It’s a New Year, and your Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing pundits – like the Elite Series pros themselves – are all starting at zero again. But while the scorecard might be filled with goose eggs, our memory banks are not (we hope). The season starts at one of the most storied fisheries in the history of the sport, Lake Okeechobee. This is the type of fishery where forward-facing sonar should play less of a role than good old fashioned flipping stick hardheadedness.
When the Bassmaster Elite Series last visited the Big O in 2017, it was a very different field of competitors. Likewise, as is always the case there, it was a very different fishery. With each storm and weather change, the lake is altered, but there are several semi-persistent truths:
• For a huge lake, it tends to fish small.
• Clear (or “clearer” water) is critical.
• In all but the rarest occasions, healthy vegetation is the ticket.
We are going to see some really good areas packed, and some really good anglers leaving those areas with subpar catches. The grass nerds will win out, either by having a subtle tweak to their bait, by hunkering down and grinding it out or by locating something just slightly off the wall.
As noted above, only about a third of the field from 2017 will compete in this event, but even those who have never fished here know the basics of Florida fishing and what to expect. With that in mind, here are my picks:
BUCKET A: COOK
My pick: We may be a little early for a sight bite, but if any exists, expect Drew Cook to find it. Even if it doesn’t, expect him to be at or near the top of the standings. Not only does he have tons of Florida experience, he has finished in the money in 80% of his Bassmaster events, and he usually starts off strong: 18th, 12th and fourth to start 2019; 18th and fifth to start 2020; a slight hiccup in 2021; then ninth, 51st and a victory last year.
Solid backup: All three of the veteran Canadians (there are four total in this bucket) have lots of history in Florida and love to flip heavy grass. Consider Chris Johnston for this spot as he resumes his quest to be the first non-American Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
BUCKET B: CANTERBURY
My pick: Past Elite AOY and two-time Forrest Wood Cup runner-up Scott Canterbury finished 19th there in 2013, seventh there in 2014, and eighth there in 2018. After an off year in 2021, he bounced back with a solid campaign last season and would like to get back into AOY contention. He might ride a swim jig or a flipping stick – or both – to start that process off right.
Solid backup: Greg Hackney is a rightfully popular pick in this group, and with good reason. Not only did he finish fifth at Okeechobee in 2017, but he’s one of the most patient, methodical flippers to ever live. If there’s a cold front and the bite shuts down, he could ride that big fish mojo to his seventh Bassmaster win, and first since 2018.
BUCKET C: SCHMITT
My pick: When there’s grass, whether it’s Florida, New York, Maryland or on the moon, Bryan Schmitt is going to catch ‘em. He was the runner-up at Okeechobee in a 2018 FLW season-opener (during an otherwise painful season) and seems to be dialing in his winning ways just a bit more every year.
Solid backup: It’s tough not to pick Scott Martin here, as evidenced by his near-70% player percentage. Cut him open and he likely bleeds a viscous blend of Okeechobee mud, and it’s doubtful anyone in the field has spent as much of their life chasing bass on this particular venue. It’s just that the contrarian in me almost always struggles to pick someone who’s so incredibly popular.
BUCKET D: PRINCE
My pick: Despite what I wrote above about Scott Martin, sometimes you have to go with a high-ownership pick, especially in Buckets D and E. Cliff Prince finished third at Okeechobee in 2017, and while his results at Florida fisheries other than the St. Johns are inconsistent, he has as much knowledge of how to fish in the Sunshine State as anyone in the field.
Solid backup: The sentimental pick here is Larry Nixon, who back in the Megabucks days made lots of highlight reels fishing in Florida. Don’t ever count him out, especially on a venue that he’s been fishing since before most of the current Elite field was born.
BUCKET E: LOGAN
My pick: There’s no question that Wes Logan can catch bass, especially in the grass (as evidenced by a win at Neely Henry, two top fours at Guntersville and a third-place finish at the Upper Mississippi) and a strong start will set him on the right path. It will also help him show that he’s the pro who finished 13th overall in 2021, not the one who was 74th last year.
Solid backup: After almost failing to requalify for the Elite Series, this year is a chance for Darold Gleason to surprise some people. Big fish experience? Check. Grass fishing expertise? Check. The tools are there; he has to put the pieces together.
Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge
• Drew Benton
• Drew Cook
• John Cox
• Greg Hackney
• Wes Logan
• Scott Martin
• Cliff Prince
• Bryan Schmitt