Here’s a throwback for you: In June of 1997 a friend and I went to Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka as co-anglers in a big tournament. My friend, who had fished the Northeast division of the Red Man Tournament Trail, was scheduled to fish with Denny Brauer. As part of his payment for gas money, he brought along an old paper map of Lake Champlain, which the Bassmaster Top 100 series was going to fish a few months later … for the first time.
Twenty three years later, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when the major circuits hadn’t been to Champlain, or that there’s a bass pro alive who is still a Champlain virgin. Indeed, names like Ticonderoga and Malletts Bay have attained near-legendary status, and even if we have a hard time spelling and pronouncing “Missisquoi,” we still know what it means to the sport.
Despite that now-lengthy body of knowledge, and the well-established fact that Champlain is a great lake – but not, as some would assert, a Great Lake – there are rarely well-defined favorites entering a major event. What we typically have are questions:
- Will it take largemouth, smallmouth or a combination to win?
- Which end of the lake will be firing?
- Will weather affect one or more days of competition, especially for those making long runs?
All of those unknowns make it hard to predict who will do well, because the Elites all have the potential to do well – so focus on pros who can make their strengths work when there are a variety of choices in front of them.
BUCKET A: MUELLER
My pick: We’ve known since the 2014 Classic that Paul Mueller had the chops to be competitive, but only in the last two seasons has he kicked in that extra gear to consistently live up to that potential. Coming off a win earlier this year, and a near-win at the St. Lawrence, he’s a legitimate contender for the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, and with the tour still up north that gives him extra ammo – whether he’s chasing green or brown fish.
Backup: Drew Benton finished 20th here in 2017, and he’s a spot ahead of Mueller in the AOY standings, well within range of making his third straight Classic, and fourth overall. Don’t expect him to stumble.
BUCKET B: HERREN
My pick: When in doubt, pick a jig flipper, and that’s one of the things Matt Herren does best. He was 13th here in 2017, and he had multiple good finishes on Champlain with FLW dating back over 15 years. He may be 22nd overall, but AOY or at least a top 10 ranking is far from out of reach.
Backup: Quiet Brandon Lester just keeps catching them almost everywhere, no matter what type of fishery it is. He was sixth at Champlain in 2017, and after a tough stop at the St. Lawrence River, there’s little chance he has two subpar tournaments in a row.
BUCKET C: MORGENTHALER
My pick: Coming off the best finish of his Elite Series career, Chad Morgenthaler is headed to a lake he knows intimately. If the largemouth grass flipping bite is the key pattern, in Ti or elsewhere, he should contend because that’s his jam. A Top 10 should put him back inside the Classic bubble.
Backup: I’ve been burned by my friend Steve Kennedy before, but he was 17th at Champlain in 2017, third in 2007 and 15th in 2006 on the big lake. This is as close to a sure thing as it comes with him.
BUCKET D: SCHMITT
My pick: Elite Series rookie Bryan Schmitt hasn’t made a lot of waves so far during this disjointed year, but he has prior Champlain experience with FLW, and he won a Northern Open here in 2016. He also won a BFL on Champlain last July. He’s more than comfortable around grass and should be a bargain, low-percentage-ownership option.
Backup: If you want someone more popular among the fans, think about returning Elite Gerald Swindle, who’s one of the handful of Elites who fished that 1997 event I referenced above. So far this hasn’t been a typically Swindle-like season, but that could and should change quickly.
BUCKET E: LIVESAY
My pick: After a magical rookie season, Lee Livesay is learning that the same people you crushed last year can take your lunch money this year. He’s too good for that to continue, though, and while he’s currently in 72nd place in AOY standings overall (and thus in Bucket E), there are a lot of fish left to weigh this season, culminating on his home waters, Lake Fork. As we saw with Seth Feider a few years back, that kind of late season motivation can generate come-from-behind stories. First, though, he’ll have to catch ‘em at Champlain.
Backup: Rookie Bob Downey is one of a handful of northerners in this group, and in three Elite events his finishes have gone up each time. If that can continue, he’ll earn you some valuable points.