Lynn Burkhead — Classic Countdown: Texoma fantasy bassers pick 51st Classic winner

Herald Democrat

During the professional bass fishing season, yours truly and a few Denison friends of mine like to play the Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing Game and talk a little smack.

While I got lucky many years ago and finished third in the nation (the field was much smaller back then), I’m usually on the bottom end of our Texoma Bassmasters group standings after thoughtful picks by my buddies Andrew Means, Jason Blankenship, and Jason Maresh.

With the 51st Bassmaster Classic starting on Lake Ray Roberts one week from today, I thought I’d kill the proverbial two birds with one stone, giving readers a look at who might win the Classic and hopefully, get a leg up on my Fantasy competition.

Surprisingly, they agreed to play along and reveal their picks, playing right into my hand.

“I like Patrick Walters as my #5 selection because he’s a guy who has had success in Texas with winning on Fork in 2020,” said Andrew Means, the recreation manager for the Denison Parks and Rec Department. “Patrick has turned fishing into a whole new game with his ability to see the fish in real time on his forward facing sonar. His versatility will be key and if he is able to see that 8-pounder hiding behind the thousands of stranding trees in Ray Roberts, watch out.”

Means is going with Brandon Card in his #4 slot, the 10-year B.A.S.S. veteran who finished as runner-up at the flooded 2016 Bassmaster BASSfest event on Lake Texoma. Card, who finished fourth last fall and this spring at Lake Fork, will be fishing in his fourth Classic, and after a 9th place finish in 2020, he has to be liking his chances on a lake that could feature an offshore bite, a timber bite, a topwater bite, or all of the above next week.

“My #3 pick is Chris Zaldain,” said Means. “While he’s not a native Texan, he currently lives in Fort Worth and I’m sure he’s done his homework for Ray Roberts. He likes throwing the big swimbait and that could be a player in this non-points derby where everyone is swinging for the fences. He may only get 5-7 bites a day doing that, but I have a feeling they are going to be good ones.”

For his runner-up pick, Means says Steve Kennedy is due for a major win and should be in the running: “Steve has nine Classic appearances and three wins at the Elite level. Plus, he finished as the runner-up at the 2017 Classic at Lake Conroe near Houston, so he is no stranger to Texas lakes. I believe the swimbait will be a be a big key to catching big fish on Ray Roberts and Steve excels at that.”

Who gets the big $300,000 payday and the big Classic trophy next week at Ray Bob?

“My winning pick is Brandon Palaniuk,” said Means. “BP is competing in his 10th Bassmaster Classic and won an Open a couple of weeks ago. He may be the most versatile angler in the whole field and with his vast experience of fishing on the big stage, I really like his odds. I think he should be able to catch them shallow or offshore, and both play into his strengths. Now that he’s back from Major League Fishing, it’s only a matter of time before he wins the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing.”

Longtime bassing buddy Jason Blankenship doesn’t mince words when I asked who his top pick is for Classic #51.

“The weatherman,” quipped Blankenship. “It should be an interesting tournament considering the cooler than normal temperatures and the amount of rain we have had in North Texas. I think you are going to have fish up shallow as well as out deep in timber. Regardless of who wins, I hope the lake shows out and it’s nice to have the Classic back in North Texas after 42-years.”

What anglers does Blankenship like, besides those from the Weather Channel?

“I’m going to pick Micah Frazier as my #5, just because,” he said. “I’ll also put Matt Herren as my #4 pick because it’s hard not to consider him when you remember that he won the Toyota Texas Bass Classic in 2016 on Ray Bob.”

“My #3 pick is Cody Bird from Granbury. I’m putting him in my picks because he qualified by winning the 2020 B.A.S.S. Central Open on Neely Henry, but he’s also from North Texas. I have read that he spent over 20 days on Ray Roberts before the lake went off limits.”

“My runner-up pick is Clark Wendlandt out of the Cedar Park/Leander area down near Austin. Clark has so much experience fishing in Texas that it’s hard not to pick him as one of the favorites. He is another angler that can adapt to the different water conditions and I think he should have a solid showing.”

“And finally, my pick to win is Chris Zaldain of Fort Worth. He had a great finish in 2016 at the TBBC event on Ray Bob and that was held in late May, not too dissimilar to next week’s Classic dates. He is the type of angler that could easily catch the fish offshore if that’s the path to victory. Or, if the water is up because of the recent rain, then he can flip trees and bushes and do well that way too.”

Last, but not least, I asked buddy Jason Maresh for his thoughts on how the 51st Classic will go down. Like me, he’s got a little more…ahem, experience…than the two 30-something anglers quoted above.

And since gray matter often trumps youthful enthusiasm, I was eager to hear what Maresh’s picks were.

“My #5 pick would be Steve Kennedy because he’s the epitome of all or none,” he said. “Kennedy has seemed to shine when the following factors are in play—turbid and or high water, challenging conditions, and identifiable current.”

While current isn’t a part of most Ray Bob fishing discussions, it could be next week because of water releases and watershed inflow. And that could make Kennedy—who fishes on current driven Alabama fisheries—a threat to catch big fish on big baits.

“My #4 pick is Brandon Palaniuk,” said Maresh. “He didn’t earn the nickname ‘The Prodigy’ for nothing. Crankbaits, bladed jigs, finesse, slow, fast, run and gun, it doesn’t matter, because he’s not afraid of adapting to what is presented.”

“For my #3 pick, let’s go with Matt Herren, who won the TBBC here a few years ago. Granted, the TBBC he won was a little different set up with the timing as compared to next week’s Classic. But Herren knows the Ray Bob fishery and should fish with a lot of confidence. If the lake is still high, which it should be, he could be lethal since his style of fishing is to find them, and then pick that area apart.”

How about Maresh’s runner-up pick? He goes with 2021 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year points leader, Seth Feider.

“Momentum, momentum, momentum! He’s fishing out of his mind right now and has proven that he can catch ‘em anywhere in the country. Is this THE ONE for him?”

How about a winner at the Ray Roberts’ Classic? Maresh says to go with Hall of Fame worthy experience on Texas water, especially when that experience combines last year’s B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title, three FLW Tour AOY titles, and a TV show called “Hunting & Fishing Texas.”

“I’m picking Clark Wendlandt. The bright lights and distractions will not deter Wendlandt who has been here before, albeit not on Ray Bob. He’s a 54-year old fishing veteran who knows how to employ his electronics and he’s versatile. I suspect the fish will be in transition mode during Classic week and the weather continues to be unsettled. This should play right into Clark’s hands to win his first Classic.”

For what it’s worth, I agree that Wendlandt is the pick to win, followed by Palaniuk, Zaldain, Walters, and Fielder.

Hopefully, that’s the way it works out on the Classic weigh-in stage, as well as in our Texoma Bassmasters group.

Thanks for the help in picking my Fantasy Fishing line-up fellas, I knew I could count on you!