Kicking off the season in Florida is a tradition in tournament bass fishing that has stood the test of time. The first event of 2021 has Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players licking their chops to see if the big girls show up to play while most of the country is still hunkered down with ice or cold winter conditions.
Bass fishing in Florida is synonymous with big bass and bed fishing, but will the females actually make the move before or during the event? That is the big question when selecting your Fantasy Fishing team to kick off this Elite season.
Last year’s combination of cold temperatures and sustained high winds sucking the water out of this famed tidal fishery has to be the equivalent of a 20-year flood. If you want to do research, I say focus on the 2019 and older events for your barometer about what the fish will be doing, anglers who will do well and total weight for this event.
BUCKET A: WELCHER
Kyle Welcher served my team well throughout most of the 2020 Fantasy Fishing season. Last year he recorded his first Top 10 on St. Johns and then hung around town afterward and cashed another solid check in a tournament the following week. I just have a good feeling that Welcher is ready for anything that the season opener throws at him this year.
Notable alternatives: Not sold on Welcher or worried about a sophomore slump? Scott Martin has a strong track record in Florida that extends back over a decade fishing major tournaments. Don’t sleep on Martin; there is a lot of steak behind that sizzle on his social media. Also, never sleep on John Cox when he can potentially put his eyes on some big bass and sight fish.
BUCKET B: NEW
Bryan New seems like a steal at the current single-digit ownership percentage. He won the very first Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open that he fished in 2020 in Florida, and over the last few years he has managed to win at just about every level he has fished. I expect big things from New all season.
Notable alternative: Drew Cook is originally from Florida and has back-to-back 18th-place finishes on St. Johns the last two Bassmaster Elite Series events. So if you want to take a top 20 to the bank and go with the crowd, he is a solid pick.
BUCKET C: STRACNER
I am sure the rest of my fellow pundits will take the layup and pick Drew Benton for Bucket C, but I wanted to find a bit of a diamond in the rough. Doing a little digging, Josh Stracner, has two Top 12s in his last two visits to the Sunshine State via the Bassmaster Opens. So if you are looking for somebody who may be overlooked early in the season but likely won’t after a few events, take a hard look at Stracner.
Notable alternative: Cliff Pirch has some solid finishes in Florida, and in 2019 he had a Top 10 at St. Johns. Pirch is used to having more success than he did in 2020, and I suspect we will see a determined and focused "Golden Ram" in 2020. Let’s see how he kicks things off at the season opener.
BUCKET D: PRINCE
You will be hard-pressed to find a safer pick in Bucket D than Cliff Prince. Don’t be surprised if this is the year the “Prince of Palatka” finally hoists a blue trophy over his head on his home pond.
Notable alternative: Destin DeMarion has guided out of Palatka in past years and is very knowledgeable about the fishery. I originally had DeMarion picked on my first pass, but I thought I needed a little chalk in my lineup.
BUCKET E: SCHLAPPER
I had the pleasure of fishing against Pat Schlapper twice in 2020, and he took it to me both times on his way to winning the B.A.S.S. Nation National Championship in November. Schlapper has been dominant for a long time back home in Wisconsin. He has plenty of experience with vegetation and rivers which will help him at St. Johns. He also had a very solid finish in Florida last season on the Kissimmee Chain. I don’t expect Schlapper will spend much time in Bucket E this season.
Notable alternative: Kelley Jaye had a shortened 2020 Elite Series campaign due to some family matters, but before that happened he racked up a solid third place on St. Johns following an 11th in 2019. Assuming Jaye is ready to get back to competitive form, he is a solid choice.