Fantasy: We're only at midterms, not finals

PARIS, Tenn. — All over the country, it is the magic time of year known as graduation season, with students both brilliant and “just present” donning gowns and mortarboards to accept a piece of paper attesting to their achievements over the past four years. They’ll sit in folding chairs on a lawn, or in a stuffy auditorium, and listen to successful members of society regale them with parables and exhortations to “put your own stamp on the world.”

These events have a ring of finality about them, but the joke’s on you graduates. The scam is that with each additional rung you climb up the ladder, the subsequent demands get tougher. No matter what you achieved in the classroom, at the school newspaper or on the playing fields, you will continue to get slapped in the face and then taunted by the real world. It all starts over tomorrow.

The same holds true for the Elite Series. While some anglers made major moves up or down on the recently-completed West Coast swing and others just held their places in line, the season is hardly over. They’ve graduated to the second half of the season, but all that guarantees is another four events and a big gas bill. They have the piece of paper, but the story of their seasons remains a big question mark. Mathematically, a lot is still possible.

Each of the 112 anglers in the field has a role to play. Dean Rojas, a veteran champion who has never claimed a Classic title or AOY trophy, sits in first. He’s like the class valedictorian who hitchhiked away from campus after his last final with uncertain plans. When you catch up with him again down the road, he’ll either have cured cancer or else moved to a Wisconsin commune to raise organic ginseng. In other words, after four more tournaments he could be the AOY or he could be off the grid, depending on the choices he makes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Randall Tharp, currently in unfamiliar territory in 88th place overall. He’s the friend who arrived freshman year never having tasted failure, only to get an unexpected smackdown and the first B’s and C’s of his life. Now he has to claw his way back to Phi Beta Kappa, also known as the Bassmaster Classic.

We don’t have time to go through every angler’s likely “career path” (I can’t figure out who is the Sen. Blutarsky in this bunch), so I’m going to combine my Kentucky Lake BASSfest picks with a little bit of book learnin’. It’ll just be the Cliff’s Notes version, though, enough to help you fake it through any cocktail party conversation.

That’s how I roll, a two-for-one column, kind of like the time you studied for your Econ final while also defending your beer pong title … but ideally with better results.

OK, onto Kentucky Lake:

Bucket A

Almost picked: Jeff Kriet (via The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Jeff Kriet is one of the best offshore structure fishermen around, yet few recognize him as such because he’s defined publically by his easygoing demeanor and the famous “waterskiing squirrel” story. Someday he’ll realize how good he is and reel off two or three wins in a row, and Kentucky Lake would be a great place to start that because he has two Top 12 Elite Series finishes there. Until that breakthrough, he’ll continue to be haunted by this next guy, KVD.

My pick: KVD (via The Art of War by Sun Tzu)

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

Have you ever seen one of those videos where an angler fights a big marlin or tuna or shark for what seems like hours, only to realize that “He doesn’t know he’s hooked”? I kind of feel like that’s how Kevin VanDam is right now. Sure, he’s aware that something went horribly wrong last year, and the suspicion among part of the public is that he’s no longer in control of his own destiny, but based on my interactions with him, I can assure you that just cashing a check or making a Top 12 will not make him happy.

He wants to win. He needs to win.

Kentucky Lake, where he’s never finished lower than third in four Elite Series attempts, is a good place for that to happen. Normally I’d shy away from him, but with fan favorites like Dean Rojas, Justin Lucas, Skeet Reese, Aaron Martens and Mike Iaconelli in his bucket, I don’t expect him to garner his normally ultra-high ownership percentage.

Bucket B

Almost picked: Mark Davis (via Walden by Henry David Thoreau)

“I went to the wood because I wished to live deliberately …”

I wanted to pick Mark Davis, long considered one of the world’s best postspawn anglers, the world’s most patient angler, and someone due for a big finish, but two factors prevented me from doing so.

