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Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Wheeler Lake predictions, forecasts and prognostications

By Rob Russow

It was bound to happen sooner or later. The pundits have gotten very cautious. After two events of daring picks and few clear favorites, nearly every pundit has jumped on the KVD bandwagon. Eight of nine favored the current Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year leader and defending AOY champion. Perhaps the safest pick, KVD is also one of the smartest. His record on Tennessee River systems is outstanding, and he is coming in wanting revenge on the fishery that saw him finish second to Jeremy Starks in 2008.

Six of nine pundits also chose shell-bed expert Timmy Horton, whose finishes on Wheeler Lake have been nothing short of excellent. Horton is rebounding from a tough start to the year at the Classic and has posted two solid finishes. Now he moves into his comfort zone, his home state, and gets a chance to mine some shell beds for his first top-12 finish of the year.

Even with safe bets like VanDam and Reese dominating the picks at Wheeler Lake, two pundits had a more refreshingly original choice in Marty Stone, to break out with a high finish in Decatur, Ala. Stone has a good history on the lake, with a win here in March in 1999 and a handful of decent finishes in the past decade. Stone hasn't been the most consistent pro on the Elite Series for the past several years, but his best finishes have consistently come on Lake Wheeler.

Another interesting pick by three pundits was Mark Menendez, the Toyota Trucks Diamond Drive champion. They hope he rides that momentum into Decatur, a place where he has had some success in the past, making the top 12 in his last two visits to Wheeler.

Here's a look at who our pundits like at Wheeler Lake:

James Overstreet
ESPN Outdoors Photographer

Kevin VanDam — After listening to him after the final day at Lake Dardanelle, he is still a bit peeved about losing to Jeremy Starks last year at Wheeler. He hasn't forgotten the smack talk by Starks either. He didn't stick around long after Sunday's weigh in at Dardanelle, he hit the road headed to Alabama with a full head of steam and a little extra motivation.

Matt Herren — Herren's not exactly a rookie when it comes to big-time tournament fishing, and he's coming home to Alabama for his first Elite Series event in his home state. Herren is NOT scared to fish against the best in the world, and he's quickly proving he belongs there.

Boyd Duckett — Duckett said he just wanted to survive Dardanelle, but his focus will change at Wheeler. Duckett will be looking for another win in his home state.

Skeet Reese — Skeet keeps winning and putting himself in one top 12 after another. We could be looking at another KVD versus Skeet Reese battle for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year.

Mark Menendez — It always amazes me how important momentum is in this sport. Menendez is coming off his win at Dardanelle, and also had a top-12 finish last year at Lake Wheeler. He'll leave the aluminum boat at home this week, but keep right on rolling in the Skeeter.

Mark Zona
TV Personality

Matt Herren — The water has fluctuated in a big way on Wheeler and Herren will know the ways to adjust quickly. Look for another final cut this week.

Kevin VD — I left him off my Dardenelle list for his roomate Rook. Bad move ace. Appears momentum is building…again. Plus, Wheeler has been swell to him.

Skeet Reese — He will not rest on his Classic victory. Plus, he told me to pick him in every derby this year.

Greg Hackney — Wheeler could be a grinders paradise. If so, he's the best.

Dean Rojas and Alton Jones — If the temps rebound and catch up with the moon phase, both will pound them.

Tommy Sanders
Host, The Bassmasters

Kevin VanDam — Might as well just put him at the top of the picks list for the rest of the season. If he won out, it wouldn't surprise anybody. Tennessee River: second last year here, second last week, blah, blah and so forth. It's basically a bet on him or the field most times.

Skeet Reese — Another wild and crazy prediction. Coming off the Classic win and stalking the leaders at the last two stops, Skeet shows no signs of coasting after the big one. Not a great record here, but just too much momentum to be ignored.

Randy Howell — Won a big chunk of change here a decade ago at this same time of the year. Overdue for a big finish and should have the local's perspective on what's going on at Wheeler.

Boyd Duckett — He won tournaments before he won the Classic and one of them was just down the river at Wilson/Pickwick. He'll have his homework done and will be ready to go. A good finish could put him back in the thick of the point race.

