The Bassmaster Classic is upon us and things are shaping up for an exciting event. Lake levels are uncharacteristically high and rising, increasing the chance of a shallow bite, and many of the competitors have little or no experience on Lake Ray Roberts. Expect the outcome to be something other than routine.

We must also factor in the lack of overall Classic experience in this field. This is especially important for this event, as with the Classic comes intense media attention and obligations on the anglers. Rarely can a rookie hold it together and win.

Regardless, itís time again to give my predictions. Now, as a disclaimer, picking through this field is more difficult than ever due to the darkhorse factor. And I stand by my thoughts expressed here last week, that something unpredictable will prevail in this event.

Noting that, hereís who I pick to lead the charge:

> Matt Arey: Fans of the sport know Arey through his previous performance on the FLW Tour, where he was a winner multiple times. In addition, Arey qualified for the championship event (the former Forrest Wood Cup) so many times it was as if he had a free pass. The guy just never faltered in the AOY race.

So Arey is a veteran of championship competition, and that will play a huge role this week. Donít expect him to get rattled if heís in the hunt going into the final day. In addition, Arey is a competent structure fisherman, his wins pointing to finesse applications off the bank. His B.A.S.S. highlights reveal high finishes from St. Clair to the St. Johns, so heís well-versed at many types of fisheries. Look for Arey to be close on Sunday.

> Clark Wendlandt: Okay, easy pick. Last yearís Elite Series Angler of the Year and probably the most acclaimed angler in the field. Again, FLW fans will remember that Wendlandt was one of the very best to play the game in the early 2000s. A few may even remember that Wendlandt had a great career going with B.A.S.S. before leaving for FLW, with Top-10s dating back to 1992. This will be his fifth Classic, but itís been 20 years since he was invited.

It also helps that Wendlandt is a Texan. Thereís just something about fishing in Texas that reveals performers who are comfortable with Lone Star fisheries, and what to look for. Ray Roberts is out of the ordinary, so it helps to have a starting point. And you gotta love Clark.

> Drew Benton: Likely to fly somewhat under the radar, Benton has been a steady performer on the Elite Series for six years. Heís a former Rookie of the Year and winner of an event in Texas at Lake Travis. Benton is a popular social media influencer and has really come into his own in terms of his career over the last few years, earning him a rare ďveteranĒ status in this event. This will be his fourth Classic in the last five years, so that helps. Also, Bentonís comfortable off the bank and good with big baits. Remember that this week.

> Brandon Cobb: Cobb may be the most unassuming of my picks, but that doesnít mean he wonít swing for the fences. I interviewed Cobb a few years ago at the FLW Cup (one of which he almost won), and was immediately impressed with his calm demeanor despite his age. Cobb reminded me a lot of Jordan Lee (remember his performances in the Classic?)

Statistically, Cobb looks good on paper for this tournament. Heís a two-time winner on the Elite Series, including a win at Lake Fork. For some reason, titles at Fork seem to be a way for the media to gauge a guyís chances at Ray Roberts, so weíll go along with it. Even more so, Cobb is almost always in the money; he silently gets paid event after event, all over the country. Heís a very competent structure fisherman. Oh, and did I mention, Cobb almost won the Forrest Wood Cup twice?

> Cody Bird: Saving the best for last, I have to say, Cody Bird is my pick to win. The main reason is simple: Texas experience. A look at Birdís stats reveal the majority of his derby income has come in Texas and Louisiana. I still say that fishing in Texas is like fishing in Florida; either you get it, or you donít. Bird definitely gets it.

Another factor is Birdís method of qualifying through the Opens. While I would normally all but guarantee an Open angler could never win the Classic, in this case, I think itís a real possibility. Perhaps Birdís current triple-A status takes a little pressure off of his performance.

But make no mistake, Cody Bird is no triple-A fisherman; heís a hammer. His winnings likely total over a million dollars with a rod and reel, and heís used to swinging for the fences when fishing in Texas. Bird will be able to adapt quicker than most to the current, and changing conditions, and I look for him to come out on top.

In any case, Iíll be there, as always, watching it all unfold.

Dreaming and mesmerized. The same as I was at my first trip to the Classic, now 30 years ago. Where did the time go?

(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.)