In most years, the final event of the Bass Pro Tour season is the easiest to handicap for Phoenix Boats Fantasy Fishing players. You assess who’s fishing well, who needs a strong finish for Bally Bet Angler of the Year or REDCREST qualification purposes, who has a history of success on smallmouth waters. At that point, there’s not a lot of room for wild cards.
This year, however, the venue itself is the wild card.
Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki will take the BPT field to Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River. None of the 80 anglers who will take the water has ever competed in a national-level event on the fishery. That lack of history, coupled with the fact that Saginaw Bay will offer diverse opportunities for anglers to target both largemouth in shallow grass or smallmouth out deep, means filling out a fantasy roster feels like more of a dart throw than ever.
Never fear. We’ve broken down both the fishery and the field to provide players everything they need to know before locking in their lineups. Also, if you missed it, here’s who our MLF Insiders are picking for their teams.
Like most other Great Lakes fisheries, the most sought-after quarry in Saginaw Bay will be its 4- to 5-pound smallmouth. But unlike, say, Lake St. Clair or the St. Lawrence River, it feels like there’s a real chance largemouth could factor into the Top 10.
Saginaw Bay features the largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetland system in the United States, which provides miles of shallow vegetation where largemouth live. Plus, the 22-mile Saginaw River offers even more shallow habitat.
“It’s nothing to go out and get 75 to 100 bites a day largemouth fishing up there,” VanDam said. “And you’re doing it in the most fun way possible: flipping, punching with a 65-pound braid and big weights and frogging. If the BPT was still the catch-all-you-can format, largemouth would dominate, and you’d see some really big numbers. Possibly record-breaking numbers.”
While largemouth might be more plentiful, smallmouth are typically larger on average. Usually, the long run to smallmouth territory and back, coupled with the fact that VanDam says it’s rare to find a cluster of productive spots in a single area, makes targeting them a risky proposition. But a trailering policy put in place by the Bass Pro Tour for this event – which will allow anglers to launch from any public boat ramp within the competition boundaries – should help those who want to chase brown fish. Windy conditions, which can make the big water borderline unfishable, could still make going all-in on smallmouth a gamble, but it would be a surprise if they don’t make up the winning bag.
“A guy can definitely make the Top 10 fishing for largemouth, but smallmouth usually win up there,” VanDam said. “You’re talking average bags between 20 and 24 pounds, with bags over 25 pounds very possible. So (smallmouth) are a huge X-factor but also a huge risk.”
Not only have no anglers in the field competed in top-level tournaments on Saginaw Bay, few have any sort of local knowledge of the fishery. Only two, Jonathan and Kevin VanDam, live within a few hours’ drive. While Jonathan has a bit more experience on Saginaw Bay, Kevin recently told Bass Fishing magazine that until this year, he hadn’t fished Saginaw Bay in 30 years.
That said, look for the VanDams to be frequent picks this week given their relative proximity to Saginaw Bay and the fact that Kevin will be a popular sentimental pick. This will mark the final regular-season tournament of his legendary career prior to his retirement.
At a venue where so few anglers have experience, targeting those who have shown strong form of late could be a winning strategy. If that’s your plan (or even if it isn’t), it would be impossible to exclude Jacob Wheeler. Wheeler has reeled off finishes of first, third and third in his past three events. That continued a remarkable trend for the two-time defending Angler of the Year winner. In the second half of each of the past three seasons (from Stage Four on), Wheeler has logged a remarkable 10 top-five finishes in 11 events. He’s won three of those and never finished worse than 11th.
The only man ahead of Wheeler in the AOY standings, Alton Jones Jr., has been nearly as hot. Jones has finished among the top 11 in five straight events (including his General Tire Heavy Hitters win) and has finished fourth or better in both stops since the tournament trail swung north.
Other anglers riding high: Could Jordan Lee’s win on Lake St. Clair be the start of another hot streak? He’s been known to win in bunches, and he has plenty of success fishing shallow cover for largemouth on his resume in addition to his win in smallmouth country. … Mark Rose has been strong up north, making the Championship Round at both Cayuga and Lake St. Clair. … Matt Becker’s impressive rookie season includes finishes of fifth, sixth and 17th in his past three events. He’s always a threat when smallmouth are involved. … Aside from Wheeler and Jones, the only other angler to finish 16th or better in each of the past three tournaments is Jesse Wiggins.
The Angler of the Year competition will be the dominant storyline throughout this event, and for good reason: there’s never been an AOY race in Bass Pro Tour history featuring four anglers this close to one another entering the final event. Due to how tightly-bunched the top four anglers are, none of them can afford to play it conservative. That makes Jones Jr., Wheeler, Becker and Ott DeFoe obvious candidates for your fantasy rosters.
The one question mark among that group is whether DeFoe will feel like he has to target smallmouth to have a chance at AOY, and whether he can catch them if so. Historically speaking, chasing largemouth in shallow water suits his style far better — especially with the Saginaw River in play for this event. He very well could conclude that fishing his strengths would be better than trying to beat Wheeler, Jones and Becker at their own game. Those who roster him will probably hope he does so, as he seems more likely to strike out by swinging for the proverbial fences and chasing smallmouth than the other three AOY contenders.
The other anglers who should be free to fish for the win are those in the top 20 or so in the season-long standings, as they shouldn’t be in danger of falling below 40th and missing out on REDCREST. A few names who fit the first description and have shown an ability to win on northern waters include Dakota Ebare, Adrian Avena, Justin Lucas, Michael Neal and Dustin Connell.
With so little tournament history on Saginaw Bay, it’s hard to rule anyone out. So zigging where other players zag by targeting anglers who likely won’t be widely rostered could be a savvy move, especially for someone trying to make up points to their league mates.
Here are three names from each group who might not be very trendy but could deliver a strong finish.
Spencer Shuffield – Shuffield has fished better than his 38th place in the Angler of the Year standings indicates. He only fell there after he was disqualified from Stage Five at Cayuga Lake due to a rules violation. Any time smallmouth are in play, Shuffield deserves consideration for a roster spot.
James Watson – Although he didn’t compete, Watson got some time on the water at Saginaw Bay last year while working the National Professional Fishing League’s tournament as an on-the-water commentator. Given how little experience the field has on the fishery, that could make a difference.
Josh Bertrand – After a brutal start to the year, Bertrand not only made his first regular-season cut but finished 10th at St. Clair. Always a contender when fishing up north, he’ll look to carry that momentum with him to Saginaw Bay.
Cody Meyer – After a slow start to the season, Meyer is fishing much better of late. He’s made three straight cuts on the BPT and finished in the Top 10 of the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals tournaments at both the Potomac and Mississippi Rivers. That hot streak includes two high finishes targeting shallow largemouth and an 11th-place finish when he committed to smallmouth at Cayuga.
Terry Scroggins – The Florida native should feel right at home should he choose to target largemouth living in grass, but don’t discount him as a smallmouth angler, either. Scroggins finished fifth at St. Clair.
Luke Clausen – There are some similarities between Saginaw Bay and a few of the reservoirs near Clausen’s hometown of Spokane, Washington, including Lake Couer D’Alene, where anglers can target largemouth in grass or go deep for smallmouth. Plus, the former Bassmaster Classic and Forrest Wood Cup winner is simply too good an angler to find himself in the bottom 20 of the AOY standings.