By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Florida's St. Johns River is a familiar venue to anglers who've competed on the Bassmaster Elite Series for the majority of the past decade, as it's hosted four tournaments since the start of the 2011 season. The fifth will occur this week as the revamped circuit launches its 2019 campaign, but the fishery is much different than the holdovers have ever seen it.
The eel grass that was targeted by the majority of the field on past visits is pretty much gone. The primary focus this time will be the shell beds. There are hundreds of them along the 50-mile stretch from Palatka to Astor, some much more productive than others and all containing specific sweet spots that must be discovered.
The most recent Elite derby at the St. Johns, which took place in 2016, resulted in the first tour-level victory in a decade and a half by the legendary Rick Clunn. A 31 1/2-pound stringer on day 3 was the impetus for the four-time Classic winner's triumph. A few months shy of his 70th birthday at the time, he became by far the oldest winner in Elite Series history.
Clunn is back for this rendition, but many of the pros who competed against him in that event are not, having moved on to the new MLF Bass Pro Tour. That list includes previous St. Johns winners Edwin Evers (2011), Alton Jones (2012) and Chris Lane (2014).
Some of their replacements in the now-smaller field (75 anglers, down from 108 last year) are guys with whom Clunn is quite familiar. Most notably, Jay Yelas and Clark Wendlandt are back with B.A.S.S. after long and accolade-rich stints on the FLW Tour. A dozen or so other anglers with strong FLW résumés have also transferred over and they'll also be joined by a bevy of guys who've moved up from the Bassmaster Opens level and will make their tour-level debuts this week.
Before getting deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the fishery itself:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: St. Johns River
> Type of Water: Tidal river
> Surface Acres: N/A (system runs for more than 300 miles)
> Primary structure/cover: Shell beds, drops, humps, ledges, boats docks, lily pads, grass flats
> Primary forage: Shad and golden shiners
> Average depth: 8-9 feet
> Species: Largemouths only
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: Prolific numbers of fish, including lots of big ones, but can be tough on anglers not familiar with the tides
> Weather: Sunny and warm to start, but a storm front will bring chillier temperatures and much stronger winds for the weekend
> Water temp: High 50s to low 60s
> Water visibility/color: Clear to stained, depending on location
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn/post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing, flipping, bladed jigs, cranking, topwaters, spinnerbaits, Senkos
> Winning weight (4 days): 72 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 42 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 24 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2
> Biggest factors: Will a huge wave of spawners arrive in time to be a factor?
> Wildcard: Big bites they're always the X-factor in Florida
Thanks to the folks at Navionics for giving BassFans an up-close look at the St. Johns River:
Not All Gloomy
The disappearance of the eel grass, caused by destructive weather events in the region over the past couple years, has made things tough on the field during practice this week. The flip side of that, however, is that the weather has made a turn for the better and a lot more quality fish might be willing to cooperate by the time they get back on water for day 1.
The shell beds on the main river, usually attacked with crankbaits (both lipped and lipless), Carolina rigs and Texas-rigged soft plastics, have been "the deal" in local St. Johns events in recent weeks. Those looking to do something else could go to Lake George or Rodman Reservoir and try a variety of offerings.
Palatka resident Cliff Prince could have a big advantage this week.
"Things seem to be happening a lot later this year," said former Elite pro Preston Clark, a Palatka resident who fished a tournament on the river with one of his sons just last weekend. "The fish have been in the pre-spawn move and guys are going to have to go out and find them this time. Right now, and 18-pound bag is very good and a 15-pound bag is respectable.
"It's warming up, though, and everything could change by the weekend. I could happen in a big way. The big ones get bunched up and you could put 25 pounds together real quick, but then that's hard to duplicate because those fish are in one place one day and gone the next."
The river's daily tidal fluctuations will be a major factor, as always. Specific locations can go from bountiful to barren, or vice versa, from home hour to the next.
He suggested that anglers who've struggled to this point might be best served by heading for Rodman and fishing in whatever manner they're most comfortable with.
"A guy could scratch out a decent finish there," he said. "The river is just so big and there's so much cover, and then there's the tide on top of that. It can be tough on guys without a lot of tidal experience."
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week:
"Where there used to be bass on beds, I'm finding stingrays on sand. I've seen more stingrays than I have bass this time, but the weather gives me confidence that something good is going to happen. The forecast is a positive all by itself it's not going to be freezing cold.
"I didn't catch any big ones in practice some folks did, but I hope mine are coming over the next 4 days. There will probably be some sight-fishing at some point, but I'm not sure if we're a little too early or too far north for it to really happen this week. I'll definitely keep an eye on that because it's what I'd like to see happen."
"It's a lot different than last time we were here, that's for sure. I haven't seen any eel grass, although a few other guys have seen a few patches.
"It was a pretty tough practice, but I found one stretch where I got multiple bites and caught a few decent fish. I'll obviously start there and hope more have moved up, which should be the case. I have a couple other areas where I got multiple bites in bad weather, so I'm just assuming they'll bite even better in nice weather.
"I've only seen a handful of fish over 3 pounds, so it's not the St. Johns River that I'm used to, but I think a lot of fish are about to move up."
"Based on my practice, I'll be pretty happy if I can catch a limit on the first day. That'll be the first goal and then we'll take it from there. The weather's trending in the right direction, though, so I'm not too down. It's going to be what it's going to be, but it is a lot tougher than I expected it to be.
"I know a lot of fish are up shallow and getting ready to spawn, but it's just hard to see anything. The water's not muddy or dirty, but it's just very tannic. If I have to, I'll just flip a worm to every hole in every piece of cover that might have a fish bedding around it. If you put it in the right place a couple of times you could end up having a pretty good day."
"It's been super-duper slow for me this is not the typical Florida I know and love. There's no grass here, I guess the hurricanes killed it, and it's not the same. It's definitely tougher than what I expected coming down here. Bites have been hard to get.
"The weather's been warm the last couple days and things are changing every day, but it's hard to be in the right place at the right time when you don't know where that's going to be. I'm just guessing and I hope I guess right. I haven't seen a lot of promise, but it could bust loose any day and that's what I'm banking on. The fish are pre-spawn and moving up and staging and you've got to be where they're going. If they show up, it could be pretty phenomenal."
A Few to Watch
Based on the current conditions, here are a few anglers who might fare well in this event.
> Cliff Prince He won't have to waste time trying to find the sweet spots on the shell bars the Palatka resident already knows where they are. His local knowledge should be a massive advantage in this setup.
> John Crews The veteran is an excellent cranker and his ledger from the venue is strong (four finishes ranging from 20th to 44th).
> David Fritts He enjoyed good success in the early part of the season when he returned to B.A.S.S. a couple of years ago and cranking is definitely his game.
> Bill Lowen He does a lot of his best fishing when he can ply moving water and his record at the St. Johns is solid (just one missed 50-cut in four outings).
Anglers will launch at 7:30 a.m. each day from Palatka City Dock and Boat Ramp. Weigh-ins will get under way at 4:10 p.m. at the same location.
> Thurs., Feb. 7 Partly Cloudy - 81°/54°
- Wind: From the SSE at 5 mph
> Fri., Feb. 8 Mostly Sunny - 80°/52°
- Wind: From the WNW at 4 mph
> Sat., Feb. 9 Cloudy - 66°/57°
- Wind: From the NE at 15 mph
> Sun., Feb. 10 Cloudy - 73°/58°
- Wind: From the E at 12 mph