This week brings us one of the most significant professional tournaments of the season: the Bassmaster Elite Series event at the Sabine River in Orange, Texas. Without question, this fishery has the potential to impact the course of direction for this campaign more than any other, and represents a true midway point between chapters.

As we’ve seen, the 2023 Elite Series began with bang, featuring high-weight events at venues all across the South. Next up will be a swing through the North, sure to produce volumes of behemoth smallmouth that will ultimately decide the AOY.

But first, the Sabine.

The Sabine River fishery fits in neither category. One of the country’s vast river bass fishing settings, the Sabine represents a contingent of the sport that we see little of in these days of monumental weights and hype. The down and dirty. Ten-pound stringers. Major river systems where, if that’s your hometown fishery, you suck it up and take it, happy to place importance in 12-inch bass and the strategy involved in catching five.

The Sabine cheers for the underdog, yet rewards the savviest of veterans.

Look at former top finishers and winners at the Sabine: Christie, Hackney, Swindle, Lane. Names known to gamble, junk-fish their way to stardom, make the big run.

And we will see anglers traveling far at Sabine. This factor, perhaps, is the ultimate wildcard in how the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series will pan out. Those willing to gamble will either come away champions or go down in a ball of fire.

Long runs are customary here, as they are on many river fisheries across the country. And this week, anglers will only be eligible to fish in Texas; the waters of Louisiana now off limits thanks to locals interested in keeping their fishing holes to themselves. At the Sabine, it’s entirely possible for a competitor to make that long run and, quite literally, zero. No fish.

Such would be a catastrophic occurrence for most of the field. Angler of the Year standings, and everything that goes with them, from repeat Elite Series qualification to squeezing into the Classic; all of those accolades hinge on an angler never taking a zero. The standings are too tight to make up from it.

This concern is in the back of every Elite angler’s mind currently floating on the Sabine River. And it makes for intense strategy.

A number of anglers will voice their desire to “just get through the Sabine.” Catching a handful of fish each day will feel like a great victory, placing them neatly in the middle of the pack, not impacting their standings on the points list much. But those same anglers are taking just as great of a risk as the gamblers, some of whom will skyrocket up with a lucky roll of the dice.

Some guys will stay close and try for released fish. Nothing says they can’t. But the released fish play rarely wins, and gets tougher every year after someone figures it out and makes it national news. Released fish for four days? Never.

It will be hot. Temperatures are forecasted to be in the low 90s with little or no rain. River bass should remain shallow – there’s not a lot of other places to go – but the bite will be far from furious. This is shaping up to be a grinder of a tournament.

We’ll see old school bass fishing on the Sabine. Flippin’, pitching and side-arm spinners making their best showing of the year. For spectators, it will be a thankful retreat from the offshore boredom continuously clogging our view. Look for the same vets who made a splash at previous Sabine events to again steal the show.

Or will they? Most of the previous Sabine River standouts find themselves in the middle of the AOY pack. A big gamble that doesn’t pay off may wipe them out of the Classic race.

And then there’s Brandon Cobb, the current points leader by a wide margin. Will Cobb gamble and try to increase his lead? Not far behind is John Cox, a shallow-water specialist all but guaranteed to make a run at this tournament, literally and figuratively. Mike Iaconelli finds himself inside the AOY Top 10, too. He’s won many times on rivers just like this one.

Strategy on the Sabine. Sure to be the most pivotal event of the year.

We may see a few nice bass in the 4-pound range but, for the most part, this will be one based on getting keeper bites. Bass fishing in its true form. Giving back to the grinders.

I’m anxious to join the ride.

(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.)