From Sabine to Sturgeon Bay: Zona’s Elite picks

Mark Zona can make some bold statements, at least make them sound bold. The Bassmaster TV analyst and host of Zona’s Awesome Fishing Showpossesses vast fishing knowledge, so we asked him to give his perspective on the 2015 Bassmaster Elite Series.

He looked at each event this season and predicted what he expects will happen and who will win each event and the titles of rookie and angler of the year.

(See a photo gallery including Zona's predictions here.)

Sabine River, Orange, Texas, March 19-22

The Elite season opener kicks off where Todd Faircloth caught 49 pounds, 6 ounces to win the 2013 event.

“Sabine River, a lot of people said before and during how tough of an event that was, but the quality swims in that place,” Zona said. “The issue with the Sabine River is, you are so committed to your morning decision of where you are headed.”

The layout of the river and all the stump- and junk-filled backwaters takes moving around much out of the equation.

“What a lot of the hardcore fans don’t realize is it’s not a place that you can pick up your trolling motor and say I’m going to run a half dozen areas today,” he said. “I’m going to run one or two. The travel time comes down to, I’m going to bunker in to this area and I’m going to pick it apart.”

When Faircloth won, he went west, which Zona found interesting because most of the quality fish came from those going north and east.

“My favorite in this tournament is Cliff Crochet,” Zona said. “He’s a very special fisherman, and he’s due for a win. He wins here.”

Lake Guntersville, Guntersville, Ala., April 9-12

The lake is well-known with 22 pro events there, including the 2014 Classic and four Elites, the last two requiring more than 100 pounds to win.

“Hardest tournament of the entire year to pick, by far and away,” Zona said. “A lot of our rookies, a lot of our true rookies – wink, wink, nod, nod – are going to get a dose of Bassmaster Elite Series reality at this tournament.

“Somebody is going to look in their livewell at 2:45 on the first day and have 17 1/2 pounds, then they’re going to get their face punched in an hour later at the weigh-in.”

Zona doesn’t see many bags like Randy Howell’s final day 29-2 that propelled him to the 2014 Classic title there, in fact, he doesn’t seen anyone getting a Century Belt this go around.

“There is a world of difference on Guntersville between 18 pounds and 22 pounds,” he said. “It’s very hard to get past that 26- to 29-pound barrier on that lake.”

But a lot of qualify fish will be caught.

“The whole lake, the majority of the population that swims in that lake is going to be up and eating,” he said. “Not saying it can’t be won deep, because not everything swims shallow that time of year.”

So who wins? “Greg Hackney,” he said.

Sacramento River, Sacramento, Calif., April 30-May 3

This venue sounds new but it’s just a good run downstream to the California Delta, where Aaron Martens and John Crews won previous events.

“Whenever we go West, no matter even if we had John Crews win on the Delta the last time we were there, there’s always a local dominance factor in those events,” Zona said. “They fish differently, they set up differently from anywhere out East.”

He adds there won’t be a record fish or bag there, despite Mark Tyler catching a 14-pound, 9-ounce largemouth in 1999 that still stands as the largest ever caught in Bassmaster history.

“The giant bags are to be had there right now,” he said. “We’ll be coming in when fish are in transition.”

So who’s the pick?

“Local knowledge plays such an enormous factor in those tournaments and this will come down to long runs and it will come down to guy who cut their teeth there,” he said. “Flip a coin – Skeet Reese or Ish Monroe.”

Lake Havasu, Lake Havasu City, Ariz., May 7-10

Three B.A.S.S. events have been held on Lake Havasu, the last being more than a decade ago.

“I think we’re slightly going to be missing spring break, which completely bums myself, Mercer and Sanders out,” Zona said, “but I’m sure there will be a few party coves where possibly we can run feeds to do Bassmaster Live and some Toyota Hooked Up sessions.

“I’m looking more forward to this event probably than any event in my life. Lake Havasu is a playground on the water and off.”

Zona said he’s also rather curious to see how smallmouth factor in this event.

“Lake Havasu has quietly become a pretty impressive smallmouth fishery,” he said. “The smallies are spawning there as we speak, so a lot of that will be postspawn. I’m very curious to see how big of a factor they will be. I actually think by the end of the week that could turn out to be a little bit of a tough event.”

So who’s favored to win?

“I’ve got to give a two-headed monster out again,” he said. “As much as I want to pick John Murray, I can’t do it. I’ve got to go with the roommates in this. I think Brett Hite and Brent Ehrler are fishing as well as anybody on earth right now, and it will come down to one of them on Sunday.”

BASSfest, Kentucky Lake, Paris, Tenn., June 3-7

Zona said this the absolute perfect time of year to visit Kentucky Lake.

“If somebody was going to schedule a ledge fishing beatdown for a vacation, they would schedule it within two weeks of when we are going to be there,” he said. “The fish will still be grouped up solid on the ledges and extremely unintelligent.

