Who will win the 2023 Bassmaster Classic? That’s a very, very good question.
This Classic is the hardest to predict in recent memory, due to a number of factors. One, the venue varies extensively from one end to the other, with a bunch of patterns possible. Two, early spring brings the most variability to the weather. Coupled with the influence of the spawn, the bass are unpredictable. And these are different species of bass – separated by different minimum-length limits – throwing another wrench in the plans.
Finally, this event will be a first featuring the refined use of forward-facing sonar for the Tennessee River’s Bassmaster visits. We caught a glimpse in 2021 at the Elite event held here, but nothing like is sure to unfold this week.
So where to start?
Looking at past results helps, but just a little. The 2019 Classic occurred nearly the same calendar week as this event. There, we saw lipless and flat-sided crankbaits dominate, fished around short, rocky points and key channel banks. A jerkbait was also thrown into the mix by eventual winner Ott DeFoe. Defoe, however, was joined in the Top 10 by a group that, for the most part, will not be present this week. The only exceptions are Brandon Lester and Brandon Palaniuk. Remember those names; we’ll get back to them.
Looking, then, to the 2019 Elite event for more clues, Jeff Gustafson dominated from start to finish. The problem of relying on this info, however, is how he did it. Gussy utilized a technique foreign to virtually every other competitor, a vertical-jig presentation he refined through years of use across the Great North. No-one else was “moping” when Gussy delivered his beatdown, so it’s hard to judge the rest of the field.
Regardless, the big names showed up that week to battle for second place. Christie, Hackney, Cox and Kennedy all milked the banks for big paychecks.
Let’s dig in here. Jason Christie and Greg Hackney are two of the top performers on the B.A.S.S. circuit; truly legends of the game. Each fishes well in pressure-cooker events. Christie has already proven himself as a Classic champion, for Hackney it’s just a matter of time.
I look for one, or both, of these guys to make a charge for the title. A factor, though, will be spectator traffic. While we have far fewer spectators on the water today compared to, say, the late ’90s, chase boats still make an impact. It’s likely there will be a big group this week, Knoxville being a major supporter of organized bass fishing. I just hope the anglers are given some room.
John Cox is an anomaly, but he makes it work. While a few fellow competitors try to fish like Cox, none has mastered the ability to vacuum shallow water like the original. Cox has an uncanny talent to find secret honey holes that look terrible, and somehow pull a limit of fish out of the mud. He did this in the 2019 Elite and, while that secret spot is likely ancient history, Cox will find another. Watch him.
Gustafson can’t be ignored, but his hole is also a thing of the past, I’d guess. I can imagine all the “mopers” Gussy created in middle Tennessee following his win. But deep water could still play a role in other locations. Look for anglers accustomed to finicky smallmouths to crack the code, especially with the sonar advancements mentioned earlier. Nowhere has this technology played a bigger role than open-water smallmouth fishing, and we will see it play out this week. Who will benefit is yet to be determined, but we will see a sonar junkie come out swinging, mark my word.
I look for two other hammers to make a big push: Cory Johnston and Matt Arey. Johnston, of course, brings a load of offshore smallmouth experience and an aggressive style. He’ll catch some big fish with a spinning rod this week.
Arey has always been underrated. He’s a power-fisherman hailing from North Carolina, so he’s no stranger to a crankbait, a lure that will be key in Knoxville this week.
Getting back to the question at hand: Who will win the Classic? Brandon Card is a very good bet. While his resume reads Salisbury, North Carolina, Card is a Tennessean. In 2019, Card placed fourth at the Elite event in Knoxville, using forward-facing sonar better than the rest of the field to catch open-water, pre-spawn largemouth. Card’s knowledge base of Knoxville is vast.
Palaniuk is THE Brandon of the Bassmasters and he’s likely to make a run. Palaniuk is at the stage of his career where he’s performing well, with every title in his crosshairs. Confidence is supreme. Ability matches. I would be shocked if Palaniuk didn’t hover around the top of the leaderboard throughout this event.
Brandon No. 3, Brandon Lester, is my pick. Lester won both Elite and Open events in 2022, he’s capable fishing offshore, and he’s one of few competitors this week who did well in the 2019 Classic in Knoxville. Momentum is key in this sport. I wonder, though, of Lester’s ability to deal with the Classic pressure. He seems level-headed, but that could go out the window heading into the final day.
Yes, this Classic will be one to watch. Lot’s of unknowns; the potential for a real nail-biter. Weather in Knoxville is lousy today, but expected to improve drastically by the weekend.
Will staging smallmouth be the key, caught off-guard by open-water gurus? Or will the big largemouths make a push shallow with the warming temperatures, colliding with the crawdad-colored cranks of old-school power fishermen?
I can’t wait to follow along and find out.
(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.)