Fantasy Fishing: Palatka on speed dial

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Greg Hackney is set to make his Bassmaster Elite Series return at the St. Johns River, a place he is quite familiar with.

After the shortest Bassmaster Elite Series offseason in recent memory, we’re getting the band back together on some familiar stomping grounds: The St. Johns River. This is a venue the trail has fished the last two years, three of the last four, and six of the last 10. The good news is that means we may have more data on this fishery and the current crop of anglers, including the relative newcomers, than on any other body of water. The bad news – at least from a pundit’s perspective – is that it’s Florida, where a weather change or one wrong move can eliminate even the most seasoned locals.

Each time the Elites go back, we seem to get new anglers near the top, but for this event you’re going to want to rely on pros who’ve proven their worth on the St. Johns, or in the region more generally, in the past. Moreover, lean on the ones who’ve been through the ringer a time or three. With just a short time to get boats ordered and delivered, tackle organized, and the ongoing COVID crisis, this is no time to hitch your wagon to someone who is going to be undone by process-related issues.

Here are my picks:

BUCKET A: HACKNEY

My pick: After two years away, Greg Hackney is back on the Elites, and there may be no better place for the patient flipper to start his renaissance. He was eighth, 16th, second and 13th here in his last four visits, and he’ll have no problem reacquainting himself with the Elite grind and the five-fish limits that built his career.

Solid backup: How can you not consider John Cox in any shallow-water event? The only things that preclude me from doing so are the expectation that Hackney will start strong, and the fact that Cox may not have any tread left on his tires to get there, or even know what state he’s supposed to be in that week. Patrick Walters, who finished fourth here in 2019 and 10th in 2020, is also a great choice.

BUCKET B: COOK

My pick: Now entering his third season, Drew Cook has earned back-to-back 18th-place finishes on the St. Johns, and with his 2020 campaign the 2019 Rookie of the Year showed that nothing he does is a fluke. This one’s not far from home, so don’t expect him to falter or have any preparation issues.

Solid backupBrandon Lester is about as consistent as they come, always turning in a season-long solid effort, and that record is strong at the St. Johns. He’s finished in the money the last three times, including 12th- and 13th -place results.

BUCKET C: BENTON

My pick: Like a lot of Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing players, I’m going to ride the favorite in this derby, and that’s Drew Benton. The Panama City angler hasn’t made it to Day 4 the last two times here, but he had a fourth-place finish in 2016. He also finished in the 20s in 2019 and 2020, hardly career killers. He won’t stub his toe.

Solid backup: Which Keith Combs will we see this year – the one who struggled last year (despite finishing 28th at the St. Johns) or the one who normally dominates? His early season finishes may give us a clue, and he’s finished in the top 14 at the St. Johns four times, including three in Top 10.

BUCKET D: PRINCE

My pick: Will this be the year that Cliff Prince finally gets the Bassmaster win that has eluded him so far? If so, it could very likely come at the St. Johns, his longtime stomping grounds, where he finished sixth, 17th and fourth the last three times out. He likely knows the fishery better than anyone in the field, and as he transitions into elder statesman he needs a career-defining event.

Solid backup: John Crews is indeed an elder statesman at the ripe old age of 42, and he’s never missed the money in six Elite Series entries on the St. Johns. That includes a runner-up finish last year and a fifth-place effort in 2019.

BUCKET E: CLUNN

My pick: If you don’t pick Rick Clunn here you may be a great Fantasy Fishing player but you have no soul.

Solid backup: If he can thaw out from the Wisconsin winter in time, expect Pat Schlapper to have a solid season. He fished four Opens and never finished worse than 23rd – it’s not a long track record, but it’s enough to take a flyer on him.