LA CROSSE, Wis. — Planning to load your Mississippi River Rumble Fantasy Fishing roster this week with the froggers and Floridians who finished high here last year? Forget about it.
As they say in mutual fund commercials, past performance does not guarantee future results. And this year’s tournament could look significantly different than last season’s here, as the river is a different beast this time ‘round.
Last year, shallow grass on flats adjacent to current produced tournament-leading bags of largemouth. But smallmouth were few and far between, thanks to high muddy water from torrential upriver rain just prior to the first day. This season, however, main river bluffs, riprap, wing dams, bridge pilings and cuts could yield big, game-changing smallmouth.
River smallies follow different rules than Southern reservoir and Great Lakes smallmouth. You’ll want to pick at least two anglers who know their way around wing dams and closing dams.
An early spring last year led to early and prodigious weed growth in the Mighty Mississippi’s backwaters. The result was expansive grass mats that made Floridians and froggers right at home. Todd Faircloth, who won in 2012, and most of the other top finishers built their bags largely on a frog bite.
Because of this season’s late spring, however, frogs will likely take a back seat to swim jigs, swimbaits, shallow crankbaits and spinnerbaits.
Bucket A – Martens, VanDam, Crews
Aarons Martens (8.1 percent ownership) almost won here last season doing something no one else was doing. That largemouth tactic — which Martens kept on the down-low last season — could be effective again this season on both green and brown bass. I suspect the winning bags will go 3-2, smallies to largemouth, and I like Martens' chances at finding a unique way to upgrade from the prevalent cookie-cutter 3-pounders to bigger, tournament-winning fish.
Your safe pick is KVD, who actually has a better track record in summer river tournaments than some conventional-wisdom River Rats. But at 33.6 percent ownership, picking KVD won’t give you much of a surge in the Fantasy Fishing standings, because everybody and his dog is also picking him.
The Bucket A dark-horse is John Crews (0.7 percent). That’s mostly a gut feeling, but I like the way his arsenal of confidence baits and tactics lines up with the conditions forecast for next week and the patterns that will likely result.
Bucket B – Vinson, VanDam, Murray
A perfect storm of conditions and factors could result in Greg Vinson finally getting the W he’s flirted with all year. Vinson knows rivers. Vinson knows spotted bass. And although there’s no spotted bass in the Mississippi, river smallmouth act more like spots than they do reservoir and Great Lakes smallies. If the smallies are acting like spots this week and Vinson can catch ’em with his home-water confidence tactics, he’s a threat to win.
With guys like Brent Chapman, Greg Hackney and Cliff Pace in this bucket, it’s hard not to pick them. But my Spidey sense is telling me that the obvious-choice guys are going to get stuck on a glut of 3- and 3 1/2-pounders, and someone doing something a little different will land the 4- and 5-pounders needed to fish on Sunday.
That’s why I’d consider Jonathon VanDam (13.9 percent) or John Murray (0.4 percent). I like JVD whenever smallies will be a factor. I like Murray on any river. Because Murray’s from the West, people forget or overlook that he makes a lot of Top 20s on rivers throughout the United States.
Bucket C – DeFoe, Hite, Tietje
Having seen first-hand last week in a media event how shallow-dwelling smallmouth in stained water absolutely destroy Rapala’s new Scatter Rap baits, I’m convinced that at least one Rapala pro will be fishing on Sunday this week.
Ott DeFoe (9.3 percent), who has said he’s a river rat at heart, seems the best bet in the Rapala pro lineup, which also includes Brandon Palaniuk (Bucket E, 46.8 percent), Mike Iaconelli (24.2 percent) and Davy Hite (1.2 percent). The latter two are also in this bucket. Between this writing and when rosters lock Thursday morning before takeoff, however, I might just audible to Hite, with visions of swimbaits and Scatter Raps dancing in my head.
Dark horse: Dennis Tietje (0.5 percent). Tietje was a guest media advisor last year. Was he privy to all the other pros’ secret spots? Can he do north of the Mason Dixon line what he did on his home waters in the Sabine River tournament? If the answers are yes, you’ll gain a lot of ground against the field if you pick him.
Bucket D – Omori
I like Takahiro Omori (11.9 percent) this week in Bucket D. Although not a conventional-wisdom river rat, Omori has multiple Top 20 finishes in river tournaments.
Bucket E – Pipkens, Short
I like rookie Chad Pipkens (3.7 percent) of Holt, Mich., this week in Bucket E. A Northern river, the Detroit, has been Pipkens’ best playing field prior to making the Elite Series. He’s finished third there twice, plus fifth, ninth, 10th and 14th. He should feel right at home on the Mississippi.
Kevin Short (9.9 percent) is perhaps a safer bet in Bucket E, however, considering he won an Elite Series event a few pools south on the Mississippi River in 2009. On the other hand, he placed a disappointing 45th last year here.
Be sure to set your team before the pros launch on Thursday!