Take this with a grain of salt, but one of my favorite things to do in the whole world is to take a drive down to my local Hobby Lobby this time of year. Walking into that store around September, you can’t help but notice they are already getting into the Christmas spirit with their holiday displays of reindeer, sleighs and snow all around you, appropriately discounted at 40-percent off of course.
Well, this week marks the final chapter in the 2019 Bassmaster Elite and Fantasy Fishing seasons. All that remains is the 2020 Classic, and I feel a little bit like the higher-ups at Hobby Lobby: I’m already chomping at the bit for the next season even though we’re not quite through this one.
We’ve been introduced to many brand-new faces, stories and dreams that are part of an unbelievable cast of characters who keep us on the edge of our seats anxiously awaiting the next bite.
Last week was a nail-biter to the bitter end. Carl Jocumsen (who I picked) managed to have the most incredible day of his career and brought almost 20-pounds to the scales to pull off the win.
Not to be overlooked, Chris Zaldain showed up in a big way (I also picked him…) and had it not been for Carl’s massive bag, he might have walked away with his first regular-season win. While I brag about those two picks, I’m soberly reminded of the other three picks who finished 40th place or worse.
St. Clair, though, is going to be a high-scoring game in fish catches, size and Fantasy Fishing points. Given how the buckets break down, there are clear favorites in each bucket. And given there are fewer names in each bucket, it should be the highest-scoring average of the season.
Clear, deep water with current and a massive population of hungry smallmouth means I’m going to focus on guys who have a finger on the finesse game. AOY will definitely factor in as well.
Let’s see if I can finish strong.
BUCKET A: ZALDAIN
Safe bet: Chris Zaldain
There is no safer bet here than Chris Zaldain. He recently posted on social media that he’s tired of second-place finishes. You can bet that includes the AOY title. He has had a supernatural season posting five Top 10s this year, four of which were in the last four events, not to mention a 13th at Lake Fork just before he went on his “single-digit spree.” He will throw that Spark Shad until he has the biggest bag he can muster, and that should at the very least see him through to Championship Tuesday.
Sleeper pick: Chris Johnston
This event is first and foremost a fight for the AOY trophy. Chris Johnston is unfortunately not in the mix for AOY, however there is a blue trophy on the line and you can bet he has no intention of watching this one play out from the sidelines. The Johnston brothers are a force to be reckoned with anywhere in the country. Chris, though, tends to fare better than his brother Cory when it comes to light-line events. He landed 12th in an FLW event a few years ago and coming off a second on the St. Lawrence River, that muscle memory could help get it done.
BUCKET B: HARTMAN
Safe bet: Jamie Hartman
Jamie Hartman has won two blue trophies this year and that puts him in a very elite group of anglers. He was disappointed with his 20th-place finish on the St. Lawrence River in his home state, so he decided he would win the next one at Cayuga to make up for it. He had a tough event on Tenkiller, but now we’re heading back up north. In 2017, he smashed over 81 pounds of smallies and finished sixth on St. Clair. Along with that, he has five B.A.S.S. top 20 finishes on other northern smallmouth fisheries. He can find those big schools better than I can sniff out a sleeve of Oreos … and that’s sayin’ something.
Sleeper pick: Keith Combs
Combs is comfortably inside the cutline for the Classic, which means this will likely be a swing-for-the-fence type of event for him. He has excelled in these smallie oriented AOY Championships in the past with a 13th on Chatuge in 2018 and a win on Mille Lacs in 2017. He is not afraid to fish his strength and will likely be power fishing for big girls.
BUCKET C: PIPKENS
Safe bet: Jeff Gustafson
This northerner has an overwhelming majority ownership in this bucket, and rightly so. He is from that part of the world and understands what it takes to locate and catch big brownies. My only beef with Gustafson is he hasn’t been the best at adjusting day-to-day this season. If it’s steady weather and he can rely on his fish, he will probably have a stellar event. But if it’s shifty, which it usually is this time of year, he may go from hero to zero. He is a safe bet because if he does well, you and the other 40 percent that chose him do well together. If he doesn’t do well you all go down with the ship and you don’t lose ground to too many players in this bucket.
Sleeper pick: Chad Pipkens
I’m pleasantly surprised by how much of a value pick Chad Pipkens is, even at a staggering 28 percent at the time of this writing. He has won an Open on St. Clair in early September 2014 and has a fourth-place finish in 2015. He has had an up and down season, but it’s been mostly up with his only real slip up being Winyah Bay. I’m expecting him to put that drop shot to work. Just buckle up, because landing a 4-pound smallmouth will probably take him eight to 10 minutes. Who knows, he might even catch his “PERSONAL BEST!!!!”
BUCKET D: MOSLEY
Safe bet: Garrett Paquette
Betting on the local stick can definitely pay off. There isn’t anyone else you could put in that category in this bucket. Growing up in Michigan, he certainly knows how to finesse fish for smallmouth. He likely has spent a fair bit of time on fisheries with current as well and that could give him an edge. He is leading the bucket at the moment with more than 30 percent ownership. He has had an average season so far. Maybe this will be where he breaks into the limelight and brings home his first trophy.
Sleeper pick: Brock Mosley
Mosley is a Mississippi boy and loves him some river fishing (note the twang). He reminded me about his 2017 finish here on his social media. Using social media posts tends to be a dangerous way make Fantasy Fishing picks, but there aren’t any slam dunk selections in this bucket in my opinion. With his second-place finish here in 2017 along with another second on the St. Lawrence River that same year, I think he might just tap into his smallmouth-river fishing repertoire and show up in a big way. It’s worth the risk to see if he can repeat his 2017 showing.
BUCKET E: HUDNALL
Safe bet: Paul Mueller
Paul Mueller is a bit of a mystery to me. I was shocked at his finishes following his win this season, but it seemed like he may have righted a ship at Cayuga. However, Tenkiller had him back down in the standings, yet for some reason, he has an overwhelming ownership percentage in this bucket. He does like light line, and being a northerner, he has plenty of experience catching smallmouth. He finished 10th here in 2017, so he does have some solid history here I suppose. Again, like Gussy, you’ll win or lose with the masses by going with him.
Sleeper pick: Derek Hudnall
Derek Hudnall has worked his tail end off this season to get into this position. He is currently in 46th place in AOY with just a few spots to climb to be in the Classic cutline. He has shown true grit up to this point, and that won’t stop here. I’m betting on him just because his Cinderella story will be a great one. I am excited to see him make a second consecutive Classic appearance in 2020, but he has to make it happen here to have his shot.