When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
— Yogi Berra
We’re running out of road.
This longer-than-ever Bassmaster Elite Series season is ready to wind down with the 2020 Toyota Texas Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The tournament is taking off about five months later than it was originally expected to take place. What we thought would be a postspawn slugfest has now turned into a fall question mark.
Will it be like Guntersville, Santee and Chickamauga, which did not show their full potential, but nevertheless provided great story lines? Or will we see weights like the 114 pounds it took for Brandon Cobb to win at Fork last year.
Somehow I’m guessing that it’ll be somewhere in between the two. We’ll have some extraordinary century-class performances replete with g-g-g-giants galore, and we’ll have a handful of guys who will take an express trip on the struggle bus. There might be some surprises in that mix, too, because the "win-and-you’re-in" nature of the event creates some odd incentives. Some anglers who are outside of the Classic cut can afford to take a huge chance to gamble on the win. So too can pros who have no meaningful shot of winning Bassmaster Angler of the Year, but are unlikely to fall outside of Classic contention.
The area around Lake Fork is expecting some cool nights in the two weeks leading up to this event, so I think that’ll lead to more haves than have-nots. Go with anglers who can turn on the juice when time is running out.
Here are my picks – loaded with Texans and would-be Texans:
BUCKET A: AOY CONTENDERS
My pick: Anyone who’s followed the sport knew that Frank Talley could fish, especially in the South and especially late in the year. After all, he won the 2018 Bassmaster Central Opens points title. But until you do it at the tour level, people assume that it’s all smoke and mirrors. With his win at Guntersville, and seven cuts in eight events, Talley has more than shown he belongs. At 12th in the AOY race, he’s safely inside the Classic bubble but unlikely to make a charge at AOY. Still, we’ve seen time and again that anglers get on these little momentum rolls, and there’s no reason to believe The Tank’s will stop in his adopted home state.
Solid backup: Glue the glider in his hand and go for broke. That’s half of what I expect Steve Kennedy to do, and it’s a feast or famine sort of deal. At 14th in the points, he has little to lose, and that’s dangerous no matter how you look at it.
BUCKET B: CLASSIC PROBABLES
My pick: Chris Zaldain, currently 29th in the points, may not be Texan by birth, but given his track record in the state there’s little question why he chose to move there. Those finishes include a 13th-place result at Fork last year, and a performance at the 2016 TTBC in which he won a truck. That tournament was at Ray Roberts, site of the 2021 Classic, and remarkably close to Zaldain’s adopted home of Ft. Worth.
Solid backup: Last year’s champion at Fork, Brandon Cobb, hasn’t matched his rookie record of two victories, but after slapping 114 pounds on the scales last year there’s no reason to think that he won’t do it again. He has two Top 10s in Elites this year, both in the big fish country of Alabama. Let’s see if he can keep that trend rolling as the tour moves to Texas.
BUCKET C: STILL HOPEFUL
My pick: Keith Combs has had a remarkably un-Combs-like season, and it seems that his only reasonable chance to make the home state Classic will be if he wins at Fork. Fortunately for him, he has a pretty good track record of winning in Texas. I don’t care if he didn’t catch a bass all year, if you chopped off his fingers, and if he applied for membership in PETA – he’s still gonna catch the snot out of them at Fork.
Solid backup: For an angler just inside the Classic cut, a home state finale is a lot of pressure and a lot of opportunity. This will be a test of Brad Whatley’s mettle, as the Texas pro looks to punch his ticket to Classic number two.
BUCKET D: WING AND A PRAYER
My pick: Despite the fact that over 61% of Fantasy Fishing players have picked him at the time of this writing, I still suggest that Lee Livesay is undervalued. Coming off his win at Chickamauga, the longtime Fork guide will have time to get his head around a home-lake event – and a chance to redeem himself for last year’s 39th place finish on Fork.
Solid backup: Ray Hanselman has yet to show his true winning ability since joining the Elites, but there’s no doubt it’s still there, and there’s no better place to build his track record – or his resume – in his home state.
BUCKET E: EVERY WHICH WAY IS UP
My pick: If you’re in Bucket E at this point in the season, something has gone seriously awry, so pick someone who’s been there before and gotten the job done. Brian Snowden’s record in Texas is solid. Not only was he 31st last year at Fork, but he won the TTBC on Conroe in 2010 and came in second there in 2012. He hasn’t forgotten how to catch Texas bass and may prove to be a bargain here.
Solid backup: Like Combs and Livesay, John Crews has not had the campaign that he hoped for or expected. He seemed to have it slightly back on track at Santee, then struggled again at Chickamauga. Like Snowden, however, he hasn’t forgotten how to fish, and he has ample experience on Fork, including a 33rd-place finish last year.