Don’t look now, but the Super Bowl of bass fishing is scheduled to descend upon Lake Conroe and the greater Houston metropolitan area next week for its March 24-26 run.
And with the event being staged in Texas for the first time since the 1979 Classic was won by Hank Parker on Lake Texoma, the question of the hour in many bass fishing circles is a simple one.
Will local favorite and budding B.A.S.S. superstar Keith Combs complete his rise to the top of the angling game and win the 2017 Classic on what is one of his several East Texas home waters?
My answer to that? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
For sure, Combs is one of the favorite anglers to take home the top prize of $300,000 in next week’s 47th Classic for a variety of reasons.
One is his growing presence in the sport, something evidenced by the fact that he will be competing in his sixth Bassmaster Classic since his inaugural appearance in 2011.
For the record, he has a string of Top 25 or better finishes in the Classic, taking ninth place on the Louisiana Delta in 2011; 16th on Louisiana’s Red River in 2012; 22nd on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville in 2014; 25th on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell in 2015; and ninth in the 2016 Classic derby held last year on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake.
Add in Combs’ 2013 Bassmaster Elite Series win on Texas’ Falcon Lake and his resume gets even more impressive. In edging out four-time Classic champ Rick Clunn at Falcon, Combs weighed in a huge four-day total of 111 pounds, five ounces, making him a member of the B.A.S.S. Century Club.
Combs has plenty of other impressive stats on his B.A.S.S. resume in just 69 career starts. Those include two third-place finishes (including the 2010 B.A.S.S. Central Open on Texoma); 20 finishes in the Top 10; 35 finishes in the Top 20; 46 finishes in the Top 30; 55 finishes in the money; and career earnings so far of $778,135.
Add in the Huntington, Texas angler’s legendary performances in other Texas pro events and Combs becomes an even bigger fan favorite to win next week.
Those include a 2010 Professional Anglers Association (PAA) win on Lake Tawakoni. And then there’s the Toyota Texas Bass Classic where Combs won in 2011 (on Lake Conroe over Mike Iaconelli), in 2013 (on Lake Conroe over John Murray) and in 2014 (on Lake Fork over Stetson Blaylock with a three-day total of 15 fish weighing a stunning 110-pounds).
No wonder Combs is picked by many bass fishing pundits to win his first Classic title next week on Conroe, a lake that he’s intimately familiar with and has won on before.
While I’ll certainly admit that Combs is supremely talented and primed to be the pre-tournament favorite given all of the number crunching above, he’s not my pick to win the tournament.
Why? In a word, pressure. And no, I don’t mean that Combs will crumble under the pressure of pre-tournament expectations. Instead, I think that his favored son status will end up hurting his chances to win since he will likely have literally dozens of spectator boats following him around.
In this year’s event, a record warm Texas winter has accelerated the spawning cycle on Conroe, leading to what most now believe will be a post-spawn bite.
While that would seem to be good news for Combs — who has great command of Conroe’s brush piles — I’m not sure if he will be able to control the positioning of spectator boats around him. Especially if his preferred spots in open water are anywhere near the miles of seawalls that are found on Conroe’s southern reaches, concrete walls that will accentuate the rocking splash of boat traffic waves.
If he can manage all of that spectator traffic, then Combs may very likely win. But if he can’t, then all bets are off.
Add in Conroe’s legendary status as a big fish lake and that becomes a potential game-changing wild card where one or two giant fish can rocket someone up the leaderboard.
Case in point was an early March tournament on Conroe, where outdoor writer Matt Williams recently reported that the big bass for the event weighed in at nearly 11 pounds. What’s more, Williams noted that three other Top 10 anglers weighed in double-digit bass and the fifth place angler almost did the same at more than 9 1/2 pounds.
Then there was the news this winter that Classic competitor Brandon Palaniuk caught a huge double-digit caliber bass while pre-fishing on Conroe. That was followed up by the news that BP’s fellow Classic competitor Bradley Roy did the same with a personal best fish in the 12 or 13-pound range.
None of the above big fish info is surprising since Conroe’s lake record largemouth is 15.93 pounds; the lake has produced a total of 17 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ShareLunker bass (including one in 2015); and the fact that the largest bass ever shocked up by TPWD biologists was a 14-plus pounder in the late 1990s.
Add all of that up and it’s little wonder that experts are predicting the potential of 25-30 pound sacks being necessary for the top anglers; a total winning weight in the 70s and perhaps even exceeding 80 pounds; and the outside chance that the Classic’s two heavyweight records (Kevin VanDam’s 2011 winning weight total of 69 pounds, 11 ounces and Preston Clark’s 2006 Classic big bass of 11 pounds, 10 ounces) could fall.
Add in a few other factors at Conroe, from the chance of a late spawning giant being found and caught off a bed by a sight-fishing pro to the myriad of fish holding docks on the lake to the most experienced Classic field of all-time (there are 12 former Classic champs in this year’s field) and I think that this event could be more wide open than some are suggesting.
Which is why (thanks to championship pedigrees, Conroe experience and/or the ability to handle a flipping stick) my Top 10 predictions include Keith Combs, Mike Iaconelli, Todd Faircloth, Andy Montgomery, Edwin Evers, Jason Christie, Kevin VanDam and the Texas father-son duo of Alton Jones and Alton Jones, Jr.
But for my winning angler pick this year, I’m going with 2016 BASSfest winner Greg Hackney.
Why? Because the Louisiana pro is one of the sport’s bona fide superstars, is good with a flipping stick in his hand (see his winning performance at last year’s BASSfest on Texoma) and he has great experience on the sport’s biggest stages (he’s the 2014 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, the 2005 FLW Angler of the Year and the 2009 FLW Tour Forrest Wood Cup champion).
Add in the Hack Attack’s two FLW Tour level wins, his three Bassmaster Elite Series wins and career earnings of more than $3 million dollars and there’s little doubt in my mind that Hackney is among the favorites to win next week on Conroe.
If Combs doesn’t grab the win, then expect Hackney to do so in what could be a big fish shootout for the ages with the Classic title and a $300,000 payday waiting in the wings.
In what should be a Super Bowl of bass fishing that is every bit as exciting as the pigskin version that was staged in Houston just a few weeks ago.