Timmy Horton — Completes the Alabama trifecta. A guy who has the tools to win anywhere, but here, where he knows every drop and every stump by name, he should be especially tough.

Steve Bowman
ESPN Outdoors Editor

Kevin VanDam — Do you really have to justify that pick?

Skeet Reese — Between this pick, the next one and KVD, this season is shaping up to be a real doozy. Reese is focused and wants to back up his Classic championship, which leads to the next pick.

Alton Jones — Wasn't it just a year and a half ago that Jones won the Classic? Then KVD wins an AOY title and Reese wins the Classic. Those three are arguably the top three anglers in the world and they occupy three of the top four spots in the standings. I can promise you they smell blood. In an event-shortened season, this is like being five events in and at the halfway mark. Look for a battle trifecta at Wheeler.

Gerald Swindle — G-Man struggled at Dardanelle, but so did a lot of folks. He had a horrible year last season on and off the water. Now he's headed home to Alabama and you can expect he will be looking for some redemption: for last week, last year, for a lot of things.

James Niggemeyer — I'm a big believer in the hot hand. Niggemeyer is quietly having an awesome season. He won the Central Open, had a great event at Amistad and in a shortened tourney at Dardanelle, finished 13th. Conditions at Wheeler should play into his hands very well

Kyle Carter
ESPN Outdoors Editor

Kevin VanDam — I try not to pick this guy if I don't have to because what information am I giving you that you don't already have when I tell you to pick KVD? But on Wheeler, where he's not only looking for revenge because of last year's second-place finish to Jeremy Starks but he's coming off two top 12s, I can't help it. My fingers took over and started typing. So, just between you and me … put KVD on your team.

Skeet Reese — Another hidden gem you probably haven't thought of. Last season, I never would have put both these guys on the same list, but with the new points system freeing up a lot of salary, it's to the point where it's stupid not to have them both. He finished 14th there last year, but even if he hadn't — put Reese and KVD on your team for the rest of the season. You can afford it — you've just got to get a little creative with your other three.

Timmy Horton — Here's my local cup of tea. There are quite a few good choices who call Alabama home: Boyd Duckett, Randy Howell, Steve Kennedy, Aaron Martens, Gerald Swindle. Out of all these guys, Horton has the best track record on Wheeler.

Matt Herren — Herren made his first top 12 on Dardanelle and might be starting to live up to the reputation as a great fantasy value, which he had at the start of the season. He burned me at the Classic and Amistad, so I dropped him. Then he burned me for dropping him this past weekend. The plan is to leave him off until late Wednesday night, pull a switcheroo and hope luck doesn't notice.

Marty Stone — That's right, pulled the Stone Pony out of left field. He's won on Wheeler (only a decade ago in 1999), and it's time for the guy to catch some fish. I'm saying top-25 and if I'm right, I want to be moved to the top of these picks. If I'm wrong, which is more likely, I'll just pretend like it never happened. Problem is he costs 16.9, which is a little high. But you can play this team at market value and take 1.5 points home with you. You could even afford put in Swindle in place of Stone, and that's a pretty solid team.

Alan Clemons
ESPN Outdoors contributor

Kevin VanDam — The Tennessee River always has been good to KVD, and a narrow runner-up finish on Dardanelle last weekend should stoke his fires. Although the Day Three cancellation was out of his control, he said in hindsight he should have caught more from his best spot instead of playing conservative, which he did last year on Wheeler when he finished second. Shell beds may not play as big a role this week but if they do, he'll be one to watch.

Tim Horton — After bowing out of the Red River Classic with an intestinal bug, Horton has knocked on the door in the first two tournaments. Wheeler is no stranger to this North Alabama veteran and he should be in the hunt again this week.

J Todd Tucker — Adjustment is a critical aspect on the Elite Series and Tucker's learned quickly that ignoring that gut instinct won't help. He made a major move on Day Two at Dardanelle, which should help his confidence, and he could be in the mix at a bargain for fantasy pickers.

