George: I got about 50 feet out and then suddenly the great beast appeared before me. I tell ya he was 10 stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence he gave out a big bellow. I said, "Easy big fella!" And then as I watched him struggling I realized something was obstructing his breathing. From where I was standing I could see directly into the eye of the great fish!
Q: When is the best bass lake in the country not a lake?
A: When it’s a river.
In this case, we’re talking about New York’s St. Lawrence River, site of the next Bassmaster Elite Series event after a long hiatus.
This will mark the third straight year that the Elites have visited, adding to the long and storied history of this remarkable fishery. What’s particularly exciting is that it keeps getting better, and the last two times it has taken more than 90 pounds for four days to claim the big blue trophy.
Those winning weights weren’t outliers. The difference here between a bag of 3 3/4-pound smallmouth and 4-pound smallmouth can be a big gap in the standings. Each extra ounce is critical, and not to be taken lightly … and there’s also a slight largemouth wildcard.
With such small separation between weights, it can be tough for anglers to stay consistent. Do you expect the Brandon Card who finished fourth in 2015 and 20th in 2017 to show up, or will it be the one who was 102nd last year? Will Bernie Schultz continue his New York excellence, as he did in 2013, 2015 and 2017 (sixth, 15th and 12th, respectively), or will he stumble like he did last year (104th)? Will the tour’s true rookies who hail from the South continue their solid performances outside of that comfort zone?
The only certainty is that you’re going need 20 whales to win.
Here are my picks:
BUCKET A: CORY JOHNSTON
My Pick: This bucket is brutal for me, because as I went through the recent Elite Series history on the St. Lawrence I could see that Brandon Lester, Seth Feider and – shocker of shockers – skinny water expert Bill Lowen all have exceptional histories on this fishery. I’m not choosing any of them, though. Instead I’m going with rookie Cory Johnston who likewise has a great history on this fishery, including winning the B1 (a major Canadian event) with 52.94 pounds over two days, on pace to surpass last year’s four-day winning weight of 95-03.
Backup: Seems odd not to take a smallmouth guru, but Bill Lowen’s consistency here has been exceptional. He was 29th last year, 15th the year before and 34th in 2015. He likely has some bite figured out that he’ll have all to himself.
BUCKET B: COMBS
Exes from Texas
My Pick: I was inclined to pick Jamie Hartman, who was seventh here in 2017, until I saw his justified high ownership percentage. I just can’t go with the flow, possibly to my detriment. Instead I’m putting pressure on Keith Combs to stay inside the Classic cut as the season nears its completion. You may not think of him as a smallmouth guru, but he was eighth here last year, 31st in 2017 and ninth in 2015. Clearly he has this place wired, and he’s a proven big fish wrangler.
Backup: Jamie Hartman will catch ‘em. He’s back to fishing the way he did during his rookie year – in fact, with the “W” added to his list of credentials, he might even be better.
BUCKET C: WENDLANDT
Back to the Future
My Pick: Newer fans of B.A.S.S. might not remember, but Clark Wendlandt was a force to be reckoned with in B.A.S.S. competition in the 1990s, and despite the Texas mailing address he enjoyed substantial success on the St. Lawrence. In fact, his first event was held there in 1992, and he finished ninth. Three years later he finished eighth. Two years after that he was the runner-up to Rick Lillegard. The fishery may have changed, but that doesn’t mean that his “ancient” knowledge is irrelevant.
Backup: Despite his northern credentials, Paul Mueller’s results on the St. Lawrence have been mixed. He was 21st in 2015, 71st in 2017 and 86th last year. If you believe – as I do – that his Elite win earlier this year is a sign of maturation and development, then he’s a solid pick in New York.
BUCKET D: GUSTAFSON
Time for the Deep V Hull
My Pick: Jeff Gustafson hasn’t had the rookie season that many of us expected from him, given his stellar track record, although he finished fifth at Lake Fork and almost made the final day at Hartwell. Now he’s taking the Lund to the St. Lawrence, which is right in his wheelhouse. Although he’s in 47th place in the AOY race, he’s not really that far out of the Classic cut, and this is a prime opportunity to make a move in his comfort zone.
Backup: Bernie Schultz fished his first B.A.S.S. event on the St. Lawrence in 1987, before many of this year’s rookies were even born, and has almost always done very well here, and in New York more generally. Last year’s stumble is dwarfed by his many checks, and he too is not out of Classic range.
BUCKET E: YELAS
Seems Like Old Times
My Pick: The 2002 Bassmaster Classic champ Jay Yelas is a respected veteran whose return to B.A.S.S. hasn’t lived up to its promise – yet? The one place where the Oregon pro did have a solid showing was in his former adopted home state of Texas, at Lake Fork. Like Wendlandt, he has a solid history at the St. Lawrence, dating back to 1989. He finished ninth, 19th, 11th and fifth, in 1990, 1992, 1995 and 1997, respectively. Like Wendlandt this is time for him to dig into the memory bank, apply all he’s learned in the subsequent 30 years, and get this season back on track.
Backup: I’d never call him “safe,” but if Steve Kennedy can put his ribbed swimbait to work here he’s capable of digging what has to be a disappointing year out of a hole. He’s been 26th, 60th, 49th and seventh here before, which shows the maddening potential that lurks within his record, but consistency has always been his Achilles Heel.
There it is: Two Canadians, three current or former Texans. All going whale hunting.