Fantasy Fishing: Pick grinders and tidal rats at Winyah Bay

Straight on the heels of Brandon Cobb’s wire-to-wire win at Hartwell, the Elite Series pros need to pick up and head to the coast – not for a beach vacation but rather to make the Bassmaster Elite Series' second visit to Winyah Bay. Last time out it was stingy and tricky, and required less than 12 pounds a day to make it to Sunday. There’s no reason to believe that this time around will be any different.

The wild card here is not so much the low weights, but rather the extensive playing field. It’s possible to make long runs to get away from it all only to find that it won’t produce or that someone else is on your spot. That’s what happened in 2016 when Day 1 leader Carl Jocumsen arrived at his best spot on Day 2 and found Boyd Duckett there. Regardless of who was right or wrong in that situation, it showed that making the long run is always a gamble.

At the same time, it opened the door for perpetual journeyman Britt Myers to make an equally long run and then claim the lead. He went on to earn his first Elite Series win.

Although several current Elites – including Keith Combs, Chris Zaldain, Mark Menendez, David Mullins, Matt Herren, Johns Crews and Hank Cherry – finished in the top 30 in 2016, one tournament is not a large enough sample size to make any meaningful assessments of their Winyah Bay mastery. I’m not saying don’t pick them, but if you do, do it for the right reasons.

I’m blending a mix of history, momentum and tidal river experience to make my picks this week, and I’m also trying to find anglers who won’t be freaked out if they don’t have anything in the livewell at noon on Day 1.

Here are my choices:

BUCKET A: ZALDAIN

Go With: Chris Zaldain finished 10th here in 2016, he’s a tidal-water expert dating back to his California upbringing and he’s notched three good finishes (plus a top 12 at the Classic) to start the season. He might not be throwing the big Megabass MagDraft that has carried him for much of the ride so far, but he can flip and finesse fish with the best of them. He also wants to show that the old guard can still claim the AOY title.

Or Possibly: Patrick Walters lives only an hour or so southeast of Georgetown, S.C., but since I don’t know if he’s ever fished Winyah Bay that’s not why I’m picking him. Rather, it’s the fact that he’s been rock solid to start the year, with two Sunday appearances and no finish worst than 22nd. He’s not yet 25, but if the footage from Palatka is illustrative he’s wise, talented and unflappable beyond his years.

BUCKET B: LOWEN

Go With: The consummate river rat, Bill Lowen is at his best when fishing is toughest, and we can expect Winyah to be tough for much of the field. He was 34th here in 2016, and his 2019 finishes have gradually been getting better, from 47th to 23rd to seventh. He might plow a balsa squarebill through cover or flip some secluded backwater, but he’s exceptional at both getting away from the crowd and also at catching more than everyone else when forced to fish in a crowd.

Or Possibly: John Crews has plenty of tidal-water experience and finished a solid 23rd at Winyah in 2016. Like Lowen, he’s a great shallow cranker and a solid flipper, and won’t get spun out if he doesn’t have much in the livewell by midday.

BUCKET C: GUSTAFSON

Go With: I don’t really know why I’m picking Jeff Gustafson. At this point in the season it just seems foolish not to pick one of the Canadians, and while the Johnstons have clearly made their mark, I have a feeling we haven’t even approached Gussy’s ceiling yet.

Or Possibly: If that’s not reason enough, go with Hunter Shryock, for the same reasons. He’s an Ohio angler used to grinding out fish, and he is ready to step out of his brother’s shadow as a tournament angler.

BUCKET D: DIPALMA

Go With: Greg DiPalma has ample experience on tidal waters including the Upper Chesapeake and the Potomac, and he has multiple high finishes in B.A.S.S. competition on Virginia’s James River. His Elite season is going in the wrong direction – from 16th to 47th to 65th – and he needs to right the ship early in the season before it spirals out of control.

Or Possibly: Ed Loughran started guiding on the Potomac in his teens and has more experience than his “rookie” status would suggest. He fished the All-American before many of this year’s rookies were born and then took an extended break before rejoining the pro bass fishing world. He’s been solid but unexceptional so far and needs some tidal water home cooking to provide a breakout moment.

BUCKET E: MORRIS

Go With: Rick Morris is another tidal water expert, who like Loughran has been “running the tide” since before many members of the Elite Series field were born. Since rejoining the Elites last year he has not consistently lived up to his experience level, and Hartwell was another disappointment. If he’s going to show some of these kids how to do it old-school style, this would be a good place to start.

Or Possibly: Another grinder is Chris Groh, who developed his chops on the highly-pressured Fox Chain in Illinois. After a tough start to the season he earned a personal-best 15th place Elite Series finish at Hartwell. Five bites a day is the norm many times at home, so like Lowen he knows how to make a lot out of a little.