“The beautiful thing is we’re going out of Paris, which will give our guys the choice to run either south or north. I know it’s been a little bit tough there the past 12 months, but you’re still in a home run derby.”

KVD won the Elite event there in 2010, topping 20 pounds each day on his way to a four-day total of 92-5.

“Kevin VanDam owns this house,” Zona said, “you’ll have to go through him to hold this trophy.”

St. Lawrence River, Waddington, N.Y., July 30-Aug. 2

Brandon Palaniuk won an Elite trophy on the famed smallmouth fishery in 2013, one of 16 B.A.S.S. tournaments held on the St. Lawrence.

“Honestly, it’s the best fishery on the earth right now. Actually, and what’s weird, the fish literally are not going to be that far coming off the spawn,” Zona said. “Fish spawn in New York at the end of June, the beginning of July. They’re not at their heaviest weights that time of year. There’ll still be an array of 20-pound bags, but the 26- to 28-pound freak stringers of smallmouth just won’t be weighed that time of year.

“The other side is the fish will be in every single water column. Here’s the beauty of the St. Lawrence, you can catch a bass on anything you want to throw. That tournament will still come down to video game fishing. Aaron Martens should have won the last time we were there; this time he wins.”

Chesapeake Bay, Cecil Co., Md., Aug. 13-16

In 1991, Ken Cook won the Classic on the big water, just south of last year’s trying event on the Delaware River.

“In a weird, weird way, I can guarantee Ken Cook will not win this event,” Zona said. “I’ve done my homework. It will not be as tough as the Delaware River in any way, shape or form.”

Zona gives those with experience on the fishery an advantage, including the more than handful of guys who were there 24 years ago.

“Just having that navigation knowledge of any river system we’ve not been to in awhile, and the way a river lays out and acts is so huge,” he said. “Jacob Powroznik (of nearby Port Haywood, Va.) wins this tournament. Not only does he win this tournament, but Jacob Powroznik is my guy. I honestly feel I may have been split at birth from Jacob Powroznik … for my own reasons … I’ll keep to myself.”

Lake St. Clair, Detroit, Mich., Aug. 27-30

It will take the same approach as the 2013 Elite event, but don’t expect a similar result.

“You’re going to have to run to win,” Zona said. “It’s going to be the same way, just like it was when Chris Lane won.

“No 1, to me, that was the biggest upset in the history of bass fishing tournaments ever on the face of the earth. I hate to say that. I love Chris Lane, but to see him win that tournament, to this day, I literally said to myself, what is going on in the world of bass fishing?

“If there was totally a tournament not in the wheelhouse of Chris Lane – Chris Lane is the best on earth at fishing grass – but to see him out there in giant waves, in the mouth of Lake Huron, was so out of place.”

Zona is emphatic on why the winner will have to make a long run.

“By that time of year, St. Clair has been throttled by local pressure,” he said. “The other side of it, the smallmouth actually start to school on Erie. It is the premium time of year to catch schooling fish.

“Those fish on Erie are a little bit left alone, just because of the vastness and roughness, and that’s why Chad Pipkens wins this tournament.

“I’m not picking Chad Pipkens because he won the Open last year. I’m picking him because that is the time of year when his fish – and I know the exact schools he fishes for – will be home. I literally know the rocks he fishes.

“Dark horse in that tournament to keep your eye on, my old fishing partner, Koby Kreiger. Trust me.”

Toyota AOY Championships, Sturgeon Bay, Door County, Wis., Sept. 17-20

The Top 50 pros in the final standings head here to finalize the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) title, fight for berths into the 2016 Classic on Grand Lake and claim their share of $1 million in AOY prize money.

“Second best fishery on earth. Holds a place near and dear to my heart,” Zona said. “If I wasn’t on this phone and my wife would let me and that place wasn’t frozen, I would drive there right now.

“There are going to be some wicked, wicked big stringers caught in that tournament, if our guys are able to fish those fish.

“The interesting dynamic of Sturgeon Bay is it has a population that lives very, very shallow, and it has a population that lives very, very deep. And here’s what’s weird. I truly believe that both populations tend to live their entire lives in either area, 10 foot of water or less, 20 foot of water and deeper.

“They’re two separate acting populations of bass and obviously you can go there and you can do what you want in this tournament. It sets up almost as confusing as Guntersville to pick somebody.

“Last point I’d like to make to conclude; when I pick an end of year favorite, I do it based on the year as a whole and what trends in techniques favor on certain bodies if water. Basically it comes down to ‘this schedule sets up well for … insert name here,’ not just one lake.

“With the lakes we’re fishing, let's put this in a three-horse race for AOY come Sturgeon Bay – KVD, Martens and Ehrler. How great would that be?

“Martens wins AOY, KVD is second in AOY and Ehrler is Rookie of the Year and third in AOY.”