By Pete Robbins
Fresh off Ottapalooza and Feiderfest on the Upper Mississippi, half of the Elites are staying up north and heading to another extremely fertile fishery. This one’s not a river system, though, it’s mighty Mille Lacs, which rumors tell us is going to produce massive bags of brown bass.
It’s a big pond at over 130,000 acres. Only a few lakes that the Elites fish – places like Okeechobee and Toledo Bend – are bigger. Furthermore, not many of these guys have tournament experience on this one. In fact, the last time B.A.S.S. visited a lake in Minnesota for a tour-level event was 20 years ago when they visited Lake Minnetonka a few hours south. No one who finished in the top 20 in that tournament will be fishing this event. The only two from that top 20 who still fish the Elites are Davy Hite and Rick Clunn.
Obviously, by the time you cull the field down to the top 50, you’re left without a slouch in the bunch, so that makes picking tough, compounded by the fact that we have so little tournament information about Mille Lacs. My strategy is to find anglers who’ve done well on big water smallmouths in the past and hope that continues forward.
My Pick: Jacob Powroznik
Powroznik seems to excel on the most expansive venues, with his two B.A.S.S wins coming at monstrous Toledo Bend and in the 2014 Angler of the Year Championship in Escanaba, another large and comparatively unknown smallmouth fishery. He’s only missed one Elite check this year since the St. Johns, and that was by one spot at Wheeler. He never seems to falter and he’s great with the brown fish.
Almost Picked: Chris Zaldain
While we’re crowing about the stellar seasons of Swindle, Tharp, Combs and young phenoms like Jordan Lee, the consistency of Chris Zaldain, who sits in seventh in the AOY race, has been largely unremarked upon. He won the AOY Championship last year in smallmouth country, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to do it again.
My Pick: Brandon Palaniuk
Big water smallmouths and BP go together like Powerbait and nose plugs. You can’t have one without the other. He’s had top ten finishes on Sturgeon Bay, St. Clair, Cayuga and Green Bay, plus a win at the St. Lawrence in which he ran out to Lake Ontario. He’s also done well on Bull Shoals, Table Rock and Havasu, lakes that have smallmouths even if they aren’t necessarily the dominant species. He’s assured of a Classic spot but with only one Elite top 12 this year he’d certainly like to venture into 2017 with a head of steam.
Almost Picked: Aaron Martens
In the land of the Purple People Eaters, the man in the Enigma boat would seem to be a logical choice. He’s had an exceptional year for anyone but AMart – which means six checks but no finishes better than 16th. After a 2015 season that was nothing short of exceptional, he needs a win at Mille Lacs to redeem this year by his amazing standards.
My Pick: Skeet Reese
Reese needed a second half surge to ensure his fifth straight Classic appearance and he seems to have achieved it with four checks in the last five events, including a fifth place finish in La Crosse. He finished second in Escanaba, seventh in Green Bay, and with decades of experience under his belt nothing seems to faze him. He’ll relish the big water and big fish.
Almost Picked: Todd Faircloth
For a born and bred Texan, Faircloth seems to like the northern summers, as evidenced by his 2015 win at St. Clair and his 2012 win in La Crosse. There’s no technique and no depth range – anything from 6 inches to 60 feet is fair game – that’s out of his wheelhouse, and having cut his teeth on Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, you can be sure that there’s no wave pattern that will deter him from going to his chosen area.
My Pick: Dave Lefebre
At 39th in the AOY race, Lefebre needs a good finish here to qualify for his second Bassmaster Classic, and his first since 2003. You can bet there’s no place he’d rather be than on big water chasing brown footballs in the fall. He’s an Erie hammer, and after three tough events in the last four Elite tournaments, he’ll need to pull out all of the stops to make sure that his “rookie” year is a successful one.
Almost Picked: Kevin VanDam
How can you not look to KVD to do well in the north country? No, La Crosse was not a shining moment in a career full of them, but he’s won three times this year, twice above the Mason-Dixon Line. His 23 career victories also included wins at Lake Wissota (Wisconsin) and two at the St. Lawrence River. Like many of his peers, he’s a hammer with any rod in his arsenal, but if there’s a jerkbait bite to be had he could fire up 25 pounds a day. At 34th in the points, he’s not in danger of missing the Classic (due to his Niagara win), but don’t expect him to let up on the gas.
My Pick: Seth Feider
He redeemed his season and his mullet with an exceptional performance in La Crosse just to get here, and now he’s playing with house money. Many anglers have faltered when they had home field advantage, but let’s ride Feider’s momentum another week. It would be the feel-good story of the year.
Almost Picked: Brent Ehrler
Perennial championship contender Brent Ehrler finds himself in 41st place in the AOY race. While he notched a third place finish at the Potomac, he’s had an un-Ehrler-like second half, missing three checks in the last four events and five of the last seven. He needs to come out strong if he wants to fish the 2017 Classic.