Fantasy Fishing: St. Johns River same place, different time

The Bassmaster Elite Series will begin the 2019 season on one of the all-time favorite B.A.S.S. venues, Florida’s St. Johns River. While it’s no secret that some familiar faces won’t be competing for the six-figure top prize, there will be plenty of big bass and big bags brought to the scales.

This is familiar ground in Florida, but the Elites are going to get a new view of Palatka. The last four times they’ve gone have all been mid-March. This time, it’ll be early February, so even though they’ll all be wearing polarized glasses, they likely won’t be using them to spot beds. Instead, they’ll be plying prespawn areas at a time when the fish may be at their fattest.

This year’s field contains some comparatively unfamiliar names, which makes picking for this event hard. Remember, this is Florida, so one cold front can knock things back a week, so choose pros with Sunshine State experience who aren’t likely to be fazed if their first spot on the first day turns up snake eyes.

BUCKET A: BENTON

My Pick: Drew Benton

Local advantage normally doesn’t mean much from coast to coast, and Benton is not necessarily a local per se, but in Florida stick with in-state talent. They know that the weird Florida-strain bass are even weirder at home. Benton finished fourth here in 2016, and since then has added an Elite championship title. There’s no reason he can’t double up on blue trophies to start the year.

Dark Horse: Todd Auten

Auten’s first Elite go-round didn’t go according to plan, but he’s a seasoned veteran, an expert with a bladed jig and has experience on the St. Johns. He hasn’t been here with B.A.S.S. in a decade, but he finished 28th in that event.

Sentimental Favorite: Rick Clunn

How cool would it be to see the defending champ keep his crown? Last time lots of his peers hung around to watch him hoist the trophy – they’ll be sad if they miss it this time around.

BUCKET B: HARTMAN

My Pick: Jamie Hartman

Assuming he’s back at full strength from his injuries, Hartman should be a force again. He rarely misses the money, finishing in the check line over two-thirds of the time, and while his one trip to Florida with B.A.S.S. (Okeechobee in 2017) was a bust, he’s a Championship Sunday regular, and he’s certainly itching to get back there.

Dark Horse: Matt Herren

Herren has been a vocal supporter of the #BASSStrong mantra, and if he can channel that aggressiveness into focus he’s going to have a hell of a year. He’s earned three checks in four Elite appearances in Palatka, and the earlier start should benefit him.

Sentimental Favorite: David Fritts

I really want to see footage of him sitting in the chair, watching his flasher, winding a plug and beating the snot out of anglers who didn’t know what a crankbait was when he was winning everything in sight.

BUCKET C: CHRIS JOHNSTON

My Pick: Chris Johnston

The Canadians are going to make some waves on tour this year, and they won’t just be satisfied to fish soft water in February. Look for Chris to be the one to stand out at the St. Johns. Last year, while fishing FLW, he was 10th at Okeechobee and won at the Harris Chain. In 2016, he was third at Okeechobee. Pretty good chance you’ll see him Saturday and possibly Sunday.

Dark Horse: Bill Lowen

Lowen can’t be happy to be sitting out the 2019 Classic, his second straight miss after fishing seven in a row. Expect to see his XPress in the back of some godforsaken ditch 80 miles from launch, with him pulling bass from places where the water barely covers their backs.

Sentimental Favorite: Steve Kennedy

I rode the Kennedy train for too long last year, and while it paid off sometimes, I also got burned on more than one occasion. Still, it’s hard not to cheer for him, and I’d be thrilled to see him win with a swimbait that no one else in the field owns.

BUCKET D: PRINCE

My Pick: Cliff Prince

This is Prince’s home fishery and expect him to start strong. Unlike last year at the Lake Martin season opener, though, he won’t be a one-day wonder. He’s got enough places on the St. Johns to last a long time, and without his buddy Terry Scroggins in the field he should have them all to himself.

Dark Horse: Chad Morgenthaler

Morgenthaler is great in Florida, and while this is not a Classic Florida weedy bowl, the cagey veteran has enough tricks to start the season strong. Will the 92nd-place finisher of 2016 show up, or the 20th-place competitor of 2014? I’m betting on the latter.

Sentimental Favorite: Bernie Schultz

Despite a lengthy, varied and at times quite successful competitive career, Schultz is still waiting for his first B.A.S.S. win. He fished here in B.A.S.S. competition for the first time during Reagan’s first term and a win would be a great way to show, as Clunn did three years ago, that it’s not necessary to assume that your best days are behind you.

BUCKET E: WILLIAMSON

My Pick: Jason Williamson

Williamson has made the money in three of four Elite Series appearances on the St. Johns, including one Sunday appearance. His first Elite Series win, at Lake Amistad in 2009, was an early season event. After Classic appearances in 2017 and 2018, he struggled throughout the 2018 regular season – a strong start will go a long way toward getting the train back on the track.

Dark Horse: Hunter Shryock

The Shryock brothers may get their mail delivered to Ohio, but it seems like they spend more time in Florida than anywhere else. If Hunter is going to break out from his brother’s shadow and become known as something more than “the guy who makes awesome videos,” he’ll need to jumpstart things on the St. Johns.

Sentimental Favorite: Jay Yelas

The 2002 Classic winner had a semi-acrimonious departure from B.A.S.S. over a decade ago, but there can be no doubt that if his first derby back is a victory they will fete him as if he never left.

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