Fantasy Fishing: Prove it in Palatka

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John Cox with his family after winning the 2019 Open at Chickamauga.

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If this year’s event on the St. Johns River is half as good as last year’s we’re in for a heck of a show. To refresh your memory with just a few of the highlights:

  • Four-time Classic winner Rick Clunn defended his title from the 2016 victory on the river at the age of 72;
  • Rookie Lee Livesay made one of the most nerve-wracking and improbable catches in Bassmaster history;
  • Mark Menendez caught fish after fish after fish on one of the most hideous spinnerbait combinations ever seen; and
  • Clifford Pirch caught an absolute whale on camera on a Whopper Plopper.

Can we expect for it to take 98 pounds to win again, with four anglers over 90?

The fish are there, even if the conditions don’t line up quite so perfectly.

Can we expect the same anglers at the top?

Well, if Clunn has proven anything, it’s that there’s something to this place that rewards a bit of knowledge.

But what we really learned is that nothing is predictable. Among the Top 10, there were more Canadians (two) and Arizonans (one) than Floridians. That same Top 10 featured rookies, veterans, and mid-level pros, as well as eventual Angler of the Year Scott Canterbury in his first Elite event after a solid career at FLW.

So what do we know better now than we did then about how this will play out?

Not much. Sure, we have a better sense of how last year’s rookies will perform, but they’ve been supplemented by a new crop of first-years, including some solid sticks who’ve made careers on the FLW side. Look for anglers with a proven track record who won’t be overwhelmed by the glitz and glamor.

I’m banking on five dudes who we knew little about at this time last year, three of whom are new to the Elites, along with another pro who’s coming back.

BUCKET A: COX

My Pick: A rookie, in Bucket A? John Cox, my friends, is no rookie. The angler formerly known as “The One Without Electronics” just wins, baby. He won both the Eastern Open AND the FLW Tour events at Chickamauga last year and narrowly missed an Open victory at Smith Lake. He’s also won the Forrest Wood Cup and fished a Classic. His biggest challenge is going to be finding time to go to the bank in between events as he attempts to fish two tours.

Backup Choice: I didn’t know who Drew Cook was at this time last year, but all of us found out in a hurry as the former collegian cashed a check in every event and even led AOY for a while. He’s a Floridian and a structure specialist and after finishing a more-than-respectable 18th at the St. Johns last year he followed up with a 12th and a fourth, and then more Top 10s at Fork and Cayuga.

BUCKET B: PALANIUK

My Pick: We were on a break! It’s not worth rehashing Brandon Palaniuk’s one-year absence from the Elites. Based on the merits alone, he’d be hard to pick – in four past Elite events here he’s finished 37th, 72nd, 67th, and 80, but he’s a master at channeling emotion and intellect together, and he’s going to want to reestablish himself at the top of the food chain. The former AOY will want to show that going dark for a year doesn’t mean he disappeared or that his skills atrophied.

Backup Choice: John Crews, now a senior statesman on the tour, had a solid finish here last year and there’s every reason to believe the cagey veteran will repeat, if not improve upon last year’s Top 10.

BUCKET C: COBB

My Pick: If there’s a strong wind, all 147 pounds of Brandon Cobb may blow away, but nothing short of that is going to stop the young pro from becoming a star. After a solid start to his career at FLW, last year he won two Elite events on two very different waterways. He finished 20th on the St. Johns and while it’s not one you’d expect to be in his wheelhouse, there’s little that’s outside of his ever-growing repertoire.

Backup Choice: Greg DiPalma had a quiet rookie season that just happened to place him in the Bassmaster Classic. A big part of that was his solid 16th-place start at the St. Johns, his second-best finish of the year and best outside of the northeast.

BUCKET D: SCHMITT

My Pick: Yes, I’m picking another non-rookie, rookie. Bryan Schmitt has been taking anglers’ money on the Potomac and Upper Chesapeake for years, and in 2017 he won an FLW Tour event on another river system – the Upper Mississippi. Whether tidal or free-flowing, rivers are his deal. He’s finished in the Top 10 in four of the last five Opens he’s fished, too.

Backup Choice: Steve Kennedy, my on-again, off-again nemesis-slash-top-pick, is always a threat to win, but he’s maddeningly inconsistent. In five Elite events on the St. Johns, he’s finished fifth, 29th, 31st, 59th and 66th. He could win, or he could get sidetracked by uncatchable swimbait fish. If it’s the former, I’ll probably kick myself for not picking him.

BUCKET E: FELIX

My Pick: Minnesota pro Austin Felix has fished the FLW Tour for four years, and finished in the top 20 in AOY three times. He qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup four times and finished 14th or better three times. During the 2018 FLW Northern Series, he finished eighth, sixth and third. He got checks at Toho and Seminole last year. He’s a bargain as an E Ticket.

Backup Choice: In four Central Opens last year, Japanese pro Taku Ito finished in the Top 10 three times. I don’t know much about him, but that can’t be a fluke.