Fantasy: How will the West be won?

I had the right Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing strategy last week at the Delta but didn’t implement it properly. As you may recall, I predicted that the Delta’s vast size, limited fishing time and tidal influence would favor Westerners and river rats.

My mistake was that I picked the wrong Westerners — Skeet Reese did OK, while Jared Lintner and Brett Hite disappointed. Meanwhile, Justin Lucas, Aaron Martens, Dean Rojas, Ish Monroe and Chris Zaldain locked the door on their Top 5 Westerners-only clubhouse, keeping me out.

Of my two river rat picks, Greg Hackney did well while Stephen Browning struggled. The result for me was lackluster at best.

You might not be able to guess it from all of the picks below, but I don’t think that being a Westerner, by itself, confers much of an advantage this time around. There’s no tide to consider, and compared to the Delta’s hundreds of miles of sloughs and canals, Havasu is basically a fishbowl. Even though it’s a desert lake, it’s just a lake, and at less than 20,000 acres, no grain of lake bottom sand will go unexplored by the field during the truncated practice period.

In order to turn my season around, I need to find some value picks among the field. Accordingly, I’m going to categorically exclude any angler who has the highest percentage of ownership in his bucket. That means betting against several pre-tournament favorites.

Instead, I’m going to try to make selections based on value, pros with low ownership percentages combined with high probabilities of doing well. While past experience on Havasu will factor into my thinking, you have to remember that this is a vastly changed lake from the previous times that B.A.S.S. has visited. In 1989, 1998 and 2003, it took between 22-10 and 23-13 to WIN over three days. I have a feeling that it’s going to take about that much to make the 50 cut after two days.

With the addition of a healthy smallmouth population, the field should be able to spread out a little, and the addition of a big bite or two each day will be huge. While finesse may play a role, it won’t be just a weenie worm fiesta.

With “value investing” as my mantra, here are my picks:

Bucket A

Popular Pick: Dean Rojas

Tempted to Pick: Aaron Martens

My Pick: Clifford Pirch

The reason for the Rojas swoon is obvious — when in the past has an angler leading the AOY race come to fish a tournament on his home lake? He’s fishing out of his mind right now, but it doesn’t follow my strategy to pick him. The only situation I could see doing that is if he were a lock for a Top 5, and with 43rd- and 20th-place finishes in B.A.S.S.’s Havasu events, I don’t see that.

If I thought it was going to be a grind ’em out game of small ball, Aaron Martens, currently seventh in AOY, would be my choice.

Nevertheless, I can’t pass on Clifford Pirch, who finished second here in 2003, is 10th in the AOY race, and has probably spent more time on the lake in recent years than the other two. At 5.6 percent ownership at the time of this writing, he’s a bargain. By noon on Day 1, I expect Pirch and his Marshal to be munching on elk jerky, telling stories, guarding his best spot.

Bucket B

Popular Pick: Brent Ehrler

Tempted to Pick: Ken Iyobe

My Pick: Todd Faircloth

Brent Ehrler seems to have righted his ship after a tough start to his Elite Series career, but at more than 45 percent, he’s out of my price range.

I love Ken Iyobe’s energy, but except for his burgeoning T-shirt collection, I don’t know much about him.

That leaves Faircloth, who started well at the Sabine but has been going in the wrong direction ever since. I don’t think he’s likely to miss three checks in a row, and he’s adaptable and versatile enough to either figure out something a little different, or else fish in a crowd and do it better than others.

Bucket C

Popular Pick: Brett Hite

Tempted to Pick: Gary Klein

My Pick: Ott DeFoe

At more than 60 percent ownership, fans are betting the farm on Brett Hite to come back. I’m sure he’s deadly close to home, but his tour wins have all come on shallow weedy impoundments.

I’d love to choose Gary Klein, who has spent substantial time on the desert lakes over his lengthy career and is currently a bargain, but I’m guessing that it’s Ott DeFoe’s time to make a charge up the leaderboard. Fifty third place in the AOY race is unfamiliar territory for the East Tennessee Terror. He’s good with smallmouth, good with spinning gear, and can mix together a variety of techniques if no one pattern prevails.

Bucket D

Popular Pick: Brandon Palaniuk

Tempted to Pick: John Murray

My Pick: Josh Bertrand

Brandon Palaniuk may be far down in the AOY standings, but the fans don’t seem to care. He’s not a decisive favorite in his bucket like Rojas or Hite, but he’s locked up a sizable percentage.

John Murray, who has probably spent more hours and won more money on desert lakes than anyone else in the field, is tempting, but he hasn’t challenged for a win in several years, and in fact has only made two Top 10s since 2008. This may be his time to reestablish his legacy, but I’m betting on Josh Bertrand, who has a lower ownership percentage and has probably spent more time on Havasu in recent years.

Bucket E

Popular Pick: Casey Ashley

Tempted to Pick: Rick Clunn

My Pick: Kevin Hawk

It’s not often that you find the Classic winner mired in Bucket E, but Casey Ashley has struggled since winning at Hartwell, earning a low check at the Sabine, then finishing no better than 92nd in three subsequent tournaments (two Elites plus an Open). He could very well break out again, but he’s not a value pick.

I’d love to see former U.S. Open winner Rick Clunn show that he can still get the job done in the Southwest, but at less than 5 percent ownership, drop shotter extraordinaire Kevin Hawk is a bargain. His buddy and neighbor Lucas got it done in Sacramento; now it’s time to double the Elite Series hardware on their Guntersville street.