By B.A.S.S. Communications Staff
John Cox wishes he could experience temporary amnesia during this week's Bassmaster Elite Series event at the St. Johns River. That’s because much of what the Florida pro has learned over the past two decades of fishing this big-fish factory will be of little relevance during the 2021 season-opener.
Competition runs today through Sunday, with daily takeoffs at 7 a.m. ET from Palatka City Docks and weigh-ins each day at 3 p.m. from Palatka Riverfront Park.
Long regarded as one of Florida’s top-tier fisheries, the St. Johns once boasted a vast acreage of swaying eelgrass that served as prime habitat for bass in all stages of the spawn. But the fishery lost nearly all of that grass during Hurricane Irma in 2017.
So now, anglers will face a vastly different fishery than the one that has produced winning weights upwards of 90 pounds at past Elite Series events.
“I wish I could forget everything from the past 20 years,” Cox said. “It’s hard to get out of my head what it looked like in the past with all the eelgrass.
“It’s almost to the point where I have to forget about all the sight-fishing that used to go on. I just have to fish for those fish because I don’t think the clarity is like it was without the grass.”
Tournament boundaries stretch from Jacksonville’s Fuller Warren Bridge (Interstate 95) south to Highway 44 in Deland. Historically, much of the field during Elite events has dispersed throughout the 72-square-mile Lake George, located south of the tournament’s takeoff and weigh-in site in Palatka. Nearby Crescent Lake will also get its share of attention.
Even without eelgrass, more vegetation awaits the anglers south of Lake George in the form of lily pads, hyacinth and pennywort. Getting away from the crowds could pay off, but the lower region includes no-wake zones and (manatee) speed zones, which require a larger investment of time for anglers making the long trek.
North of Palatka’s Main Street Bridge, the river broadens and offers more docks, canals and creeks — the scenario in which Paul Mueller found last year’s winning fish during an event that was shortened to three days by inclement weather. Others, including 5th-place pro Jake Whitaker, fared well by tucking into protected canals and targeting docks and seawalls.
This year, anglers will also be allowed to lock into Rodman Reservoir, south of Palatka. Adding these waters will avail a wonderland of stump-strewn habitat rich with pad fields and random laydowns.
Throughout much of the St. Johns, offshore anglers will be looking for shell bars like the ones that nearly delivered the win for last year’s day-1 leader, Kelley Jaye.
February is always a volatile month for Florida weather, so tournaments this month are usually a feast-or-famine affair. Weather conditions this week don't appear ideal to produce a wave of spawning bass.
“There’s been a cooler winter; it’s been spread out longer, so we’re a little behind,” Cox said. “I’ve been fishing Lake Toho and the pond at my house and they’re a couple weeks (behind schedule). But it won’t take much for it to get back on track."
Some competitors may target pre-spawn staging fish. Swim jigs, bladed jigs, swimbaits, lipless baits and square-bills could come into play for that. Elsewhere, anglers will use flipping and punching techniques, suspending jerkbaits and wacky-rigged worms.
Last year’s event saw Mueller win his second Elite trophy with a three-day total of 47-06. That’s an average of just under 16 pounds a day – far less than the nearly 25-pound average that Rick Clunn had with a four-day winning total of 98-14 in 2019.
That’s Florida fishing; it varies year to year and, often, week to week during the first quarter. On the upside, the St. Johns is packed with quality fish, including a generous smattering of double-digit giants.
“I think if someone does stumble onto some eelgrass, they could win the tournament,” Cox said.
David Fritts announced last week that he is withdrawing from the event for medical reasons. Fritts, who was hospitalized briefly in January, hopes to return for the tournament at the Tennessee River Feb. 25-28.
The full field of anglers will fish the first two days, with the Top 50 advancing to Saturday. The Top 10 remaining anglers will fish on Sunday with a $100,000 prize on the line.
Live coverage for all four days of the event can be streamed on Bassmaster.com and the FOX Sports digital platforms. FS1 will also broadcast live from the tournament beginning at 8 a.m. ET on Saturday and Sunday.