How do you compete with an event like the one we just witnessed at the St. Johns River?
You don’t — especially if you’re trying to promote a tour that’s a true test of the best — so rather than heading to another shallow, weed-choked largemouth fishery, the Elites are headed to Lake Lanier.
The suburban Atlanta impoundment may not produce the 98-pound winning weight that Rick Clunn brought to the scales in Florida, but don’t assume it’ll be a low-weight affair. Last March former Elite pro Bradley Hallman won an FLW Tour event on Lanier with 20 bass for 68 pounds, 4 ounces. That catch included a remarkable 23 pound, 11 ounce catch on day one, all spots, all cookie cutters within a half-pound or so either way of 5 pounds.
They live there.
And this one’s going to be a month earlier, when they might be even fatter and more grouped up.
That’s not to say there aren’t largemouth in Lanier. The big fish of the event may very well be one of them, and a Bill Lowen type could find a wad of them up the river, but in all likelihood spots will be the dominant travelers to weigh-in. With that in mind, pick anglers who excel at using their electronics.
Furthermore, look for pros who thrive at the intersection of momentum and experience. Anglers who made it to Sunday in Palatka had a brutal turnaround time, and even those who tapped out after Saturday didn’t have much opportunity to switch out the tackle. Most of them had to go wholesale from 65-pound braid to 8-pound fluoro, so if they’re basking in their success or bemoaning their troubles, that doesn’t give much time for getting right back in the game.
Here are my picks:
BUCKET A: PIRCH
My Pick: Clifford Pirch may be the most underappreciated pro on tour right now, with his sixth straight Classic coming up, and fresh off a seventh-place finish in Palatka. He’s a hammer in smallmouth country (e.g., his third-place finish at Oahe last year) and has plenty of experience chasing those fickle little spots, both on the Elites and in his previous incarnation as an FLW Tour pro. If he can notch another Day 4 appearance, he may shed his Clark Kent alter ego on a race to AOY.
Close Second: Kelley Jaye got the bad-start monkey off his back with an 11th-place finish, and now he’s headed to a lake that is very similar to his home waters of Lake Martin. If there’s a solid jerkbait bite, look for him to be near the top of the leaderboard.
BUCKET B: COBB
My Pick: Brandon Cobb may look like the kid your little brother trades baseball cards with, but the 29-year-old already has over $400,000 in winnings at FLW and started off strong on the Elite Series with a 20th-place finish. He finished 26th in last year’s FLW on Lanier, and previously cashed multiple checks on spotted bass lakes like Smith and Hartwell. With four top 10 Forrest Wood Cup finishes in four tries, there’s a chance that 20th may be as low as he goes this year.
Close Second: Seth Feider has broken out of the perception that he’s nothing more than a smallmouth stud, but most of that transformation has come in largemouth country. He’s on a roll of five straight checks in B.A.S.S. competition, as well as 10 of the last 11, 14 of the last 16, and 17 of the last 20. He could miss the money, but don’t count on it.
BUCKET C: ZALDAIN
My Pick: Chris Zaldain was 20th in the AOY standings last year, but his quiet success got him eclipsed by other pros who demand more attention. He’s a great flipper, loves to swimbait, and is fearless with finesse. Lanier likely has a lot of similarities with the spotted bass factories in northern California, and he’ll need some Top 10s if he’s going to make a run at his first AOY title.
Close Second: After watching Rick Clunn hoist the trophy last week, wouldn’t it be some serious Marty McFly mind trickage to see Jay Yelas do the same this time around? He’s been inconsistent in recent years, but maybe this is the fresh start he needs. He’s fished Lanier with FLW and had numerous top finishes there with B.A.S.S. back in the Bob Cobb days.
BUCKET D: KENNEDY
My Pick: I’m falling into my old trap/habit of betting on Steve Kennedy, who is often a hero-or-zero proposition. I just envision him finding a mega-school of spots, catching a solid limit, and then either swimbaiting up a giant or driving his boat far up the river for a key largemouth bite. He’s spent plenty of time on Lanier over the years, including his years fishing the Bulldog BFL division, and also competed in the 2010 Forrest Wood Cup. If you’re going to gamble on him, this is the time to do so.
Close Second: Matt Herren has plenty of experience on lakes with spotzillas, and he’s particularly good at managing his time on dual-species fisheries. Look for two jigs on his deck – one to finesse deep-water spots and another for jacking big green bass.
BUCKET E: GUSTAFSON
My Pick: As the Johnston brothers made their presence known on the St. Johns, Jeff Gustafson (aka, “Gussy”) faded a bit into the background, but if you don’t respect his abilities you’re going to get burned. While there are no spots in Canada, he has plenty of experience with them stateside. He finished fourth in a 2016 FLW on Hartwell and seventh in last year’s event on Lanier. He’s going to make the Classic, and to do so he’ll have to turn this season around in a hurry.
Close Second: After announcing his entrance with a bang at the 2014 Classic, Paul Mueller has been a quiet presence on the Elite Series. He’s had some moments of glory – at waters as diverse as Toledo Bend and Cherokee – but never forget that his true expertise is the combination of electronic and finesse. This is a good opportunity for him to make another splash.