Mark Menendez — Another veteran with years of experience on the Tennessee River, Menendez was among the final 12 last year, won on Wilson Lake years ago in a cold-weather slugfest and pulled out his "junk-fishing" seat-of-the-pants rig for another top showing in another event. Conditions should be better this week. Menendez should be buoyed by his win at Dardanelle along with being back in his comfortable Skeeter for another run to the top.

Marty Stone — Another dark-horse bargain pick who won on Wheeler 10 years ago, albeit three weeks earlier. Whether he can reclaim the magic after a couple of seasons with disappointing performances is unknown, but I wouldn't count him out if he gets a good jump on the tournament with a solid start.

Trey Reid
ESPN Outdoors contributor

Kevin VanDam — Boring? Yes, but nonetheless, a solid pick based on last week's performance and KVD's track record on this fishery.

Kelly Jordon — A little off-form in last week's abbreviated derby in Arkansas, but a consistent performer otherwise this season and a Wheeler victory on his resume.

Denny Brauer — A nice showing last week, and an angler who knows his way around this lake.

Timmy Horton — What would the pundits' picks be without the obligatory "homer" selection?

Mark Menendez — Momentum is on his side. So is a top-12 finish here last year and a seventh-place showing in the 2003 Southern Open on Wheeler.

Rob Russow
ESPN Outdoors pundit upstart

Shaw Grigsby — I've vowed not to pick KVD since that is a brain-dead pick, so I went with someone fishing well, just a big bass away from breaking out this year. At Dardanelle last week he sight-fished in near-impossible conditions. If the bass start bedding this weekend, look out for Shaw. He'll catch them no matter what, and he finished 10th here last year in June.

Timmy Horton — I really thought I heard him say that he found some shell beds at Dardanelle last week. He could probably find shell beds in a bathtub and that makes him very dangerous at Wheeler. He had a huge Day Two at Dardanelle and might have made a charge at the cut if he could have fished Day Three. The two-fish, one-lure wonder is finally hitting his stride.

Peter Thilveros — He's having a miserable year at the bottom of the barrel in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. He needs a good finish and maybe even a win. That can happen at Wheeler, with fish in different stage of the spawn it might be time for the Petey Rig to rise again.

Chris Lane — The moment Chris Lane picked up a dropshot and started whoopin' on bass at Dardanelle, it made me look at him in a whole new light. This guy is versatile and when those anglers start dueling on the flats, Lane will have renewed confidence that he can fight with the best of them after fishing side-by-side with Denny Brauer last week.

Kelly Jordon — This guy is an ace around the spawn, both sight-fishing and nailing pre- and post-spawn largemouth on structure. He's having a decent year and has been within striking distance of the top both at the Classic and Amistad. Time for another big move for the Texas native who knows how to win on the Elite Series and is due for another.

Tired of hearing from anglers, former anglers or writers? Here's's HTML guru with a hard look at the numbers.

Fred Lalande Web Producer

Kevin VanDam — If you don't already have him permanently locked in your roster, consider this: KVD finished 11th here in both the 1999 and 2001 Alabama Top 150 tournaments, third in 2000, second in the 2008 Southern Challenge, is the reigning TTBAOY and currently leading in the 2009 points race.

Alton Jones — Jones is my second choice for this one. He is ranked second in the current TTBAOY race and finished second here at the 1999 Alabama Top 150. In addition, he ranked seventh at the 1995 Alabama Top 150 and 18th in 2000.

Timmy Horton — Timmy really knows how to fish this lake and has the resume to prove it. He finished 11th in 2000 and 14th at the 2001 Alabama Top 150, second at the 2003 Southern Open, seventh at the 2007 Southern Open and 27th at the 2008 Southern Challenge.

James Niggemeyer — James is quietly having a great season. He has already won one event, the first Central Open, and has done well in both Elite Series tournaments, coming in 15th at the OPTIMA Batteries Battle on the Border and 13th at the Toyota Trucks Diamond Drive. Look for this trend to continue in Decatur.

Greg Vinson — A strong candidate for Rookie of The Year, Vinson finished 11th at Dardanelle and managed a sixth-place finish at the first Southern Open. He's having a solid year and will be looking to overtake current leader Matt Herren. He ranked 23rd here at the 2007 Southern Open.