This is about the time of year when the north country wakes up, and tour level smallmouth fiends who’ve been eating grits and drinking sweet tea for the past six months expect to come into their own. If you’re from Michiana or Minnebraska and you’re just outside the Classic cut, heading up to bronze country is like a gift from the fish-bearing gods, an opportunity to cement a spot next March at Guntersville.
But don’t count those dollars and sponsor bonuses so fast — the so-called home water advantage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yeah, Casey Ashley gave it a Classic boost, but it hasn’t done much for those sleeping in their own beds since then.
Whether you’re a grass flipper from Gainesville headed to the Monkey Box, a dropshotter from Detroit aimed straight at Dunkirk, or a swimbaiter from Sacramento with a reservation at Frank’s Tract, you will likely be in your comfort zone when you get there, but that doesn’t mean you’ll come out on top. More often than not, out-of-staters will not only take home the top prize, but they’ll dominate the top ten as well. Maybe that’s not true during limited windows, or the first time a tour heads to a venue, but by visit number two everyone seems to know everything.
The north is a prime example of that. For some years the anglers raised on smallmouths dominated, but now everyone has the same electronics, everyone knows how to use a dropshot, and few pros are cowed by light line.
Look at the last 12 times the Elite Series has visited northern venues* during the regular season and you’ll see what I mean.
Three of those 12 derbies have been won by anglers from the north (two by KVD and one by Seth Feider) but just as many have been won by anglers who moved from California to Texas or Alabama (Aaron Martens, Chris Zaldain, Mark Daniels Jr.). Oklahoma and Texas have claimed two apiece — Edwin Evers, Jason Christie, Todd Faircloth and Keith Combs. None of those latter four were raised on gobiecentric waters, but they seem to have figured them out just fine.
It’s not like Yankees have stocked the top 12, either. At Oahe last year, 15th place finisher Adrian Avena was the top angler from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. At the St. Lawrence, 7th place finisher Brandon Palaniuk was tops, but if you consider him more of a westerner than a northerner, then 10th place finisher Seth Feider slides into that role.
At the Mille Lacs AOY championship in 2017, Combs won, but was followed by a string of northerners and semi-northerners — Wheeler, Clausen, JVD, Ike and Feider finished 4th, 5th, 8th, 11th and 13th. Nevertheless, it’s not like they dominated. What we’ve learned over time is that a local is just as likely to finish 30th or 50th or possibly even dead nutz last as they are to win. That’s why a Connecticut pro like Paul Mueller can finish 86th at the St. Lawrence in 2018 and then bounce back half a year later to win at Lake Lanier in Georgia. It may make choosing your Fantasy Fishing team a nightmare, but it keeps the game interesting and attests to the overall skill level at the highest levels.
Just don’t push all of your chips to the center of the table for one team.
[*By “northern,” I’m referring here to anything above about Pennsylvania, which means adding Oahe to a mix of New York and midwestern smallmouth and dual species fisheries.]