Fantasy Fishing: Experience will be critical at St. Johns in 2019

Bassmaster fans and Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players are in for a treat this year. With a reduced Elite Series field filled with returning and unfamiliar faces, a substantial Fantasy Fishing grand prize is up for grabs for the best in the game once the season concludes next fall.

Those willing to do their research and hedge bets based on qualifications, not name value, will charge ahead in the season-long Fantasy Fishing battle.

And it starts next week in Palatka, Fla., on the renowned St. Johns River.

Don’t let name familiarity lead you to misjudge the level of talent that makes up the 2019 field. They truly are 75 of the best bass anglers on the planet, and by the time the 2019 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year is crowned, you’ll know all of them very well — so will the rest of the world.

So where to start? With the first event kicking off on a familiar fishery, I’d suggest picking anglers who have experience with the finicky, yet impressive Florida-strain largemouth bass. I’d also look at anglers who have a lot to prove this year, and that starts with a strong finish at the first event of the season.

Since the Elite Series is visiting Palatka earlier than ever before, it’s worth keeping in mind that a cold front could derail any pattern obtained up to that point. And in February, that’s certainly possible. If it does, you can count on the bass becoming tough to catch.

This is when I’d rely on anglers used to and accomplished at making good decisions when it’s critical. Also watch those who can execute a pattern and stay on roaming fish.

My selections reflect those qualities, at least I think they do.

Change my mind.

BUCKET A: BENTON

I’m aligning my vote here with my fellow Fantasy pundits. I think Drew Benton found himself during the 2018 season, and with the changeover in the Elite field, he’s looking to make a big splash — pun intended. There is no better place or scenario for him than on what might be considered his home waters. He’s a well-rounded outdoorsman, and he's competitive as hell making him a good pick all year long. I’m going to place him at the top of Bucket A for the first event of the Elite Series season, but watch him throughout the year. I bet he makes a run at AOY. Change my mind.

Dark horse: Hank Cherry has been a very consistent angler throughout his career, and he’s way overdue to hoist up one of those coveted blue trophies, and I bet it happens this year. He’s not an old dog, but he’s plenty seasoned to know what it’s going to take in Florida for the season opener. He’ll be sporting a different look this year, and I think that also indicates an internal difference too — a much stronger desire to win. Change my mind.

BUCKET B: GUSTAFSON

If you don’t know this cat yet, you need to familiarize yourself with Jeff Gustafson. One of three Canadian sticks on tour this year, “Gussy” is for real. He’s made a steady climb up the ranks on the FLW tour, and that’s no accident. He has plenty of history in Florida when his home lakes are covered in up to 4 feet of ice. His ability to target and catch numerous species of fish all year long under all conditions makes him flexible, and being a successful multi-species angler makes him dangerous at every venue. Change my mind.

Dark horse: Jamie Hartman had to end his 2018 season early due to hemorrhaged disk in his back. An injury that left him literally incapacitated immediately before the Mississippi River Elite last year. He claimed medical hardship for the remainder of the season and is looking to make a strong comeback in 2019. He took natural, disciplined steps to recover, and it’s made him not only very healthy and strong, but he’s also ready to hit the pavement running. I see him making a Top 10 in Palatka, but also winning an event this year and making a run at AOY. Hartman is legit and might be one of the best bass fishermen on tour. Change my mind.

BUCKET C: JOCUMSEN

I think you’re smart to pick Brandon Lester in Bucket C. But, most everyone else will pick him, too. And for good reason. However, I think it would be a mistake to overlook the return of the Aussie. Carl Jocumsen fished the Elite Series for two seasons before falling below the cut line and not requalifying. That hurt the young angler, but the rules are the rules. He graciously accepted his fate and moved on, never to give up on his dream — he’s not one to let circumstances get him down. He went to the FLW and did very well, all the while keeping his sights on making it back to the Elites and having another shot at the Classic. He’s back, he’s better than ever, and you should expect that he’ll reestablish himself as a dominating Elite Series angler. What better place to start than Palatka? I’m on the Team Jocumsen Train this year. Change my mind.

Dark horse: Brandon Lester is going to have a big year, no doubt about it. He’s been only getting better with age, and he’s been so close to victory several times he can taste it — even at Palatka in 2016. He’s a good choice for this event, but another dude you need to watch closely throughout the 2019 season. I see an AOY champ in the making. Change my mind.

BUCKET D: MONTI

With Florida roots and plenty of experience with big Lake Okeechobee bass, Kyle Monti is ready to add his name to the Bassmaster record books. His rookie season was tough, as it often is. But he’s back; he’s confident and ready to kick his season off in style. I think you’ll see a very strong showing at St. Johns. He’s proven to be versatile when the fish move from one pattern to the next without notice. I expect him to lean on his history in Florida to make good decisions at St. Johns, which might land him in the Top 10 come Championship Sunday. Change my mind.

Dark horse: David Mullins is no stranger to tough tournaments. In fact, I think he’s more of the kind of angler who swings for the fences at most events, regardless of what’s at stake. St. Johns sets up for a fence-swinger like the Tennessee angler. He’s matured as an angler substantially with successful and difficult seasons under his belt, and I believe you’ll see a revitalized David Mullins in the 2019 season. He’s coming out of the gates to impress, and you won’t change my mind on that.

BUCKET E: ZALDAIN

Chris Zaldain is a veteran Elite Series pro through and through. He cut his teeth fishing very similar water to St. Johns in his home state of California. He’s deadly with a big jig in his hands or a subtle finesse outfit and everything in between. I think the changeover in the Elite field has seasoned him even more, built his confidence and built his persona to new levels. I think you’ll see Zaldain challenge the field at every single event this year, especially Palatka where it will all begin. He’s fired up, and another angler I’d put on the 2019 AOY watch list. Don’t bother trying to change my mind here either.

Dark horse: An early rookie-season injury set Jesse Tacoronte’s season behind in 2017. He took medical hardship for the 2018 season to get healthy, and he’s going to hit the road revitalized and ready to win. He’s not a Florida native, but he’s lived there for a long time and intimately knows how Florida-strain bass act all year long. I think he’ll have a very strong showing at Palatka and carry that on for the remainder of the season. He’s no “noob” to the world of professional bass fishing. I'd consider him a veteran actually, even though his time as an Elite Series pro is somewhat limited. Look for a big season out of Tacoronte. Change my mind.