Don’t just play favorites for St. Johns River

PALATKA, Fla. — With the predictions for a bed-fishing bonanza this week on Florida’s St. Johns River and sight-fishing stars available in almost every bucket, it might seem a no-brainer to load up on favorites in Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing.

That’s the safe play. But if you want to win your league this week — and win that boat at season’s end — you must assume some risk and pick a long-odds angler or two.

Bucket A: Faircloth, Jones or Walker

In 2012 and 2011 here, Alton Jones (16 percent Fantasy ownership) finished first and third. Todd Faircloth (29 percent) finished second and fourth. Safe bets.

Jones is a great sight fisherman, but Faircloth has better momentum, having placed second last week on Seminole and seventh in the Classic. Jones placed 17th on Seminole and 45th in the Classic. And then there’s this:

“The 2015 Bassmaster Angler of the Year, you better have him on your roster down in Palatka this weekend – Todd Faircloth!” said Bassmaster TV co-host Mark Zona in a spirited phone conversation Monday as he unpacked his Seminole suitcase and re-packed at the St. Johns. And aside from getting the year wrong (can you get jetlag between Georgia and Michigan?) I agree with Z — 2014 feels like Faircloth’s year. Listen to my interview with Zona in my podcast, Fantasy Fishing Insider.

I’m taking a safe play here to balance out a couple gambles below. But an under-the-radar guy like David Walker (1.5 percent) could sneak past the favorites. He finished 10th here in 2012 and 29th in 2011.

Bucket B: Tharp or Powroznik

Although he’s never competed on the St. Johns River, grass-fishing expert Randall Tharp (33.9 percent) is a safe pick. In FLW competition, he dominated Florida’s Lake Okeechobee in the spawn/prespawn, with a win in six Top 10s. With acres of shallow grass, the St. Johns River’s Lake George is like a mini Okeechobee.

To get more bang for your buck, consider Jacob Powroznik (1 percent), a lesser known FLW crossover. (Read this 2013 column to brush up on how picking lesser owned anglers can yield greater gains.) Powroznik was a major FLW player, compiling 35 Top 10s in 10 years. Many of those came in Florida in the spawn/prespawn. His peers call him a sight-fishing ace. Zona recommended him, too.

Honorable mention: Dean Rojas, (5.9 percent)

Bucket C: Scroggins or Chapman

Terry Scroggins (44.6 percent) is the safe pick. He lives on the St. Johns, where he won an Open and placed seventh in another, then finished second and sixth in Elite Series competition. All but one of those events was held in the prespawn/spawn period.

Scroggins likely won’t go all in on sight fishing. If conditions trend toward a four-day sight-fishing fest, his local advantage shrinks considerably.

It’s odd to call a recent Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year an under-the-radar pick, but that’s the case with Brent Chapman (3.4 percent), who finished fourth here in 2012 and 17th in 2011. I’m still trying to talk myself into choosing Chapman.

Honorable Mention: Cliff Crochet (1.5 percent)

Bucket D: Combs

I’m positive Keith Combs (40 percent) will bounce back from his 69th-place finish on Seminole and return to form on St. Johns River, where he placed third and ninth in 2012 and 2011.

Bucket E: Evers, Howell or Kennedy

Now that Bassmaster is organizing Fantasy Fishing buckets strictly by AOY rank, Edwin Evers’ (57.4 percent) disappointing 94th-place finish on Seminole dropped him to an unprecedented low Fantasy Fishing position, despite having won here in 2011, placing 14th in 2012, and almost winning 2013 Angler of the Year.

But what’s to gain by getting on the Evers bandwagon with more than half the Fantasy Fishing field? Would reigning Bassmaster Classic champion Randy Howell (9.9 percent) be a better value, at least in terms of return on investment? Hard to say.

Any momentum Howell generated by winning the Classic ground to a halt with his 106th-place finish on Seminole. His St. Johns history is equally inconsistent — ninth in 2012, but 60th in 2011.

Neither Evers nor Howell has any wiggle room to gamble on a risky, but potentially winning, strategy this early in the season. To compete for Angler of the Year, each must focus first on making the 50 cut. Unless something magic happens, neither is likely to fish to win on Thursday and Friday, but rather for points. So don’t expect a Top 12, even though each is more than capable of doing so.

Perhaps consider Stephen Kennedy (3.3 percent). Despite being in a similar situation as Evers and Howell, Kennedy isn’t as likely to fish conservatively, as he doesn’t seem to care about points, or even winning tournaments, for that matter! Since discovering the big-bite potential of swimbaits in 2007, when he won with them on California’s Clear Lake, Kennedy seems fully committed, come what may, to catching slaunch donkeys on swimbaits.

Slaunches live in the St. Johns. And they eat swimbaits. That’s what Kennedy caught ’em on in 2011, when he finished fifth.

If you’d like stats for anyone I didn’t mention above, post a request in the comments section below and I will reply. You can also hit me up on my Facebook page, or listen to my podcast, Fantasy Fishing Insider. Listen to the podcast below before rosters lock!

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