We’re at a natural break point in the Elite Series season, as the pros prepare to leave Dixie and head north to New York, Michigan and Minnesota. With six Elite derbies in the books, seasons and careers are at critical junctures. Most are trying to move up in the standings, others are secretly hoping to hang on to their positions, and past St. Lawrence winner Brandon Palaniuk remains blissfully unaware of where he sits.
And all of this likely depends on brown bass, a species that is simultaneously aggressive and fickle, here one day and gone the next, ready to make you a hero or a zero in the space of one eye-level jump.
There will be money won, dreams lost and many teeth gnashed, so go with pros who not only have smallmouth expertise, but are also able to retain their composure in the fact of seeming adversity.
BUCKET A: EVERS
For an angler raised in the Yoo-hoo-thick waters of Oklahoma, Evers is surprisingly adept in northern clear water smallmouth fisheries, with Elite wins at Erie in 2007 and here at the St. Lawrence in 2015. That 2015 victory was one of two in a row for him, and while he hasn’t won yet this year, he’s on a roll once again – he hasn’t missed a check since Okeechobee and hasn’t finished worse than 25th in the four tournaments after the Classic. In addition to the 2015 win, he finished 25th on the St. Lawrence in 2013, and I wouldn’t expect him to do any worse than that this time around.
If you’re looking for a bargain pick, go with Keith Combs. Many pundits, myself included, expected this schedule to give him an opportunity to dominate, but multiple curveballs have prevented him from turning a good season into a great one. He’s not recognized as a smallmouth master, but he was ninth here in 2015 and 23rd in 2013, so don’t let that reputation lead you astray.
BUCKET B: PIRCH
Just as you pick flippers at Okeechobee and swimbaiters at Clear Lake, when in dropshot country, put at least one superlative drop-shotter in your team. It’s tough not to pick northern hammers like Dave Lefebre and rookie Jamie Hartman this week, but Pirch – just outside the Classic bubble – needs to make a move in New York if he’s going to qualify for his fifth Bassmaster Classic in a row. He was fourth at the St. Lawrence in 2013 and 25th in 2015, and will no doubt be jiggling a Roboworm in current. Arizona is a long way from New York, but this is one waterway where the cultural divide seems narrow.
BUCKET C: KENNEDY
I got off of the Kennedy train after a disastrous Ross Barnett finish, and shortly thereafter saw him win at Dardanelle. In the past I’ve shied away from picking him precisely because of that up-and-down pattern, but this year there seems to be more up than down. I might once again shy away from him if past finishes on the St. Lawrence had been stinkers, but he’s been in the money both times – seventh in 2013 and 49th in 2015. Now, with one of the fastest and driest boats on the Elites instead of one of the slowest, he should be able to cover more water comfortably.
If you still fear Kennedy’s occasional dips, go with John Murray, another great drop-shotter who was 12th here in 2013 and 30th in 2015.
BUCKET D: SCHULTZ
Like Pirch’s home state of Arizona, Florida is a long way from New York, but somehow the lessons learned in one apply in the other. Bernie Schultz of Gainesville has long had a love affair with northern waters in general and New York’s fisheries in particular. For someone from a state with no smallmouths, he seems to have them pretty well pegged after over three decades of fishing professionally. After a tough start to the season, he had a solid finish at Dardanelle. He also finished 15th here in 2015 and
sixth in 2013. Don’t ask why, just pick him.
If you can’t bring yourself to pick Schultz, go with Justin Lucas who has earned two consecutive Elite checks after missing the money cut in the first four. He’s gone from 100th to 85th to 78th to 56th to 49th to 27th. If that upward momentum continues, he has an outside chance of making the Classic. At the very least, he’ll salvage his season, his pride and a few thousand bucks.
BUCKET E: SHIMIZU
In this upside-down season, there remains a good selection of quality anglers in Bucket E, which is usually a pretty bare cupboard. It’s tough not to pick Chris Zaldain, who was 17th here in 2015 and 16th in 2013. At the same time, I’m going to use this bucket as an opportunity to bet on a true low-percentage pick to make up some ground in the overall standings and to maintain my lead over Ronnie Moore. Morizo Shimizu is currently in 104th overall in the AOY race. He squeaked into the check line at Dardanelle, but otherwise hasn’t finished better than 83rd in any Elite event this year. If he’s going to make a break for it, I want him to pull me up with him, and based on his twin 24th-place finishes here in 2013 and 2015, this is my “gut feeling pick.” He may not land Big Mama, but I’m betting that he’ll easily land $10,000, if not more.