By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
This is the furthest into a calendar year that a Bassmaster Classic has been held since the low-weight contest at the Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 2005 – just before it was transformed from a late-summer derby to a winter/early springtime event. That's one of several factors making it difficult to identify which anglers might fare well this week at Lake Conroe.
The 47th edition of the sport's premier tournament won't be dominated by just a few cold-weather techniques, as some recent Classics have been. The weather in east Texas is warm (it never really got cold all winter), most of the spawn has concluded and there are quality fish scattered from just a few inches of water out to 15 feet or so.
Keith Combs, the native Texan whose been a dominant force in home-state events for the past half-decade, remains the prohibitive favorite. He's won two Toyota Texas Bass Classic events at Conroe (and three overall), and his forté is offshore cranking. There's a good chance he'll be able to ply that technique over the next 3 days, which would make him very difficult to beat.
There are various ways in which this tournament could be won, though, and whoever holds up the trophy on Sunday will likely have employed several of them. Most competitors won't do a great deal of culling – the prevailing strategy appears to be finding a way to get 8 or 10 of the "right bites" each day and then keep them hooked up until they're within the confines of the boat.
Due to the extremely mild winter that the region experienced, the fish are further along in their annual progression than most anticipated when the venue was announced a year ago. The spawn isn't entirely complete and sight-fishing will play a role, but perhaps not nearly to the extent that many would've thought. Bedding fish could be very difficult to see on day 1, which will be dominated by clouds and wind.
Every angler in the 52-man field has something in his repertoire that could produce at least one big bag (20 pounds or better). The key will be consistency, as dramatic changes on the leaderboard are virtually guaranteed.
With all of the above taken into consideration, our picks are anglers who fall into one or more of three categories – semi-locals, guys who are hot and competitors who've proven their mettle in big events. Here they are:
1. Keith Combs – There are a bunch of factors that point to him becoming the fourth consecutive angler to win the Classic in his state of residence (following Alabamian Randy Howell at Guntersville in 2014, South Carolina's Casey Ashley at Hartwell in '15 and Oklahoman Edwin Evers at Grand last year). He's excelled on this venue in the past and if the big girls are moving away from the shallows, he'll know where to intercept them. He's entirely comfortable with the mindset that this event is all about quality over quantity and will have the patience to execute that game plan.
2. Aaron Martens – He's best-known for utilizing finesse tactics, but his record on big-weight bodies of water is strong as well. He has a lot of strengths, and the current conditions at Conroe could bring them all into play. This could be the year the four-time Classic runner-up goes home with that elusive trophy.
Ott DeFoe comes into Classic on a strong roll and is seeking his first major title.
3. Ott DeFoe – He's as hot as any angler in the game and he's extremely adaptable – he has no issues with the idea that he might have to change his entire program from one day to the next. He's moved into the game's top echelon and seems destined to win a Classic or an Angler of the Year title very soon, and there's at least a chance that both could occur this year.
4. Todd Faircloth – He works his way into contention at the Classic seemingly every year and this should certainly be no exception. Neither his face nor his mannerisms will ever reveal it, but he's pumped to get this opportunity so close to home and badly wants to capitalize. He should be around for the duration.
5. Kevin VanDam – Many thought his days of collecting trophies and six-figure paychecks were behind him, and then he won two regular-season derbies (along with the short-field Classic Bracket event) last year. Now a lot of those same people think Classic victory No. 5 will happen, maybe sooner rather than later. He'd jack up the already-high buzz level surrounding the event with a strong day-1 bag.
6. 1. Mike Iaconelli – Among competitors in the field, the 2003 Classic winner's record at Conroe is 2nd only to Combs' and this is an event that brings out the best in his well-rounded game. He undoubtedly explored all options during practice and has likely uncovered more than one way to get a big bite.
7. Edwin Evers – As the defending champion, he has a chance to become just the third angler in history to win consecutive Classics. His best chance would likely be to come from behind on the final day as he did last year, as he's still a bit attention-shy while tournaments are progressing. Until then, staying close to the lead without being in it would lessen some of the pressure.
8. Hank Cherry – This is a pick based solely on what he expressed during Media Day on the eve of the event – he tapped into a jerkbait bite during practice and boated quite a few bruisers. He's itching to get back out on the lake to see whether it holds up.
9. Greg Hackney – Every serious fan of the sport knows he's traditionally struggled in the Classic, but rarely has he been presented with a set of conditions for the event that suit him as well as these. Completing the unprecedented career grand slam (he already has AOY titles on both major circuits and a Forrest Wood Cup victory) is a distinct possibility.
10. Alton Jones Jr. – It would probably be more prudent to place his 2008 Classic-winning father here, but there's a lot to like about the rookie. He's been unfazed by the transition to the game's top level, displaying the composure of a veteran. Another father-son tandem of Classic champions to join Guido and Dion Hibdon is fun to think about.