'Twas the night before Christmas.
Or the Classic. Even better.
Yes, it’s that time of year again, when a champion will be crowned and the best outdoor show in the country will leave many of us broke. But oh, how it’s worth it.
As always, my purpose is to dig into the details, giving many of you insight into the best performers while also providing my pick for a winner. But first, the venue.
Lake Guntersville may be the best bass fishery in the history of this country. Sure, others have had their time in the sun, but I can think of no other body of water that has sustained such remarkable fishing despite incredible fishing pressure. Credit must be given to lake managers, flexibly allowing major aquatic habitat to take hold, as well as the catch-and-release practices of area anglers and visiting bassers alike. In any case, G'ville’s got ‘em, as we will see this weekend.
Alabama’s weather in 2020 can be summed up in one word: wet. Rains have been persistent. Flooding has been a factor. But reports confirm that Guntersville’s water levels are adequate and that lake temperatures indicate the coming of spring.
Tournament weather is predicted to be cool, but sunny, following more wet weather. Predictions are for a major move of bass to the bank should the front get out of town in time.
This event is going to be won shallow, I predict. For that very reason, the list of anglers who have a shot is short.
This may seem like an oxymoron. I mean, everyone can fish shallow, right?
Not this week.
You see, in this day and age, deep water bassin’ is all the rage, and the pros on any tour are quite capable. When mega-schools are out on the ledges, it’s anyone’s game. But in the case of true shallow-water fishing this week, it will take a veteran to keep his cool. Throngs of spectator boats, as well as local spot-poachers, will invade the fishing holes. Boat traffic will be an issue. Up around the bank, the pressures will mount to catastrophic levels once the event reaches its final day.
For these reasons, my pick list consists of those anglers who can hold it together and run-and-gun their way to glory. These guys include:
> Stetson Blaylock: Sure, Blaylock comes across as a kid, but he’s far from it. I should know, as I remember him cashing checks in triple-A events back when he was, in fact, a child. But these days, Blaylock is an accomplished pro with some serious experience and a boiling desire to win. Couple that with an Elite win last year and we’ve got the makings of a contender.
Todd Auten: Talk about old school! Auten is old enough to be the father of many Elite pros and has competed in over 300 pro events, earning over a million dollars. Auten’s not flashy
and prefers to stay in the background in terms of press exposure, but he certainly knows how to make money with a rod and reel. I’d bet he’s considered what a Classic win would mean to his retirement plan.
John Cox: Easy pick. Cox continues to amaze everyone in fishing with his propensity for winning events, regardless of which tour he’s competing on. Truthfully, I’m not sure he knows from day to day, or even cares. Bottom line: Cox wins. It’s first or nothing.
Whitney Stephens: Dark horse here. Many of you likely don’t recognize Stephens' name or know his history, but he’s been quietly getting it done for years. Stephens puts himself at the top of the standings quite regularly, despite not fishing a ton of events. He’s won a couple Opens, but seems to show up when money’s on the line. A long shot, I know, but there’s just something about Stephens in a Classic that gets me curious.
Yes, any of these guys could win, and will likely be overshadowed by the more recognizable anglers grabbing the majority of the press. However, that’s a factor that may very well spell victory. Which is why, as champion, I predict:
> Ray Hanselman Jr.: Many of you remember Hanselman from his dominating year on the FLW Series, when he won every event in the Texas Division, as well as the national championship. Yes, that very year, I actually asked Hanselman if anyone ever accused him of cheating, so flabbergasted was I in his incredible feat. (Note: this question did not go over well). Fast forward to 2020, and we have a guy who swings for the fences and frequently hits the ball, with nothing to lose. Believe me, as a large reservoir filled with grass is the venue, with subtle ditches, drops and drains likely coming into play and a pre-spawn derby in the works, don’t count out a boy from Texas. Hanselman is simply one of the best from the Lone Star State. And, again, he’s a first-place kind of guy.
So there you have it, BassFans. A list sure to impress your buddies, should you jump on board and take my recommendations. I’ll be there, front and center, to soak it all in and report back my experiences.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)