Fantasy Fishing: River of doubt

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James Overstreet

Greg DiPalma has made the cut in back to back Elite Series events.

The Sabine River out of Orange, Texas, has become a semi-regular stop on the Bassmaster Elite Series, at least partially because of the fanatical fans it draws. That said, it doesn’t have the historical profile of the TVA lakes, Okeechobee or even Table Rock, and few of the current field have much experience there. In fact, less than half of them competed the last time the tour went there in 2018. 

Even among those who fished Elite events on the Sabine in 2013, 2015 and 2018 (and possibly the Open in 2017), few seem to have definitively figured it out. For many their results are all over the map. That may partially be because it’s a constantly changing environment, and also because it can be tough. Furthermore, rivers often lend themselves to fishing “spots” rather than patterns, and even the best spot can be overwhelmed by pressure.

When Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players think about this one, they should focus on anglers who will make sure to grind out a limit every day and who are likely to catch a kicker to go with it. Of course, that’s easier said than done — none of them would have gotten to this level in the first place if that didn’t somewhat describe them. Still, even though I’m told that the river is pumping out bigger fish and more of them than in recent years, focus on pros who are good when a place gets stingy. Here are my picks.

BUCKET A: MOSLEY

Greg Hackney seems to be the overwhelming pick in this group, and with good reason based on past results, but I’m going to buck that trend and pick Brock Mosley. He was 12th here in 2018, and he seems to have grown as an angler and a competitor since then. That includes five Top 10 finishes in his last 10 events.

Solid backup: There are plenty of legit river rats in this group, including Maryland’s Bryan Schmitt and Maryland native Ed Loughran, who seems to have dialed in the Elite life.

BUCKET B: CREWS

Veteran pro John Crews has been rock solid at the Sabine, finishing sixth, sixth and 26th. After last year’s subpar campaign, he seems to have righted his ship in 2021, including a 10th-place finish in Knoxville.

Solid backup: I may kick myself for not picking first-time winner Bill Lowen, who now that he’s figured out the secret sauce may go on a run of victories. Few fans would be angry about that, as the likeable veteran has paid his dues multiple times over. 

BUCKET C: DIPALMA

I’m going out on a bit of a limb here to choose 38-year-old Greg DiPalma who, to the best of my knowledge, has never competed on the Sabine, but is at the point in his career where he needs a statement performance. He’s never made a Top 10 outside of the north — except for at the James River, which was a Northern Open, despite being south of the Mason Dixon Line — but he has plenty of experience on the rivers of the Mid-Atlantic, and this venue should fit him well.

Solid backup: Gerald Swindle has a runner-up finish on the Sabine, and he may be the best junk fisherman who’s ever lived. Even if he doesn’t find the juice, he should scrape something together, and no one should be surprised if he wins the whole shooting match.

BUCKET D: FELIX

In Bucket D, I’m going with the NFL GM concept of picking the “best available player.” That’s not to say that Austin Felix is necessarily a better overall angler or more experienced than the rest of this crew, but if anyone believes that last year’s Rookie of the Year title — and 7th place in the 2020 Anger of the Year standings — are not flukes, then at some point he’s going to move back in that direction. This could be that time.

Solid backup: If there’s a flipping bite to be had, Chad Morgenthaler could glue the hammer stick in his hand and get to work. He was third here in the 2017 Central Open so clearly he has some solid areas to check.

BUCKET E: SULLIVAN

Randy Sullivan hasn’t had a great start to 2021 — that’s why he’s in Bucket E — but he’s shown flashes of excellence, including a runner-up finish at Guntersville last year and a sixth-place finish in the 2017 Open on the Sabine. For a river that hasn’t been consistently kind to many anglers, that’s enough to give him a leg up.

Solid backup: While the Sabine has been a multiple-time thorn in Paul Mueller’s side, resulting in 90th- and 100th-place finishes, he’s changed as an angler since the 2018 visit, with multiple Elite wins. He’s also a veteran of some tough northeastern waters. This could be the time he puts it all together here, where the difference between first and last is not always a huge gulf.