Deer season, Thanksgiving and Christmas are all coping mechanisms. Once the Bassmaster Elite Series season ends in the fall each year, for the diehard fan, the world goes quiet. It takes everything we have to distract ourselves during the coming months with football, turkey and new fishing poles next to the holiday tree, all while anticipating the start of next season’s drama.
Well, the time has finally come!
The first stop on the schedule is historic Lake Okeechobee. This massive bowl of a fishery has an average depth of just 9 feet and literally has hundreds of miles of grass lines. All of that incredibly healthy fish habitat means one primary thing – it has big bass.
The Elites have been there just twice since the formation of the Bassmaster Elite Series, in 2012 and 2017, both of which took huge weights to win. In 2012, it took more than 100 pounds to win, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see those kinds of weights in this event.
The bass should be in all phases of the spawn. That means some will be coming to the spawning areas, some will be set up doing their thing and some will be on their way back out. Watch out for anglers who like to flip, but even more than that, are patient and thorough. You’re likely to hear the phrase “picking it apart” a ton during the coverage which effectively means not leaving a blade of grass unexplored in an area that has potential.
It is incredibly important to get the season started right, which means playing it safe early on. That’s not say it’s only worth looking at the highly owned anglers, but keep in mind, it’s not worth blowing the first tournament and taking yourself out for the season. You’ve probably heard anglers say, “You can’t win it on the first day, but you can sure lose it.” That certainly rings true with Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing.
Let’s get into some picks. Man, it feels good to write that.
BUCKET A: COX
Starting off strong with the safe, smart picks, John Cox is heading up my roster. He has built his career excelling in shallow water, primarily using his gut instincts to put himself in position to intercept bag-worthy bass. Earlier in his career, he booked several top 20 finishes, including two 12th-place finishes along with a second in 2012. He’ll be flipping, throwing a frog and possibly winging a swim jig. He hasn’t fished any professional events since August, so you can bet he’s ready to get the season started.
Don’t forget about: Chris Johnston
Canadian Chris Johnston should absolutely be in your short list of anglers in Bucket A. He isn’t afraid to go for broke and do things other anglers won’t. He has spent decades fishing grassy Canadian northern largemouth fisheries and will certainly be comfortable breaking down the lake.
BUCKET B: HALLMAN
If you haven’t been following the career of Bradley Hallman, you’re missing out on watching one of the most invested and driven anglers in the sport. Hallman will not be coming in as a rookie. He has more than 100 events under his belt with B.A.S.S., having fished the tour from 2005 to 2013 before making a change to another pro tour. However, a few years ago he put all of his efforts into returning to the Elites. After a dominating performance in the Bassmaster Opens, he will be returning with a new fire in his eyes.
As far as picking him for this event, the last several years have led to this tournament. He has said in interviews that he will not be nervous, but rather, excited to be fishing at this level again. He is one of the most consistent and dominant flippers to ever fish at the pro level, and you will see that in action here. Swimjigs and spinnerbaits are also high among his choices of weapons. If he can stave off the nerves, it will be very exciting to watch.
Don’t forget about: Buddy Gross
My mind goes back to last year’s event on the Harris Chain, where Buddy Gross found a sweet spot where bass were consistently coming and going during the event. This attention to detail led him to his second Elite win. There will be a lot of opportunity to catch fish, but the guys who narrow it down and key in on those little x-factor subtleties will finish well.
BUCKET C: SCHMITT
You may tell me I’m crazy for not picking the guy in the paragraph below, but hear me out. Bryan “Grass Bass” Schmitt is absolutely worth considering. His resume on shallow grass fishing is strong, with a ton of high-end finishes, including a second on Okeechobee in 2018. While many anglers are going to rush to the hard cover, he will probably find himself in a little deeper water fishing for under-pressured bass.
Don’t forget about: Scott Martin
Clewiston, Florida’s son, Scott Martin, certainly knows this lake better than any two other anglers in the field. The decades around this lake give him a huge amount of history to pull from. That’s exactly why I’m not picking him. Martin is an incredible angler. The thing about him though, is that he tends to spin out when he has too much information. It keeps him from fishing clean and ultimately burns him. Last year on the Harris Chain, he secured his first Day 3 on a Florida lake in three attempts as an Elite angler. That said, his history from 2002 to 2018 has eight top 25 finishes on Okeechobee out of 11 attempts in professional tournaments. I’ll be keeping a close eye on him though leading up to the event. His recent YouTube videos and social media posts look to me like he is focused and ready to get the work done. Can he keep the wheels on the track? Time will tell.
BUCKET D: WELCHER
After a devastatingly close runner-up finish at the Classic, it seemed like Kyle Welcher couldn’t find his bearings throughout the remainder of 2022. However, it’s a new year and time for a fresh start for the fourth-year Elite Series angler from Alabama. In his rookie year, he was picking apart a mat of vegetation when he came across a massive 10-pound bass that saw him through to a Championship Sunday finish in his first Elite event. That showed us much of what we needed to know about this guy. He is instinctual, intentional and smart: a deadly combination. He excels at fishing shallow cover with a flipping stick and a frog. Buckle up. I’m calling it now. This will be a great season for Welcher.
Don’t forget about: Cliff Prince
Cliff Prince is another angler with a ton of history fishing in Florida. In 2017, he finished in third place here doing what he loves. He is an incredible sight fisherman, and if the weather allows, he’ll definitely put a few in the boat doing that.
BUCKET E: KENNEDY
We’re rounding out our team with the wily veteran Steve Kennedy. Swim jigs are his forte and will almost surely get him some explosive bites. If he can keep them pegged, it could be a great event for him. He might even bust out a swimbait or two if the stars align. He has mixed results on Okeechobee ranging from second to triple-digit finishes. I’m giving him the nod here, not for his history though, but for his technique specific skills. There may be a few surprises here in Bucket E, but I’m aiming for a shoe-in Day 3 qualifier.
Don’t forget about: Will Davis Jr.
When talking about swim jigs, you’d be a fool to leave the name Will Davis Jr. out of the conversation. Davis comes to the Elites as the 2022 B.A.S.S. Nation champion after a fantastic season. He is a versatile angler, but he loves fishing shallow grass. If the bass are chasing down a swim jig, look out.
Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge
• Drew Benton
• John Cox
• John Crews
• Bradley Hallman
• Koby Kreiger
• Scott Martin
• Bryan New
• Cliff Prince