The biggest fallacy about professional bass fishing is that it’s OK to be a slow starter, or to say that you struggle in Florida, or to depend on
The biggest fallacy about professional bass fishing is that it’s OK to be a slow starter, or to say that you struggle in Florida, or to depend on a late-season charge to make the Bassmaster Classic. Yes, some anglers start slow and still have strong finishes. Brandon Palaniuk crapped the bed in the season opener in 2017 and still went on to win the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, but that’s a far-from-the-rule exception. The better plan, of course, is to start strong and stay strong.
With the Bassmaster Elite Series opening the 2022 campaign on the St. Johns River, the “no excuses” mantra should rev up even further. With the possible exception of a few rookies, the entire field has been there, most of them multiple times. They know how it lays out, the likely patterns and the vagaries of fishing in Florida. A strong start is within everyone’s reach and will be critical to competing for AOY and securing other postseason honors and opportunities.
Here are my Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing picks:
BUCKET A: WALTERS
My pick: South Carolina pro Patrick Walters is still a few years away from turning 30, but he’s already shown a veteran’s poise. That includes three shots at the St. Johns, where he’s finished fourth, 10th and fourth. It’s hard to say that the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title has “eluded” him because he’s finished 16th, fourth and third, but clearly he’s been nibbling around the top and should be expected to be up there every year hence. The quest for that first major title begins now.
Solid backup: Last year’s St. Johns runner-up Greg Hackney is a threat to win everywhere, and a threat to be the AOY every year. He also finished second in 2016, 16th in 2014, eighth in 2012 and 13th in 2011. That’s an enviable record.
BUCKET B: BENTON
My pick: Semi-local Georgia pro Drew Benton finished 27th, 25th and 21st in his last three Elite events on the St. Johns and fourth in 2016. He’ll fish his fifth Classic in March, but it seems that he’s capable of more.
Solid backup: Do I get on the Steve Kennedy bandwagon this early in the year? There have been seasons when failing to do so has cost me dearly, but his occasional all-or-nothing approach to the game can bite you on the butt. I’ll wait until the Elites get someplace more glidebait-friendly.
BUCKET C: BLAYLOCK
My pick: After just squeaking into the 2022 Classic field, Stetson Blaylock needs to bounce back to his near-AOY status. His St. Johns finishes in recent years have been inconsistent – 33rd, ninth and 52nd – but if he’s going to have a chance at that title (which he’s clearly capable of achieving) he needs to get back to those Top 10 finishes early.
Solid backup: If Jeff Gustafson’s toes are unthawed by the time he gets to Palatka, he could easily be this year’s first Canadian winner (among what may eventually turn out to be several, like last year). Gussy is one of those guys who always seems like he’s on the verge of becoming an upper-upper-echelon superstar, and while his three Elite appearances at the St. Johns have not been exceptional, he’s no stranger to Florida.
BUCKET D: PRINCE
My pick: I hate picking the odds-on favorite – it just feels cheap or like cheating – but Cliff Prince knows the river like the back of his hand. After a long career on tour and three Classic appearances, he can catch ‘em anywhere, but in this place he may have a gallery. His last four Elite results here have been seventh, fourth, 17th and sixth. He’s far more likely to win than to stub his toe.
Solid backup: No one will be surprised if fan-favorite Taku Ito wins again, and it would be a nice bookend to his north country smallmouth victory if the second one came in sunny, grassy Florida. But all of the Japanese anglers I’ve talked to are amazed by rookie Daisuke Aoki’s accomplishments and finesse strategies. He’s yet to fish a B.A.S.S. event on the St. Johns, but I’d take a flyer on him in Bucket D if anyone else but Prince was there.
BUCKET E: PRZEKURAT
My pick: It took me longer to spell his name correctly than it did to pick him. Based on everything I’ve heard about him I expect 22-year-old rookie Jay Przekurat to have a big year. His only struggle in the Opens last year was in Florida, at the Harris Chain, but the St. Johns tends to fish differently than the other Sunshine State fishbowls.
Solid backup: Bernie Schultz may have more years of history on the St. Johns than anyone else in the field, probably even more than his running buddy Cliff Prince. He’s typically done better up north than in Palatka in recent years, but if nature throws the field a curveball, that library of experiences provides him with the ability to react faster than many of his peers.
Drain the Lake
My Mercury Bassmaster Drain the Lake roster:
- Drew Cook
- Drew Benton
- Koby Kreiger
- Clifford Pirch
- Cliff Prince
- Bryan Schmitt
- Hunter Shryock
- Caleb Sumrall