By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Rick Clunn has developed a habit of weighing shockingly large bags on the weekend en route to winning Bassmaster Elite Series events at Florida's St. Johns River. His latest effort, a 34-14 stringer in Sunday's final round of the 2019 season opener, propelled the 72-year-old icon to his 16th career B.A.S.S. victory.
It was a sack that contained two giants – a 9-14 and a 9-11. It propelled him up from 8th place to start the day and left him more than 3 1/2 pounds ahead of Chris Johnston, who'd led after days 2 and 3 in his Elite Series debut. His four-day total was just 1-02 shy of 100 pounds.
Clunn, Johnston and nearly all of the top 10 spent most of their time in the northern portion of Lake George, where big females were pulling up on spawning beds in droves following a spate of warm weather and a conducive moon phase. They continued to cooperate throughout the weekend despite the arrival of a storm front that brought gray skies, chillier temperatures and strong winds.
The eelgrass that's long served as the primary cover for St. Johns largemouths was pretty much nonexistent this time, having been wiped out by powerful weather events since the circuit's last visit in 2016. Clunn keyed on boat docks for the majority of the event, then pounded the dollar pad-rich water between them with a spinnerbait on the final day when there was no appearance from the sun and the wind reached its highest velocities.
"Practice was semi-tough for most people and nobody was really expecting all these big catches," Clunn said. "But when the water temperature jumped 8 to 10 degrees (between the conclusion of practice on Tuesday and the start of competition two days later), those fish were ready."
Clunn hadn't fished the upper portion of George on any of his four previous Elite Series visits to the St. Johns and he certainly wasn't alone in determining that it was the best place to be for this derby.
"It was the nearest place to where I'd won before that was showing decent habitat," he said. "If they weren't where they were before because there was no eel grass, they'd find someplace that was more to their liking. I just moved in that direction."
He caught some good fish in practice, including a 10-pounder and a 6, from the ends of docks while throwing a Luck-E-Strike Hail Mary lipless crankbait. Once competition got under way and the water warmed up dramatically, he found that the fish had moved to the back sides of the docks and were spawning in 1 to 2 feet of water. For that scenario, he employed an out-of-production Bobby Ditto Gator Tail worm as his primary offering, along with a Luck-E-Strike Trickster spinnerbait that enticed one or two 5-pound-plus fish per day.
He had the 17-05 he weighed on day 1 by 1:30. Judging by what had occurred during practice, he figured that would be a strong bag, so he pulled off his primary stuff and went looking for additional options – a move that he would regret after the initial top 10 all boxed at least 20-08.
He catapulted to 5th with a 23-11 stringer on day 2, but then lost 3 places the following day despite a bag that weighed 23 pounds even. He got it all back, plus a lot more, with his boated sack in the final round.
Day 4 evolved into a three-way duel involving Johnston (who started the day with a 5 1/2-pound lead), Mark Menendez and Clunn. However, Menendez had overestimated the weights of his two biggest fish and 7-plus-pounders that Johnson had been catching daily eluded him on Sunday as his reed-laden area succumbed to the pressure it had received throughout the week.
Clunn got one of his behemoths on the spinnerbait and the other on the worm after it had shown itself by swiping at and missing the blade offering.
"When I got the first one, I was thinking that if I got another big bite I had a shot," he said. "After I got the second one, then I knew I was in it. (Johnston) hadn't missed a beat the whole tournament, but I had to remind myself that everybody has an off day occasionally and that it could happen, so I wasn't out of it."
Winning Gear Notes
> Spinnerbait gear: 7'6" heavy-action Bass Pro Shops CarbonLite rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Series casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 25-pound Bass Pro Shops Excel monofilament line, 3/4-ounce Luck-E-Strike Trickster spinnerbait (shellcracker), Luck-E-Strike Original Ringer trailer (firecracker with chartreuse tail).
> The spinnerbait, which he designed, features long-drop blades that look like elongated Indiana blades. He chose the skirt color, a mixture of yellow, green and orange, to imitate the shellcrackers (redear sunfish) that are frequent raiders of bass nests.
> Worm gear: Same rod and reel, 65-pound Bass Pro Shops Hyper Braid 8 line, 1/2-ounce Bass Pro Shops XPS tungsten weight, 5/0 Owner worm hook, 6" Bobby Ditto Gator Tail worm (junebug).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Realizing how quickly those fish started moving after the water warmed up. Getting the cloudy weather (on day 4) was a big factor because it allowed me to fish between the docks with the spinnerbait.
> Performance edge – "The 3/4-ounce spinnerbait and also the Power-Poles. If you want to catch big fish in the wind in Florida, you have to slow down. I could dig the Poles into the dirt and stay right there."
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