The unprecedented dual-lake, four-day event on Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes was a first for the Bassmaster Elite Series, and Randall Tharp overcame his Ozark troubles to take home his first Bassmaster Elite title.
I did not pick Tharp for my Fantasy team, but this week was my best regular-season event thus far. My top two buckets actually held my worst anglers of the week (Cherry and Lester), but they were within 10 spots or so of the cut so the damage was minimal.
The positive note was that Steve Kennedy was my risky pick of the week, and he finished in the Top 12. Jeff Kriet and Ott DeFoe showed that the first two events of the year wouldn’t define their seasons, and they both earned checks in Arkansas. So, I don’t look quite as dumb this time around!
The Elite Series performed a quick turnaround, as the anglers are in Decatur, Ala., for the second leg of this back-to-back swing on Wheeler Lake — a reservoir connected to the legendary Lake Guntersville.
With that being said, here are my picks for Wheeler.
BUCKET A: FAIRCLOTH
Safe bet: Justin Lucas, Randy Howell, Gerald Swindle, Steve Kennedy
With the quick turnaround from Bull Shoals/Norfork to Wheeler, any kind of history or familiarity with the northern Alabama lake can’t hurt. The four Alabama anglers in Bucket A offer several safe choices.
Worth a risk: Todd Faircloth
Unless Faircloth is fishing during Championship Sunday with a Bassmaster LIVE cameraman in his boat, you may forget that he is even fishing. He is quiet and runs under the radar most of the time, but he is having a solid season so far and you can expect that to continue. Wheeler has some shoreline grass that plays to the Texas angler’s strengths, especially if the water level is right.
Gut tells me: Faircloth
With finishes of 32nd, 56th and 14th so far this year he is sitting in 18th place in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. Faircloth will find them this week.
BUCKET B: B. HITE
Safe bet: Brett Hite
Anytime Brett Hite is on a fishery where there’s at least a little bit of grass, he will figure out a way to catch fish. He almost won Winyah Bay a couple weeks ago, and he has the kind of confidence to fish his strengths, regardless of what other anglers might be doing.
Worth a risk: Keith Combs
There are numerous guys in this bucket that are worth taking a risk on. In fact, this is probably the strongest bucket for Wheeler Lake. There are so many anglers with history on the lake, or those that just fish well during the early season tournaments. If anyone can find an offshore honey hole loaded with fish, my money would be on Combs.
Gut tells me: B. Hite
In all reality, Hite is just hard to beat on the Tennessee River. Whether it’s a full-fledged ledge-fishing tournament, or a shallow bite, he’s more than capable of finding the type of quality needed to win on Wheeler.
BUCKET C: J. LEE
Safe bet: Timmy Horton
Sleeping in his own bed this week, and considering Horton’s history on Tennessee River lakes are two solid reasons to make him your Bucket C choice. He did well the last time the Elite Series came to town, and although it was in June, the lake is ahead of schedule this year. The southeast had a pretty mild winter, so Wheeler is a couple weeks ahead, which could mean a surprisingly good, mid-range bite playing to Horton’s strengths.
Worth a risk: Jordan Lee
This has nothing to do with any kind of history that Jordan Lee may have with this fishery, but rather the presentations that could come into play this week. There are multiple baits that come to mind when shoreline grass and junk fishing are key components. All of this points to the younger Lee brother. Plus, he’s a little fired up after a dismal 82nd-place finish during last week’s Bull Shoals and Norfork event.
Gut tells me: J. Lee
If Jordan Lee finds a shallow pattern this week you better watch out. Two bad finishes in a row rarely happen with this guy.
BUCKET D: WILLIAMS
Safe bet: Lane brothers
Both Lanes have struggled this season, and that has to be one of the biggest surprises after three events. They head back to the southeast where they both have a history of strong finishes after the short trip to northern Arkansas, this could be the event when they both right the ship.
Worth a risk: David Williams
There are tournaments that set up perfectly for certain anglers, and I think Wheeler could be big for Willliams. The North Carolina angler has a knack for finding spots that aren’t cluttered with anglers, and where he can explore the specific locations without much additional pressure. A little bit of shoreline grass never hurt Williams either — he’ll find the grass and the fish.
Gut tells me: Williams
Also, if there are any remnants of spawning shad, Williams will sniff them out. Topwater maybe? I think yes.
BUCKET E: NIGGEMEYER
Safe bet: David Walker… maybe
With a hodge-podge of different fishing styles in this bucket, there really aren’t any safe bets here. Except for Walker, because he won here not too long ago. It’s a little surprising to see Walker in Bucket E at this point in the season, but with a stacked Elite Series field that is always a possibility.
Worth a risk: James Niggemeyer
Every pick in Bucket E can certainly be risky so I’m taking a historically consistent angler. Niggemeyer can fish shallow grass with the best of them, and I bet the risk will be worth the reward on this one.
Gut tells me: Niggemeyer
I always seem take a big gamble at each event, why not gamble again with a high likelihood of reward? I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he makes a Top 12 on Wheeler.