First, his Elite Series finishes on Kentucky Lake have been lackluster — 83rd in 2008, 54th in 2009 and 66th in 2010. Second, last year he was in the AOY driver’s seat for the first half of the year only to have trouble in the second half, particularly at Chickamauga and Dardanelle, where he should have excelled.

My pick: Kelly Jordon (via Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens)

“Please, sir, I want some more.”

Hey, it’s the angler formerly known as KJ, the one who made nine Classics between 2001 and 2011 but hasn’t made one since. Don’t look now, but he’s back on track with three money finishes in four events this year, including some early round heroics at Guntersville and Havasu. At 31st in the AOY race, now’s the time for him to make a move at a familiar stomping ground, Kentucky Lake, where he finished 11th, 15th, eighth and seventh in four prior Elite attempts. It’s also where he let the cat out of the bag about the big flutter spoon. He should be able to continue his roll, and if he can tally a few of the monsters he’s known for, he might make a charge at a win.

Bucket C

Almost picked: Russ Lane (via The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner)

A man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired but then time is your misfortune.”

Some Lane is going to do well at Kentucky Lake. Bobby won here in 2009, fishing an uncharacteristic swimbait. Since then, brother Chris has built a tremendous series of victories across the country. Now it’s time for the third Lane — the one who’s not related — to experience a breakthrough. Russ Lane constantly seems to be on the verge of stardom but can’t quite leap to that next level. Except for a miserable event in 2008, he has finished 32nd, third and 15th in Elite Series competition on Kentucky Lake.

My pick: Mark Menendez (via A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway)

“The world breaks everyone and afterward a few are made strong at the broken places.”

We had two sentimental favorites win out West, both Westerners who moved east to Alabama and then claimed trophies near their home turf in front of friends and family. Can we make it three “Rudy”-grade stories in a row with Kentucky native Mark Menendez? Coming off personal health issues and then, more significantly, the loss of his wife, if he were to win on his home lake with his kids onstage to help him claim the trophy, there might not be a dry eye in the house.

Bucket D

Almost picked: Randall Tharp (via Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck)

“What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?”

Randall Tharp has made at least one championship every year since 2010, with both a Classic and a Forrest Wood Cup appearance in 2011 and 2014. I doubt he was taking them for granted, but after the disastrous start to his 2015 season, he had to be wondering if this would be his first year to fish neither one. A check at Havasu helped his chances, and he’s not mathematically eliminated, but he can’t make many mistakes from here on out to have a shot.

My pick: Steve Kennedy (via The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger)

“It’s really too bad that so much crumby stuff is a lot of fun sometimes.”

Man, I love picking Kennedy. Man, I hate picking Kennedy.

His finishes are all over the map, but he’s one of the handful of anglers who also has a chance to win every time out. It’s that darn swimbait — so fun for him to throw, and likely to catch bigger-than-average fish, but also the producer of a fair number of strikeouts. I’d hate to miss a bunch of points because I didn’t take a chance on him, so I’m holding my nose and making the pick. He’s won here before in 2003 in an FLW Tour event.

Bucket E

Almost picked: Rick Clunn (via Moby Dick by Herman Melville)

“Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Clearly Rick Clunn has substantial experience on Kentucky Lake, and no one is better at blocking out the hoopla of a big event than the first pro angler to seriously explore the mental side of fishing. It would be a wonderful swan song to an incredible career to earn one more win, but except for Falcon in 2013 (second) and Dardanelle last year (fourth), he hasn’t been close in a while. Is it declining physical abilities, diminished desire or something else?

My pick: Matt Reed (via Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

“To thine own self be true.”

At a super low ownership percentage, if Matt Reed does well he’ll provide serious bang for the buck. He’s an excellent structure fisherman with four money finishes in four Elite Series tournaments at Kentucky Lake, finishing 30th, 17th, 39th and 40th. With all of his time of late on Falcon and Fork, he knows about fishing for big’uns and he can deal with crowds. C’mon Matt, make me look like a genius.

Sorry, Ish. Melville never wrote “Call me Ishama.”

Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.