Fantasy Fishing: The ever-changing puzzle of the St. Johns River

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Fantasy Fishing: The ever-changing puzzle of the St. Johns River

In the words of “The Great Hambino,” the offseason for the Bassmaster Elite Series seems to last “FOR-EH-VER." In a world where life seems to fly

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In the words of “The Great Hambino,” the offseason for the Bassmaster Elite Series seems to last “FOR-EH-VER.” In a world where life seems to fly by, having the first tournament of the season on the horizon makes life slow down and that just may be the best thing for a fella. That said, it’s finally right around the corner, and this year, we’re kicking it off in style again on the St. Johns River.

It seems like this fishery has become a staple at the beginning of each season and there are a few reasons for that. The Elites are the top anglers in the world, and this is a tournament venue that seems to keep them all on their toes. Sometimes it is dominated by sight fisherman, and make no bones about it, there will be some giants caught that way. Sometimes it’s won on moving baits like when Rick Clunn won using his 137-year old spinnerbaits. Sometimes it’s won in grass. Sometimes it’s won on flats. Sometime canals and docks are the key. My point is, no matter how many times we go there, only two things are constant — big fish will be caught and there is no telling how it will be won until Championship Sunday.

With all of that in mind, Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players can still make educated decisions to put together a strong team. There are several pros who seem to be able to consistently get in lockstep with the fish more than others, and that is certainly worth studying. However, history can be deceiving. On the flipside of the coin, it is difficult to rely strictly on technique driven anglers as well. My roster will be a mix of history and technique-specific guys. I’m hoping to start the season off right.

The 2022 Bassmaster Elite Series Fantasy Fishing season starts … now.

BUCKET A: HACKNEY

There is no better place where history and wheelhouse collide than with Greg Hackney. He’s made more money flipping some old beaverbait than you and I can make in a lifetime. Frogs, crankbaits, spinnerbaits and the like will also play a role. And don’t forget about his laser-vision when it comes to spotting fiery mommas protecting their progeny. Now let’s see the St. Johns-specific resume. He missed 2019 and 2020, but in five events, his average finish is a little worse than eighth place. He has a pair of seconds, an eighth, 13th and 16th. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him close it out this time around.

Don’t forget about: Brandon Palaniuk

In the past, Brandon Palaniuk has had a reputation for not getting along with Florida fisheries. However, something has changed for the last few rounds in the ring with the old heavyweight contender. He finished in the teens in 2020 and 2021 in the season opener. I doubt he will be distracted by looking at spawning bass and will probably find a way to catch prespawn bass on a topwater or flip up spawning bass where you can’t physically see them. If you can look past his Florida bombs, you may have yourself a sneaky, low-owned pick to give you a jumpstart in the standings.   

BUCKET B: POWROZNIK

To be completely transparent, I’m uncomfortable with this pick, but it’s more because I am a creature of habit. Every year the Elites have been here, I have picked John Crews (see below). But after watching a few guys return to the Elites and wreck shop almost immediately, that thing we’ll call the “homecoming hunger” is worth considering. Back when Jacob Powroznik first joined the Elites in 2014, he won two events in his rookie season. After a short hiatus, he is back, and his eagerness to get back after it under the B.A.S.S. flag is palpable. He loves fishing shallow grass and is one of the most patient sight fishermen on tour. I expect him to bring in a few giants over the four tournament days. Welcome back, Jacob!

Don’t forget about: John Crews

Outside of the 2021 trip to the St. Johns, John Crews’ resume here is solid. He has a pair of Top 10s, a few middling finishes and a few in-between. Last year, he caught a giant on Day 1 but struggled to find a limit on Day 2 which found him below the cut. He is a salty veteran now, so you can bet he won’t let that happen twice. He loves topwater, flipping, cranking and sight fishing, all of which will be employed during this tournament.

