Coming into this season I was like a parent trying to find their way through a field of LEGOs in a dark room. A lot of new names, faces, talent, hometowns, strengths and so on … a lot to learn. This will likely be the last time we have the chance to pick the likes of the Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli or Aaron Martens.
That said, this will probably be the last shot any of them have at the most coveted title in bass fishing, and you better believe they’re coming for it.
The Tennessee River is going to be one very interesting event. It is known for big fish, and offers endless methods to catch them. There are spots, smallmouth and largemouth bass — and big ones of each brand to boot. This will be primarily a prespawn event, but if it continues to warm up across the state, you could possibly see the very early phases of the spawn.
The whole river system is experiencing some pretty intense flooding. In fact, there are towns along the Tennessee River that are all but under water. Hopefully by the time the Classic kicks off, much of the excess water will have receded, but there are definitely lasting effects that come with floods.
It’s going to shake up a lot of the schools of fish and relocate them, so if anyone found groups of fish way back before the cut off, they can kiss those goodbye. You’re probably going to see piles of logjams and debris that can possibly hold fish. But the biggest curveball the anglers will have to overcome is dingy, dirty water.
The guys who can summon their inner-Mr. Miyagi, become one with the fish and avoid getting spun out by the dirty water will bring some big bags across the scales.
BUCKET A: DEFOE
Local knowledge will definitely come into play and very few have more of that here than Ott. He has a knack for finding “off-the-beaten-path” spots, while other guys are struggling to find productive water, he should be snatching ‘em up. He’s great with a jig in his hands and has proven over and over that he can catch anything that swims. His ownership is high, but when you don’t need to make big jumps up the leader board, it can be best to pick conservatively.
Keep your eye on: KVD
There might not be a fiercer competitor in the field than VanDam, and no one wants to add another Classic trophy to their collection more than him. His record on anything tied to this river system speaks for itself. He basically has more Top 12 finishes on the Tennessee River than Baskin Robins has flavors.
BUCKET B: MARTENS
If anyone were to rival KVD for the drive to hoist this Classic trophy, it has to be Martens. This will likely be his last chance at this title, and after so many close finishes he’ll be throwing everything he can at it. He is the picture of consistency and nearly always finds himself near the top on the final day. Whatever the fish want on a given day, he’ll have it narrowed down to the bait, color, size, line diameter, which good luck dance to use — and whatever other metrics required to determine the pattern before the rest of the field even feel the first bite.
Keep your eye on: Palaniuk
Brandon Palaniuk has a knack for finding something that is one degree away from what others are doing and that usually translates to bigger bites. I’m reminded of his tournament on the upper Mississippi River a few years when he was on the mother-load of 3- to 4-pound smallies while most others were fishing for 2-pound largemouth. He also won on Bull Shoals cranking like everyone else, but was 10 feet deeper than most and claimed the title. My gut feeling is there will be a big separation once you get outside the Top 10, but that upper end will be tight. Finding fish that weigh a few ounces more will be important.
BUCKET C: B. LANE
Bobby Lane’s Classic record is impressive. Sure, he didn’t fare well at Hartwell last year (and I picked him), but if he can fish his strengths, he’ll be hard to beat. He can do anything, but stick a flipping rod in his hand and set him up at a logjam and he’ll go to work on some big largemouth.
Keep your eye on: Iaconelli
Here’s another guy who consistently finds himself near the top in Classics. Something about the big stage makes this guy fish hard. Self-admittedly he’s been struggling with a lot of pressure from all angles, and that can play on a guy, but he is built for pressure and there is not a more pressure-filled event than the Bassmaster Classic.
BUCKET D: WIGGINS
Alabama and Tennessee have a lot in common when it comes to bass fishing. Jesse Wiggins is well versed in this system, and now that he has had some time to settle into his spot on the pro level, it’s time for him to start winning titles. He is great in clear water or dirty water. He can flip, and he can finesse. Versatility will be required, and he’s got it.
Keep your eye on: Brad Whatley
Starting off with two finishes in the 20s for his introduction to the Bassmaster Elite Series is proof this guy knows what he’s doing. He showed us his skills at both the St. John’s River and Lanier, each vastly different fisheries. If he can get in his groove and keep from getting beat up by the Classic pressure, he could really shine.
BUCKET E: THARP
Jigs and spinnerbaits will be big players here and both of those make up a large part of Randall Tharp’s box of confidence baits. Those presentations also tend to get bigger-than-average bites. If he can execute on Days 1 and 2, he might find himself in contention come Sunday.
Keep your eye on: Chris Lane
Chris Lane has spent the last few years living in Alabama, and as previously mentioned, this fishery and many Alabama fisheries share a lot in common when it comes to bass fishing.