HITE
My Pick: Brett Hite
With some flooded bushes remaining, fish guarding fry or making late beds, this event screams “Chatterbait” and there’s no one more likely to glue the vibrating jig rod into his hand than Hite. He was third here in 2015, his only shot at this venue with B.A.S.S., but he’s no stranger to its landscape, having fished it multiple times with other circuits. After starting the season with two finishes in the top 16, he’s got momentum on his side and an expectation of getting back to the Classic after his first miss since 2014.
Alternate: Aaron Martens
Like Hite, Aaron is fishing well so far this season, with 34th- and 23rd-place finishes in Elite events, plus a ninth at Hartwell in the Classic. No one will be surprised less than me if he wins an event this year, or cashes in on another AOY trophy.
BUCKET B: DEFOE
My Pick: Ott DeFoe
So far Ott is having a mixed season, with quality finishes at Martin and Hartwell, then a stinker at Grand, a place where he’s done well before. While I don’t think an angler can will himself to succeed on the strength of want-to alone, you know that he’s going to do everything in his power to get to the 2019 Classic in his hometown of Knoxville. In the 2015 BASSfest he finished 17th, and like Hite he’s been here many times before.
Alternate: Kevin VanDam
He’s the best who’s ever fished, coming in strong with the momentum of a victory, headed to a lake where he’s earned two prior wins, and he never seems to be out of the hunt. He’ll be an ultra-high percentage pick, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
BUCKET C: WHEELER
My Pick: Jacob Wheeler
After a stumble on Lake Martin, Wheeler seems to be back on track with a seventh at Hartwell and a 14th at Grand. He rarely slips up, so don’t expect another dud, especially on the Tennessee River at a time when anglers may have to mix it up to come out on top. He may find some late bedders, or he might fling a toad-enhanced buzzbait for four days. He earned seventh, eighth and 42nd place finishes on Kentucky Lake with FLW, and won the 2014 BASSfest at Chickamauga in June.
Alternate: Mike Iaconelli
The ultimate junk fisherman may be out of the Classic hunt with an 81st-place finish at Grand and a likely goose egg due to absence at the Sabine, but you can never count him out of any single event. His Kentucky Lake results range from 14th to 99th, and everywhere in between, but this is a time of year that suits his open-minded approach much better.
BUCKET D: HERREN
My Pick: Matt Herren
Stick a jig in his hand and let him go to work on the flooded bushes. He’s had a poor start to his Elite Series season. He’s topped out at eighth place in B.A.S.S. competition on Kentucky Lake, but this one is much more in his zone. He’ll get his season back on track.
Alternate: Steve Kennedy
I have a long history of picking Kennedy, and sometimes it has paid off and sometimes it has burned me. He might whiff, but the potent mix of his big swimming jig, a Senko and the discontinued swimbait might be the ticket to piece something together. He won an FLW at Kentucky Lake in May of 2003, out of a 15-year-old boat, fishing offshore in “oddball places” that few others plied. No one doubts that he could do it again.
BUCKET E: COMBS
My Pick: Keith Combs
The season is still early, but after two missed checks in two events, Combs is in real danger of experiencing what KVD, Randall Tharp and Bill Lowen, among others have suffered through in recent years – missing a championship for the first time in their career. Fortunately for Combs, the season is approaching the stage where he usually excels. He’d probably rather that the fish be completely offshore, and he’s been known to try to force that bite relentlessly, but like Herren he’s in make-or-break territory and his track record says that he’s put in the time to turn things around. Also, he’s a bargain in Bucket E.
Alternate: Kelly Jordon
If there’s a meaningful number of fish still bedding, expect KJ to capitalize on them. He bombed here in 2015, but in four Elite events before that he was in the top 15 every time.