Well holy cow, we made it to 2021. I want to kick this season’s Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing off with a hearty “Congratulations!” to all of the fish-heads who came away with the amazing, generous prizes that were given away during last year’s competition. I can’t wait to get this season started.
Last year, my one goal was to whoop Ronnie Moore. This year, it seems like the broom ‘stache himself, Rich Lindgren, has it out for me — and let’s just say, I ain’t scared. In fact, I’ve made a special effort to join his group Beat Hellabass just so I can both rub it in and win all his stuff when I finish higher than him when the last petal falls.
My secondary goal is, as always, to finish in the top 10%. This year, I’m going to take the advice of the overall winner for last season and use the “set and forget” strategy as much as I can stand it. Maybe that will help me avoid making emotional decisions and keep my selections based on strategy and hard data with a little mix of gut feeling.
The St. Johns River is always an exciting way to kick off an Elite Series season. Last year, we were all shocked when the deep, clear water, master-of-all-things-electronics, Paul Mueller, won by more than 3 pounds flipping heavy cover in a shortened three-day event. This time around, I fully expect that we will see a stellar display of heavy-cover fishing. But don’t be shocked if you see some of the leaders mix it up with moving baits. Marina slips played a big role last time around, and some guys even found them offshore, so nothing seems like it’s off the table.
There haven’t been any crazy weather events to rock the area like we have had in years past, and from the information I can find, the fishery is in really good shape. A lot of the grass is back, and there have been reports of huge bass caught. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a double-digit fish or two like Kyle Welcher’s behemoth last year get brought to the scales.
Let’s check out my lineup.
BUCKET A: HACKNEY
This is one of the most exciting Bucket As I have ever had the pleasure of sifting through. There are so many shoe-ins for this event that it really makes it tough. However, I think that’ll spread out the overall ownership which is far superior to having a majority-owned angler in a bucket.
I’m excited to welcome back Greg Hackney — the Hack-Attack — to the Elites. His intensity was definitely missed during his time away. He has some really solid history in past events on this body of water. He may have missed both the 2019 and 2020 events here, but I think he will fall right back into his old ways staying out of the crowd and finding under-pressured groups of fish. He caught a 10-pounder here a few years back, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him hoist one again here. His past finishes here are 13th in 2011, eighth in 2012, 16th in 2014 and second in 2016. That’s about as stout as it gets.
Also considered: Someone named Scott
While there may be another Scott taking up a lot of the limelight in this bucket (and perhaps rightfully so), Scott Canterbury has been one of the most consistent anglers in Fantasy Fishing since he joined the Elites. Some of the new and returning faces have expressed their nervousness coming into this season. If you want someone who won’t have the jitters and will likely score you some good points out of the gate, you can’t go wrong with Scotty C. On the other hand, Scott Martin has fought his way into the Elites and with all of his Florida knowledge could be lethal here. We’ll see if he steps up. Either way, it’ll be exciting.
BUCKET B: AREY
The last two times we have been here, Matt Arey has been dang near flawless. This North Carolina boy is not all that far from this part of the country and has posted two solid finishes in his B.A.S.S. career on the St. Johns so far with a 15th and a seventh in 2019 and 2020 respectively. He is perfectly comfortable mixing it up and will likely find some fish both up shallow and out deeper staging before heading to the spawning grounds. I fully expect him to find his way to a solid finish again this time around.
Also considered: Todd Auten
The spinnerbait has made it’s way back around the last few years, but it’s no secret that it can be downright deadly in Florida during the spawn. Few, if any, are better slinging the ole’ wind chime than Todd Auten. Between that and a bladed jig, he will find a way to stumble into some giants. It’s worth mentioning that he finished 17th here last year.
BUCKET C: BENTON
Drew Benton has been setting off fireworks since his arrival on the Elite scene back in 2016, and it seems like every time we come to the St. Johns, he finds his way through to the weekend. He has never missed a check here and has fourth-, 21st- and 25th-place finishes here. He can sight fish with the best of them and will likely spend a lot of his time looking for those key kicker fish that turn a good bag into a great one.
Also considered: Darold Gleason
He may be known for his East Texas resume, but Darold Gleason is no slouch when it comes to fishing heavy cover. Both Rayburn and Toledo Bend have offered him plenty of opportunity to dial in those skills. He has been wrecking shop and taking all of our money out here in Texas for years. I’m excited to watch him make waves at the top of the sport and expect him to show everyone what he is made of in short order.
BUCKET D: CREWS
There are a few highly-owned anglers on my roster for this event, but it’s hard to move away from the guy who has done me right basically every time we’ve been here. I have chosen John Crews every time at the St. Johns River since I started playing fantasy fishing, and it has paid off with few exceptions. In 2019 he caught his personal best bass of over 11 pounds, and last year he finished the event in a solid second place. If he can shake off the bad voodoo he seemed to collect last year, he could very well find another solid finish — if not a victory. He will be throwing moving baits and will mix it up flipping and frogging.
Also considered: Cliff Prince
Once again, if you want to put your money in a safe place, roll with the prince of Palatka himself, Cliff Prince. He has been fishing this system for longer than most of these anglers have been able to chew solid food. He has never brought home the blue trophy here, but he has been close several times. He has two single-digit finishes here including a fourth place in 2020.
BUCKET E: JAYE
Kelley Jaye is back from a medical leave and is ready to hit the ground running. He missed most of last season, but he started things off in 2020 with a bang, smashing an awesome third-place finish doing what he loves — throwing a jerkbait. This event will be just as much about targeting prespawn fish as ones that are locked on beds, and if he can crack the code like he in 2020, it could mean big things. He struggled on this system in the past, but he seems to have figured out some of the nuances needed to do well here. He is proficient at many of the other techniques that will play, but if he can get his confidence baits going, watch out.
Also considered: Mark Menendez
You can certainly make an argument for Rick Clunn in this bucket with his two wins in 2016 and 2019, but someone who will go somewhat under the radar is Mark Menendez. There’s something to be said about these historic fisheries and anglers that have been fishing them for decades. They seem to collide with the right kind of fish, and I would venture a guess that it isn’t happenstance. In 2019, he lit up Bassmaster LIVE and finished third, bringing some massive bass to the scales throughout that event. He slipped here last year, as did Clunn, but don’t count either one of these two out. I’ll be shocked if they don’t rebound with a vengeance.