The Top 50 anglers in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race have made it. They outlasted the rest of the field and are prepared to compete on Lake Chatuge. The North Carolina and Georgia fishery has a little bit of history with Bassmaster events, as it hosted the 2013 and 2014 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship. That means the field has some game tape to watch in preparation.
Normally, the AOY Championship has featured a heavy dose of smallmouth dating back to the 2014 season when it changed to a Top 50 shootout: Michigan’s Bays de Nac, Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, two helpings of Minnesota’s famed Mille Lacs. And now we get a shakeup with a southern spotted bass/largemouth combo.
I’ll have a couple things in mind this week as I select my team: Those who excel with really small baits, and also those who utilize really big baits. Both might produce big results on this fishery.
BUCKET A: PALANIUK
My pick: Brandon Palaniuk
This fishery just seems like a Brandon Palaniuk special. Chatuge features deep brush, clear water, finesse techniques but also plenty of power fishing. Palaniuk has two Top 12s this year and both were seventh-place finishes, I feel like he could end the year on a high note with his best finish of the year. Electronics will be key and he’s one of the best at utilizing his underwater eyes.
Dark horse: Dean Rojas
With only 1 percent of Fantasy Fishing players selecting him in Bucket A, that classifies Rojas as a dark horse in my book. The self-proclaimed frog king should be able to mix in his best buddy Kermit along with other techniques that suit his Arizona, West Coast style.
BUCKET B: HITE
My pick: Brett Hite
After a tough 2017 season, he has bounced back tremendously during his 2018 campaign. Some of the same reasons I chose Palaniuk are reasons to love Brett Hite in Bucket B. His electronics skills are top notch, and he can catch an entire school of fish with the best of them. The spotted bass are on notice as Hite is headed their way.
Dark horse: Casey Ashley
This isn’t a fishery that Casey Ashley has much, if any, experience on. It’s tucked in the mountains of North Carolina and Georgia, just a couple hours from his stomping grounds, but it should produce very similar to Lake Hartwell. This fishery does have blueback herring in it and that has helped increase the size of the spotted bass willing to chase the pelagic specimen. Ashley knows the ins and outs of bass habits when herring are around, and he should be a contender at Chatuge.
BUCKET C: WIGGINS
My pick: Jesse Wiggins
His nickname may be “Crank” back home, but Jesse Wiggins loves throwing a shaky head. It’s a deadly lure for getting bites, and it’s something he relies upon a lot at Smith Lake — where he calls home. With brush piles, docks and spotted bass Wiggins may believe he’s a little closer to home than he really is.
Dark horse: Chris Zaldain
I said earlier that big baits could find a place on the front decks at this event, and Chris Zaldain is very accomplished at heaving big swimbaits, topwaters and the like. But don’t overlook his proven prowess with a dropshot and other finesse presentations that will likely play a roll this week.
BUCKET D: WHITAKER
My pick: Jake Whitaker
No one in the field has the experience on Chatuge that Whitaker does. He is the lone North Carolina angler in the field that does, and he’s also is the 2014 College National Champion, which was won on Chatuge. Jordan Lee also has college experience on this fishery, but Whitaker’s goes back even farther than competitive tournament fishing. There may be a lot of pressure on him to do well, but he will be motivated. He trails Roy Hawk by 4 points in the Rookie of the Year race, and he sits 32nd in points. That means catching them well enough to earn a berth to the Bassmaster Classic is the top priority.
Dark horse: Bill Lowen
Lowen may take advantage of his shallow-water excellence and go shallower than everyone else in the field. Chatuge is a reservoir, but there are plenty of creeks and pockets to fish. The fishery may look small on paper, but it fishes bigger than its acreage might imply. Obviously, the Elite Series anglers will find a lot of places to catch bass, and some of the same spots over three days of practice and tournament days, but you can certainly escape the crowd at Chatuge.
BUCKET E: COMBS
My pick: Keith Combs
There are plenty of great options in Bucket E, but a couple have very high ownership percentages. It doesn’t diminish their value, but for Fantasy Fishing players who need a solid final event picking anglers with lower percentage ownership could help in climbing the Fantasy standings. Combs is a great offshore angler and may bring a Texas style of fishing to the highland impoundment. He made a great jump in the points after a Top 12 at the St. Lawrence River, and he’s on the upswing going into the AOY Championship.
Dark horse: Jason Christie
There should be plenty of topwater fishing, dock fishing and power fishing mixed in at Chatuge, which means Jason Christie could shine. Fans often classify him as a shallow, dirty water angler. Yet he has wins at Bull Shoals and St. Clair on his resume. He certainly excels at dirty water, but Chatuge certainly fits his style.