BUCKET C: NEW 

It’s hard to look past someone who is batting 1000 in Florida. Bryan New won his very first Florida event in the Bassmaster Opens back in 2020 and quickly followed it up in his debut Elite tournament in 2021 with a win on the St. Johns River. He had a slow first day, dropped two 20-pound bags and wrapped it up with a massive 26-plus pound bag on the final day to win by nearly 10 pounds. His primary approach was flinging a lipless crankbait and flipping emergent vegetation, both of which may play. However, his real strength is his unbelievable ability to read the conditions and adapt, which in Florida is a must. The weather will likely change a dozen times during the event, and New should be able to stay in front of the fish.

Don’t forget about: Scott Martin

It’s hard to tell what happened last season during the St. Johns River event for Scott Martin, a well-known Florida hammer. If you follow his YouTube channel, you got to see how it all unfolded. From the outside looking in, it seems like the pressure of being a high-profile, bass fishing veteran who was new to the Elites, fishing in his home state may have gotten to him. That will be a key change for Martin this year as he has adjusted to his new jersey logo and found a home with Bassmaster. He made the Classic in dramatic fashion, squeaking in via a double-qualified Cory Johnstonl, and having that monkey off his back should give him the breathing room to come out swinging.

BUCKET D: PRINCE

There’s no sense in getting creative for this bucket. Like Hackney, Cliff Prince has a great mix of history and strengths when it comes to this fishery. Expect him to know a few extra little secrets as he is a resident of the host city Palatka, Fla. Apparently, that is no secret regarding Fantasy Fishing as nearly half of the bets are on him, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he were to finish highest in this bucket. He has seven recorded B.A.S.S. events here and has finished in the single digits in nearly half of them. His worst finish was a 56th back in 2014. He is as surefire a bet as there is this far down in the buckets, and there’s no way I’m missing the bus.

Don’t forget about: Mark Menendez

It would be hard for me to bet two pennies I find on the sidewalk against Cliff Prince, but if I were going to, they would go in the direction of Mark Menendez. He has been around the game a long time and may have slipped in 2020, but that is certainly not the norm. Back in 2019, he nearly won here flipping and throwing spinnerbaits, ultimately finishing third to Clunn. Last year he redeemed his 2020 showing with a fifth-place finish on a very different version of the St. Johns River.

BUCKET E: DAVIS

Bucket E proves that lightning can strike at any time. In 2016 and 2019, the ultimate winner of both St. Johns events was the legendary Rick Clunn, and it went down in the record books as the only back-to-back venue winner in Elite Series history. In 2020, Paul Mueller, who had never earned higher than 62nd place here, won on a magic stretch and has since not finished above the 60s. Both of those anglers were likely in Bucket E at the beginning of the season. This time around, my pick to get struck is Clent Davis. He has been around the Elites since 2016 and has improved with each showing. In 2021, he finished 20th, and I’m convinced he has something figured out about this fishery.

Don’t forget about: Rick Clunn

Everything in me wants to see Rick Clunn win again. The fact that his name has now come up half a dozen times in this article says something to that end. As stated above, he has two wins here among his numerous attempts since the mid-1970s. Peppered throughout his accolades are a slough of great finishes. His 99th-place finish last year has me nervous to pick him, but this place fits his old-school style. He could absolutely shock everyone and win again, but then again, would that really be that big of a shock?

Drain the Lake

Now onto season two of the Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge. This additional fantasy fishing variant not only offers a fresh way to play the game, but an entire second chance at awesome prizes. For a quick recap, it’s best to bracket out your anglers as much as possible early in the season in an attempt to place them where you think they’ll do the best. For example, you may think someone like Lee Livesay may have a great chance to do well here, but if you place him on your roster here at the St. Johns River, you won’t be able to use him on Lake Fork later in the season. 

One key difference between this season and last is 2022 leans much heavier on largemouth fisheries. You will definitely want to save some of your smallie hammers, but with really only two smallmouth dominant fisheries, it’s ok to mix in a few guys that can do both throughout the other events.

Here is my St. Johns Elite Drain the Lake roster:

  • Drew Benton 
  • Drew Cook 
  • Mark Menendez 
  • Cliff Prince 
  • John Crews 
  • Wes Logan 
  • Bryan New 
  • Jake Whitaker 



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