Big Bass. Big Stage. Big Dreams.
If you think that motto hit home last season, just wait until the sport’s biggest event hits one of its legendary waterways during prime time for fat girls.
Everything’s going to grow exponentially.
Of course, whether they built their reputations on the Ohio River or a parking lot mud puddle, all of these guys know how to catch bigs. They wouldn’t have gotten this far if they were content with little fish. Nevertheless, given the biblical-caliber rains the South has suffered lately, look for anglers who have experience relocating the jumbos when things change to come out on top.
It won’t be your typical Guntersville – except for the weights, which should still be solid. I expect the winner to have somewhere in the range of 70 pounds, give or take a few big gizzard shad. Key in on pros who know how to take a 30-pound limit and safely stow it in their livewells like a game of fishy Tetris.
BUCKET A: COMBS
My Pick: Keith Combs
He hasn’t won since the 2017 AOY Championship tournament, which is an unprecedented drought for the big bass phenom, and this one sets up perfectly for him. If there’s an offshore cranking bite, he could run away with it, but don’t sleep on him if they’re dirt shallow either. He has a sixth sense for the movements of big fish and finding groups of them.
Alternate: Scott Canterbury
If you thought he’d fall off after his “rookie” season AOY campaign, think again. Canterbury finished sixth to start the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series campaign, and this derby is in his home state.
Sentimental Favorite: Chris Zaldain
After all of the near misses, no true fan of fishing will be surprised or upset if Chris Zaldain becomes the first westerner to win the Classic since 2009.
BUCKET B: MENENDEZ
My Pick: Mark Menendez
Mark Menendez has tons of TVA experience and has shown an ability to win. He took charge last year and exemplified senior leadership while also fishing up to his abilities. If a jerkbait or spinnerbait is in play, he’ll challenge.
Alternate: John Crews
Crews is another angler without weaknesses, and he needs only a major title to cement his status as a star with staying power.
Sentimental Favorite: Paul Mueller
After his win in Florida, he’s playing with house money, but Mueller still has a score to settle with the Big G, where he fell just short during the 2014 Classic.
BUCKET C: LIVESAY
My Pick: Lee Livesay
Lake Fork is another providing ground for big bass freaks, and in addition to making a living there Livesay immediately showed that his skills play anywhere big bass live. His rookie season gained him immediate attention, and he has the respect of his peers. Who knows what he’s capable of doing?
Alternate: Patrick Walters
Walters seems wise and calm beyond his years, and he started the 2020 season right where he left off, with a 10th-place finish at the St. Johns.
Sentimental Favorite: Gustafson
I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated with the idea of a Canadian winning the whole deal, but I am, and Gustafson has the chops to do it.
BUCKET D: HANSELMAN
My Pick: Ray Hanselman
Why aren’t more people picking the quiet Texan? He excels on grass fisheries, particularly when big bass are in play, and he’s a winner through and through.
Alternate: Greg DiPalma
We haven’t had a true northeastern winner since another Jersey kid took home the title in 2003. There’s no reason this Elite sophomore can’t be the next one.
Sentimental Favorite: Brian Snowden
It’s easy to forget about the subdued Table Rock guide, but he’s been around for years and he’s unflappable. A Snowden win would be a victory for the grinders.
BUCKET E: GLEASON
My Pick: Darold Gleason
Gleason lives and guides on Toledo Bend, a known big bass factory, and like the three Texans above, a 30-pound limit will be a means to an end, rather than the end itself. He has lots of experience fishing for Florida-strain fish in grass, and he knows how to win.
Alternate: Grae Buck
Buck has no pressure, no attention on him, and he started the FLW season with a solid 19th-place finish at Sam Rayburn, including a personal-best fish of more than 9 pounds.
Sentimental Favorite: Cody Huff
Huff may be younger than some of my flipping sticks, but he’s demonstrated the ability to win multiple times. If Rick Clunn respects him you know he’s the real deal.