At long last, and after at least one near miss, the Bassmaster Elite Series is back, and they’re headed to one of the world’s most fertile bass fisheries. The St. Lawrence River is a place where 20 pounds a day might get you a solid check, but it doesn’t move the needle on the "wow-o-meter" much at all. Micah Frazier won there last year with 87-4, and more than deserves his blue trophy, but that weight would have been good for only 12th place the year before, when five anglers weighed in more than 90 pounds.
How will it fish this year? It’ll be damn good. That I can say with certainty, because whether it takes 75 pounds or 100 pounds to take the title, you’re going to have to earn it every day. Almost all of these guys have been here before, most of them multiple times, and they all know that the difference between 3-pounders and 4-pounders and 5-pounders is monumental. Go with the ones who can consistently catch big summer limits and who distinguish themselves with better-than-average averages.
With that in mind, I’m picking a few crowd favorites and some who should be top picks, but who for some reason aren’t. It just so happens that they all come from one of two basic regions, which are about as far apart as you can imagine in this field.
BUCKET A: COMBS
My pick: Keith Combs excels when big limits are in play, and apparently he has figured out a little something special here because he’s never finished worse than 31st in five tries. He has made the top nine on three of the last four occasions. It’s hard to believe that he hasn’t won a B.A.S.S. event since 2017, and at some point, he’s going to reel off a string of hardware-earning efforts.
Safe backup: Last year’s Bassmaster Angler of the Year Scott Canterbury finished third here, and if he can repeat that effort he’ll hold onto his current lead for the 2020 AOY crown. No one has gone back-to-back on AOYs since KVD won four in a row from 2008-2011. Before that it was Guido Hibdon in 1990-1991 and Roland Martin three times prior. If Canterbury can achieve that feat in his first two years on the Elites, it makes a pretty strong case to put him in the same category as those three esteemed anglers.
BUCKET B: HANSELMAN
My pick: Quiet Ray Hanselman doesn’t get a lot of love in Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing circles, but fresh off of his first Classic, and a season in which his best finish was seventh at the St. Johns, he’s going to surprise some people. He’s a big fish specialist, excels in clear water and has the chops to win again and again and again. Don’t sleep on him any longer.
Safe backup: Stetson Blaylock is another veteran who is on a roll, with five Top-10 finishes in his last six B.A.S.S. events. His St. Lawrence finishes haven’t been consistent, but they have gotten better each time.
BUCKET C: GUSTAFSON
My pick: Jeff Gustafson is yet another experienced competitor who doesn’t get much Fantasy Fishing attention, and with Feider, Zaldain and Palaniuk gobbling up over three-quarters of the popular vote, he might prove to be a bargain in this surprisingly stacked Bucket C.
Safe backup: How badly do you think Brandon Palaniuk wants to get back to the Classic after missing it last year for the first time since 2010? He may be at or near the Classic bubble now, but look for him to move up the ranks in N.Y., starting at the St. Lawrence, site of his second Elite victory.
BUCKET D: CORY JOHNSTON
My pick: According to all-knowing Dave Mercer, the Johnstons pay their bills with summertime winnings on the waters of this region, so Cory’s 36th-place finish (which earned him a check) was a distressing aberration from the norm. Expect him to make up for that with a Day 4 appearance this year.
Safe backup: Garrett Paquette is a northern smallmouth hammer who did not live up to that billing here last year. As with Cory Johnston (above), don’t expect that to happen twice.
BUCKET E: CHRIS JOHNSTON
My pick: I hate picking prohibitive favorites, but Chris Johnston may be the biggest bargain ever in Bucket E, and everyone seems to know it. The biggest issue for the brothers "CJ" is going to be how they split up their water. If they can work that out amicably, expect one or both of them to match or beat Cory’s runner-up finish from last year.
Safe backup: Bernie Schultz has historically fared well in New York, and while the last two years the St. Lawrence has not treated him well, before that he had a string on top 20 finishes dating back to the 1990s, including top 12s in 2017 and 2013.