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Mark Zona knows it’s a tall task to pick the winner of an Elite Series event, especially this far in advance, but the TV host said he’d again give it his best shot, based on what he believes will be occurring on the fisheries and the angler’s strengths. And it’s just fun. So read on as he predicts who will come out on top in each of the 2018 tournaments.
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Last year, Zona didn’t get any event winners exactly correct, but his hunches that Aaron Martens, Kevin VanDam and Jason Christie would win came true, just not at the fisheries he envisioned. A big feather in his cap was that he did predict Dustin Connell would win Rookie of the Year.
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So let’s look back at 2017. Zona said he thought Martens would win at Cherokee Lake, but it was newcomer Jacob Wheeler. At Okeechobee, Randall Tharp was Zona’s pick, yet Tim Horton ended a decade-long drought. Christie was Zona’s choice to win the Bassmaster Classic on Texas’ Lake Conroe, but Jordan Lee posted a record comeback to receive a king’s crowning during their Zona LIVE show.
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At Toledo Bend, Zona saw Greg Hackney winning, not John Murray, who also ended a lengthy winless streak. At Ross Barnett, Zona thought Alton Jones would top the field while Connell actually edged KVD. At Texas Fest, KVD was picked to edge Keith Combs, and Zona said he never imagined Brandon Palaniuk would walk away with that blue trophy.
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Zona believed Dean Rojas would top the field at Dardanelle, not Steve Kennedy. Jacob Powroznik was his pick for St. Lawrence, but KVD came through with his record 24th title. At Champlain, it was Mike Iaconelli who gained Z’s confidence, while Martens soared to the title from 19th place on the final day.
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Zona expected Chad Pipkens to win at St. Clair, not Christie. And for the AOY at Mille Lacs, he had Seth Feider repeating, yet Keith Combs came away victorious.
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Now let’s look at the 2018 season, which begins Feb. 8 on Lake Martin out of Alexander City, Ala., and find out who Mr. Zona believes will win at each venue.
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“Give me … Jesse Wiggins and Aaron Martens battle it out -- Wiggins triumphant.” That would be the Cullman, Ala., pro’s fourth win in 22 B.A.S.S. tournaments, which would be super impressive.
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Zona wanted to save the Classic predictions for later, so we’ll head over to the Sabine River for the April 6 Elite, a Friday start. The third Elite event there since 2013, Zona said he thinks an angler who has made 240-mile round trips from Orange, Texas, to near Clear Lake, Texas, will win.
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“I’m going to go with Jeff Kriet. He makes the run every day and wins the tournament -- wins his first Elite Series, long overdue,” Zona said.
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Another familiar venue is April 26 at two-time Classic fishery Grand Lake in Oklahoma. Last time there, Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., won the Classic over fellow Oklahoman Jason Christie, who led after Day 2.
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“I cannot bet against Christie. Christie is among my Angler of the Year picks, and he’s going to have to win one, if not two events. I guess somewhere in his mind he’s still ticked off about the Classic there.”
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Another Friday-Monday event begins May 4 on a familiar fishery, Kentucky Lake out of Paris, Tenn. Edwin Evers won the 2015 BASSfest there about a month later in the year than this visit with nearly 100 pounds.
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“I’m going to go with Timmy Horton winning an Elite Series event in back-to-back years,” Zona said. “Timmy Horton wins on Kentucky Lake.”
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A new fishery, Lake Travis, will host Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest, which is a partnership event between B.A.S.S., Toyota and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The TPWD has benefitted from holding the Toyota Texas Bass Classic for more than a decade. This year the big event will be held May 17-20 out of Jonestown, Texas.
Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia/Trey Perry
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“I gotta say two of my picks for AOY this year are Keith Combs and Christie. But give me Keith Combs for another Texas Fest victory,” said Zona, noting Combs has won three TTBC titles.
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A month later, another familiar site will be visited in the Mississippi River out of La Crosse, Wis. Ott DeFoe won there in 2016, Tommy Biffle won in 2013 and Todd Faircloth in 2012.
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“I want me some Greg Hackney at La Crosse,” Zona said. “I don’t know how he hasn’t won there yet. If there’s ever a place where Greg Hackney should win, it is that fishery. That is the perfect playbook for that dude.”
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Let’s do another new and exciting venue, Lake Oahe in Pierre, S.D. This Friday-Monday event begins June 29, and Zona said it’s a true test of an unknown body of water in a year when anglers cannot receive outside information on it. “I think those are the most fun tournaments to cover from our standpoint,” he said. “You go in with such a clean slate.” So who will decode the fishery?
Photo: Courtesy sdmissouririver.com
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“I’m going with a Brent Ehrler,” Zona said. “That’s the X factor tournament, and I think he does as well as anybody in that style of event. Give me Brent Ehrler.”
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The Upper Chesapeake Bay is next on the schedule, a July 26 tournament out of Harford County, Md. When last in the Chesapeake in 2015, Martens hawg-snatched victory from docks on a rising tide.
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“I want some Josh Bertrand for his first victory ever,” Zona said. “Josh Bertrand is creepy good. That dude has just very quietly turned into a solid Elite fisherman and isn’t going anywhere. That dude is here to stay.”
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Another venue that’s held multiple events in recent history will be revisited August 23-26. Record crowds will surely be back in Waddington, N.Y., as the Elites battle on the St. Lawrence River. KVD won there in July last year while Edwin Evers won in 2015 and Palaniuk in 2013.
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With his history there, Zona gives the nod to Palaniuk, the reigning Angler of the Year. “He was close last time and gets it done this year. He was fishing an area of that river where KVD won that has true giants.”
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The Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship will be at a new venue for B.A.S.S., Lake Chatuge in Young Harris, Ga. Chutuge will host the top 50 in the AOY points standings, Sept. 20-23.
Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia
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“Jordan Lee wins that event. As for AOY, I think it will be very, very close this year,” Zona said, noting Lee, Combs and Christie are his top three picks.
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First, let’s see who Zona thinks will be the 2018 Rookie of the Year. “I’ll go with Roy Hawk,” he said, “mostly cause of his experience. He just has an incredible resume.” Hawk is just under the $500,000 threshold combined B.A.S.S. and FLW earning to qualify as a rookie. Zona said he thinks Hunter Shryock should finish second because it “seems like he fishes every division in the Opens and will have experience in all the regions we’re going to.”
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And for AOY? “Christie and Combs are the two best who have not won AOY or the Classic. One of them has got to break through. I think it will be Christie,” Zona said. “Jason Christie wins AOY.” So there you have it. Play along with Z by posting your picks, and remember to play Fantasy Fishing.