By Todd Ceisner
With a field of 55 competitors, one would think it'd be fairly easy to compose a list of a couple handfuls of anglers who have legitimate shots at winning the Bassmaster Classic this week.
Guess what, it wasn't easy.
There's plenty of history at Guntersville as far as tournament results go, including plenty of reference points for this time of year. Some in the Classic have tasted victory multiple times here and there are virtually no secrets on this lake. It's a classic grass lake that sees extensive pressure and it harbors plenty of big fish from one end to the other.
There's a reason why on any given day you can find license plates from five or more states at a ramp parking lot at Guntersville.
Sure, it was iced over in some parts just a couple weeks ago, but warm air has finally arrived and the fish should be on the move shortly. That fact could negate any sort of hometown edge the strong contingent of Alabama qualifiers may have had if the mercury had stayed in the 30s and 40s.
Mental toughness and a laser-sharp focus will go a long way this week, considering some guys may only catch eight or 10 fish a day. Executing on those opportunities will be imperative since there's a better than average chance a few of those fish will be in the 5-pound class or better.
Versatility will also be a major factor as some areas of the lake are cleaner than others and have more wood than grass or vice versa or won't hold up to the fishing pressure. Guys who are able to pick up and go on a hunch and then convert at the next stop will be the guys to watch because those types of moves only breed confidence.
Keith Combs has won two Toyota Texas Bass Classics and has the tools to unlock the big-fish potential at Guntersville.
The umbrella rig has been such a major force at Guntersville since Paul Elias won with it here in the fall of 2011. It won't be a factor this week, except for locals, and that alone adds another level of intrigue to this tournament: How do some of the best anglers in the world plan to pick apart a lake when one of the most effective tools at doing so is off limits to them?
With all that in mind and more, here's a look at BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event.
Top 10 To Watch
1. Kevin VanDam – His track record at Guntersville is rock solid with seven Top-10s in B.A.S.S. competition, including a win at the 2007 Elite Series visit. This time of year suits him just fine, evidenced by his two Classic wins in February. He seemingly has nothing left to prove, but something tells us he'd like to prove he can deliver once again when it's all on the line. He hasn't won a tournament since the 2011 Classic and a fifth world title would push him ahead of Rick Clunn for most Classic wins ever and nudge his career earnings (B.A.S.S. and FLW) past the $6 million mark.
2. Randall Tharp – He has said repeatedly that his past success at Guntersville is the reason why he was able to pursue a career as a pro angler. He owes a lot to the lake and would love nothing more than to follow up a 4th-place finish at his other favorite lake (Okeechobee) with a Classic title to kick off his first season as a two-tour pro. His knowledge of Guntersville might be unmatched compared to others in the field, which can be a blessing and a curse, but he's proven to be a strong closer and if he gets off to a strong start, he could be tough to catch.
3. Aaron Martens – The reigning Angler of the Year will be the first boat to motor away from the dock Friday and some believe he's the man to beat this week. He lives just down the road in Leeds and has won an Elite Series event at Guntersville (2009) so he knows the lake and did plenty of homework this winter. Fishing in crowds can sometimes get under his skin, but this is his backyard and after four Classic runner-up finishes, he seems determined to stay on the roll he got on last season.
4. David Walker – He's fired up for this Classic and thinks the record book will be rewritten by the time it's over. He's been strong on Tennessee River lakes before (he won the Wheeler Lake Elite Series in 2011) and had three Top 10s in tour competition at Guntersville. The big stage won't rattle him as he's competed in 10 Forrest Wood Cups and eight previous Classics.
Bobby Lane has a strong background on grass lakes and wouldn't mind claiming the Classic trophy on his brother's home turf.
5. Mike Iaconelli – Some of the lasting images from last year's Classic involved Ike yelling at a dog on shore and having his trolling motor go haywire on multiple occasions. He still managed a Top-5 finish, but struggled through the Elite Series season before punching his Classic ticket with an Open win at Lake Erie. His Guntersville acumen is on par with anyone on this list – he won the 2006 Elite Series tournament here and has two other Top 10s on his ledger. He'll grind if he needs to grind, but don't discount his ability to slug it out either.
6. Keith Combs – He's no stranger to big-fish lakes or winning on them either. He's a stud in Texas, but has developed his all-around skills to the point where he can be a real threat just about anywhere. Guntersville's offshore opportunities seem to fit his style. If there's a cranking bite, he could be a factor. Don't sleep on him, though, if they're piled up on shallow ledges either. He took 5th here in 2009 when the FLW Tour visited.
7. Edwin Evers – Will this be lucky Classic number 13 for the awe-shucks Oklahoman, who fell flat last year at Grand Lake (25th) in his backyard? It's hard to say. He's had some top-end finishes at Guntersville (3rd in 2005, 7th in 2006) and some middle-of-the-pack results along the way. He's as consistent as anyone and there may not be a better angler on tour right now without an AOY or Classic title to his name.
8. Mark Davis – One of seven Classic winners in this year's field, he's a player when the bulk of fish are caught away from the bank. He came on strong to close the 2013 season to clinch a berth in his 17th Classic. He was 8th at Guntersville in the 2010 Elites, but there's very little hype about him this week. Is it even possible for a former AOY and Classic champ to be a sleeper?
9. Bobby Lane – Coming off a 4th-place finish in AOY points a year ago, he seems poised to break out and add a big win to his résumé much like brother Chris did 2 years ago. A Florida lifer with plenty of experience fishing grass lakes, his lone Elite Series win came on the Tennessee River in 2009 and he's been traditionally strong on big river systems (Potomac, Mississippi).
10. Brent Chapman – As steady and consistent as they come, the 2012 AOY is making his 13th Classic appearance. Like Evers, he was a little disappointed with his outcome at Grand Lake in last year's Classic. While his Guntersville history isn't all that impressive, he's been here enough to know what works. Moreover, he's a big fan of cold-water scenarios and has all the tools he needs to get multiple things working in his favor.