I reckon there is a first for everything, and this will be the first of many pieces (I would imagine) of my pundit picks for Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing. I got roped into joining the Fantasy Fishing Pundit Group per Kyle Jessie who claims I am in a joking way “no good at Fantasy Fishing.” So, my ultimate goal is to just finish out the season ahead of him, even if it is just by one or two points.
It has been since 2017 that the Bassmaster Elite Series has visited famed Lake Okeechobee, so this one will be an interesting one to watch. Being mid-February in Florida, there’s no doubt spawning fish are going to play a factor on the 476,000-acre lake. I would imagine there will also be fish coming and going from the spawn, so it is likely it could go down as a big bass showdown.
It is also interesting in the sense that each year is different on Okeechobee just due to the grass growing in different places. Plus, you factor in the hurricane that ripped through there last year, and this will be a different Okeechobee than in years past. I think over the course of a four-day tournament, whoever figures out an area with the right mix of hard spots mixed in with some grass as well as just being able to adjust to the wild weather that could possibly happen has the chance to come out victorious.
BUCKET A: LESTER
No stranger to success in Florida, I look for Brandon Lester to be a big factor in this tournament, especially if you can consider the roll he was on towards the end of the 2022 Elite season. Lester notched a 22nd-place finish on Okeechobee in 2017 but has finished inside the top 20 in Florida 10 times. When you mix in some shallow flipping and power fishing, I am hard-pressed not to take him.
Alternate: John Cox
One thing I am going to do this year is not get caught up on percentages of how many people have one angler on their roster. John Cox is selected at 46%, but rightfully so with his storied success in the state of Florida. If I didn’t pick Lester, I would most likely roll with Cox. Last year during the Florida swing, Cox never finished outside the Top 10, and he will look to carry that same momentum into 2023.
BUCKET B: HACKNEY
When you look up shallow-water flipping in the bass fishing dictionary, you will most likely find a picture of Greg Hackney beside it. Hackney claimed a fifth-place finish the last time he visited Lake Okeechobee in 2017. This event is going to set up right in his wheelhouse, so it’s hard to imagine seeing him outside the cut.
Alternate: Bradley Hallman
One guy that sticks out to me that isn’t highly picked is Bradley Hallman. He’s returning to the Bassmaster Elite Series after being away since 2011, and I would assume he is looking forward to getting his season started in a big way. Hallman took home an FLW Tour win on Okeechobee back in 2016 when he was punching heavily matted vegetation.
BUCKET C: SCHMITT
While Bryan Schmitt might not have fished any tournaments on Okeechobee with Bassmaster, he is certainly pretty comfortable around Okeechobee and mainly just fishing grass. Schmitt cracked a second-place finish there in 2018 on the FLW Tour. Hot off an Elite win back in August, look for Schmitt to carry his success from last season over into the new year.
Alternate: Scott Martin
I don’t know if not picking Scott Martin on Okeechobee is the equivalent of Ronnie Moore not taking Lee Livesay on Lake Fork last year or not. Regardless, not picking him might be a mistake considering Martin has grown up on Lake Okeechobee guiding and winning tournaments. Florida is a different animal though, so I will be interested to see how he does.
BUCKET D: WELCHER
After a rocky season in 2022, I think Kyle Welcher is ready to turn it around, and I don’t think there is a better place for him to do than the shores of Okeechobee. Shallow-water flipping is a strong suit of his so I expect we will see him exploit that during the event. Welcher has two Top 10s in Florida with Bassmaster, and who could forget the 10-pounder he caught during his rookie debut on the St. John’s River.
Alternate: Larry Nixon
I had a hard time not taking The General considering he is making his return to the Bassmaster Elite Series. Number one, just the fact of having Nixon back on the Elites is so exciting to me, it’s hard not to take him as a pick just because of it. For Nixon, getting back on the Elite Series is thrilling, and listening to him on various podcasts, he has the mindset of just keeping it simple this season. I feel like keeping it simple on Okeechobee can be dangerously good.
BUCKET E: SMITH
Kind of a sneaky pick and one that is going to fly under the radar is Bryant Smith. During his tenure with the National Professional Fishing League, Smith scored two fourth-place finishes in Florida in 2022 as well as a 26th-place finish in the Bassmaster Open on Kissimmee. Smith definitely has experience with grass fishing considering he often fishes the California Delta while he is home in California. I think it will transition well for him and get his season started in the right direction.
Alternate: Mike Iaconelli
Mike Iaconelli is one angler I think could make some noise in Florida. For the simple fact that he has made it pretty clear, he is putting more emphasis on tournament fishing in 2023. He already made the trip down to Okeechobee before the cut-off to pre-practice and explore around to see the lake.
Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge
This year I am going to play the Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge a little differently. I am choosing all of my lineups before the start of the season instead of just picking them throughout the season. I have picked my eight anglers for every tournament this season and have them stashed away in an Excel spreadsheet, so we will see how those fare at the end of the season.
I think I made a huge mistake not doing it that way last season, for the simple fact that at the end of the season, I was really left with guys who weren’t really favorites for that tournament. So, my hope is by picking them this way I can have the guys I need at the end of the season to perform. But here are my eight picks for Okeechobee.
• John Cox
• Scott Martin
• Cliff Prince
• Bill Lowen
• Bryan Schmitt
• Larry Nixon
• Caleb Kuphall
• Matt Herren