Fantasy Fishing: Expect the unexpected

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Fantasy Fishing: Expect the unexpected

Kicking off the season in Florida is a tradition in tournament bass fishing that has stood the test of time. Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing playe

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Kicking off the season in Florida is a tradition in tournament bass fishing that has stood the test of time. Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players are licking their chops to see if the big girls show up while most of the country is still hunkered down with ice or cold winter conditions.

Starting the Bassmaster Elites Series season out on the St. Johns River out of Palatka, Fla., has become something you can bank on as a fan and Fantasy Fishing player. While the fishery location has been very consistent, the winning anglers, patterns and locations greatly vary from year to year. Between changing weather patterns from year to year and the decimation of eel grass in the river system, the St. Johns River is under a period of evolution. 

The extended forecast calls for very cool to mild temperatures which could be good. This could stack fish up in a prespawn stage, and then if it warms up last minute, we could have a massive wave of spawning fish hitting the banks on the first day of the event. It may be savvy to check and re-check the forecast as we get closer to the event. Tweak the lineup based on what Mother Nature deals the 2022 Elite field as we lead up to Feb. 10.

BUCKET A: LESTER

Hackney, Feider and Walters are the obvious based on history, but Brandon Lester’s stats are pretty consistent. He is flying under the radar with Fantasy Fishing players thus far in 2022. Since 2016, Lester has three top 15 finishes and a 35th on the St. Johns River. This goes back to the intro of the article, being that my Bucket A pick is probably a bit unexpected to most. I also feel like Lester is sitting on a monster season in the near future so hopefully I am ahead of the curve on this one.

Hackney is the safest play

If we are being honest, Greg Hackney was my initial pick, but then I decided I wanted to go against the grain and spice things up. If you don’t mind following the pack, then go ahead and pick Hackney and likely rest easy with a Top 10 from your Bucket A to start the 2022 season.

BUCKET B: BENTON

Drew Benton’s worst finish on the St. Johns River is 27th, and his best was fourth in four elite series events. I will take that consistency and upside all day in Bucket B. Also, after going super low percentage in Bucket A, I wanted to be a bit safer in B. Spawn or prespawn, I think Benton can get the job down on the St. Johns River.

Crews is back

Although John Crews stubbed his toe in Palatka last year, I think he’s back to his fishing form. After a subpar 69th Bassmaster Angler of the Year finish in 2020, Crews returned to his more consistent form with a 21st last year. I think that will be the Crews you can bank on for 2022 Fantasy Fishing rosters.

BUCKET C: COX

John Cox has not been stellar in his Bassmaster appearances on the St. Johns River, but he has a ton of history here. Historically he always fished on the opposite end from Palatka. I think 2022 is the time he finally unlocks this tidal fishery while launching from Palatka. Cox is too good and too dangerous in Florida to be left off the team for the season opener.

No jitters for Martin

Last year I believe the nerves of making his debut on the Bassmaster Elite Series played into Scott Martin having an uncharacteristically slow start in Florida. Now that Martin is in his second Elite season and is qualified for the 2022 Hartwell Bassmaster Classic, I expect him to fish well and accomplish big things during the two Florida events.

BUCKET D: PRINCE

It’s hard to believe that Cliff Prince is starting in Bucket D again, same as last season. Prince is a local stud on this fishery, and it seems silly not to pick him on his home waters. I feel pretty confident that Prince will get a blue trophy, and I will keep picking him here until he does and it pays off.

Menendez is safe bet too

Mark Menendez proved his layoff from the Elite Series wouldn’t affect his consistency or track record on the St. Johns River in 2021. If you feel the need to be less obvious, then place Menendez on your roster with confidence.

BUCKET E: WILLIAMSON

I believe Jason Williamson has fished every single Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Johns River. He has some great finishes and a few tough events — and everything in between. In Bucket E where there is a ton of unknown from many new anglers, I am going to bank on Williamson’s years of experience to get me some solid points.

What Wong doesn’t know shouldn’t hurt him

Like I mentioned at the start, the St. Johns River seems play out like a new fishery every season. B.A.S.S. Nation Champion Matty Wong is bringing a fresh perspective that has served him well everywhere from California to Louisiana thus far. He also has some tidal river experience from the California Delta. So, if you want to place your money on a rookie in Bucket E, then Wong might be your guy. 

Drain the Lake

Now for season two of the Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge. This additional fantasy fishing game not only offers a fresh way to play the game, but it has a completely separate prize pool. Drain the Lake is an elimination or survivor style game where you can only use an angler once all season. 

Key differences for 2022 — last year we had a bigger Elite field, and we only played for half the season. Now we have 10 events and only 94 anglers. You will need to use up 80 of the 94 anglers plus a few Bassmaster Classic anglers throughout the season, so plan accordingly. Do you want to use a Johnston brother who is great at sight fishing in Florida or do you want to save him for a smallie event at the end of the season?

Here is my St. Johns Drain the Lake roster:

  • John Crews 
  • Drew Cook 
  • Drew Benton 
  • Gary Clouse 
  • Greg Hackney 
  • Jake Whitaker 
  • Mark Menendez 
  • Cliff Prince 

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