By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
If you'd planned to be among the top finishers at last week's St. Johns River Bassmaster Elite Series, you needed to be fishing on the north end of Lake George. There were just no two ways about it – the guys who cashed the biggest checks saw each other every day, and some of them were within sight of each other all day.
They worked over a bunch of giant largemouths that had moved into that vicinity to spawn. With almost none of the system's famed eelgrass present due to huge weather events over the past couple of years, the fish found alternatives for reproduction cover that included reeds, lily pads and wood.
Here are some pattern and gear details for the anglers who finished in positions No. 2 through 5.
2nd: Chris Johnston
> Day 1: 5, 21-05
> Day 2: 5, 25-11
> Day 3: 5, 28-13
> Day 4: 5, 19-05
> Total = 20, 95-02
Chris Johnston's weights grew successively larger across the tournament's first three days and he began the final round with a 5 1/2-pound lead. However, the reedy spot that had been so good to him didn't surrender any brutes on Sunday and he was one of seven anglers leap-frogged by the legendary Rick Clunn, who boxed a tournament-best 34-14 for his second consecutive win at the St. Johns.
Johnson, like many in the field, did not have an encouraging official practice session.
"I was going through reeds looking at old beds and I found some buggy-whips that looked like the best stuff to spawn in I'd seen," he said. "I finally got a bite on one, and around the corner were some more reeds and I got another bite.
"On day 1 of the tournament, a lot of fish had pulled up onto those old beds. They were in a foot to a foot and a half of water."
Some of them he could see – for instance, he looked at a 7 1/2-pounder before catching it on day 1 – but most of his approach consisted of blind-casting soft plastics in the extremely shallow water.
"If you got anywhere near them, they were pretty spooky. If I'd go over a bed that had one on it, I'd mark it (using the GPS on his depthfinder) and then come back later and blind-cast to it."
> Worm gear: 7'5" heavy-action G. Loomis G. Loomis NRX 893 Jig and Worm rod, Shimano Metanium MGL casting reel (7.4:1 ratio), 16-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 3/0 Gamakatsu Superline EWG hook, Zoom Speed Worm (junebug).
> Soft stickbait gear: 7'5" heavy-action G. Loomis GLX 894, same reel, 20-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon, 3/8-ounce tungsten weight, 5/0 Gamakatsu straight-shank hook, 5" Yamamoto Senko (black/blue).
> Main factor in his success – "I just kind of figured out that the fish were all on the beds. Every clump of reeds in the right depth had fish. I just kept running that pattern and I knew I could get a big one on any cast."
Mark Menendez weighed at least 21 pounds on all 4 days.
3rd: Mark Menendez
> Day 1: 5, 24-08
> Day 2: 5, 21-06
> Day 3: 5, 23-07
> Day 4: 5, 25-12
> Total = 20, 95-01
Mark Menendez was undoubtedly the derby's most consistent competitor. He was in 3rd place after each of the four weigh-ins and was the only top-5 finisher to exceed 20 pounds in every round.
He fished a two-mile stretch of bank and threw at a wide variety of cover types. Primarily focused on pre-spawn fish, he stayed worked deeper water than most of his fellow competitors (6 feet in some places).
He didn't get a lot of bites – never more than 10 in a day – but connected with a great deal of quality.
"My problem was I had to fish it all; I couldn't just pitch to one specific thing," he said. "I didn't cover a lot of water – I had my MotorGuide trolling motor on 2 most of the time. I fished like an inchworm and at times it drove me crazy. Then after awhile I'd catch a good one and I'd tell myself I'd better slow down even more."
His bait lineup consisted of a plastic craw, a finesse worm, a spinnerbait and a 10-inch worm.
> Craw gear: 7'6" Lew's Custom Speed Stick Mag Heavy Cover rod, Lew's Hyper Mag casting reel (7.5:1 ratio), 20-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 5/16-ounce Strike King tungsten weight, 5/0 Gamakatsu straight-shank hook, Strike King Rage Craw (Falcon craw).
> Finesse gear: Same rod and reel, 17-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon, same weight and hook, Strike King Perfect Plastics finesse worm (redbug).
> Spinnerbait gear: 7'3" Lew's Custom Speed Stick Football Jig rod, Team Lew's Lite casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 17-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon, 3/8-ounce Strike King spinnerbait (black with junebug, brown, purple and black skirt).
> The blades on the spinnerbait were a No. 2 Colorado and a No. 5 willow-leaf, both gold. He threaded a short piece of chartreuse soft plastic onto the hook shank to add color and used a Rabid Fishing Solutions disc to hold the trailer hook in place.
> His big worm was an unnamed 10" black ribbon-tail.
Main factor in his success – "Realizing that I was around pre-spawn fish that were willing to bite and fishing ultra, ultra-slow."
Patrick Walters had a superb pro debut at the St. Johns.
4th: Patrick Walters
> Day 1: 5, 13-15
> Day 2: 5, 23-07
> Day 3: 5, 32-15
> Day 4: 5, 21-09
> Total = 20, 91-14
Patrick Walters got off to a sluggish start in his pro debut, but his weights went up considerably over the middle days of the event, culminating with the massive haul on day 3 that put him in 2nd place headed into the final round. He caught fish weighing more than 9 pounds on each of the first three days.
He used a topwater prop bait to find fish and then caught them on a flipping stick using a couple of different sizes of worms. He targeted reed heads, isolated reeds and other emergent vegetation.
He also caught a few good fish casting a soft stickbait to isolated pieces of cover.
"It was an unreal tournament," he said. "I had the best day of my life, catching almost 33 pounds, and I didn't even have the biggest bag of the day (that honor went to Clifford Pirch and his 34-09 stringer).
"My practice was miserable – the bite was to tough that I wasn't sure I was going to be able to catch anything. But the lake showed up in style."
> Flipping gear: 7'6" heavy-action Daiwa Kage rod, Daiwa Tatula 100 casting reel (7:1 ratio), 20-pound Sufix fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce VMC tungsten weight, 4/0 VMC Heavy Duty Flippin' hook, Zoom Magnum Finesse Worm (junebug).
> Casting gear: 7'4" heavy-action Daiwa Tatula Elite Ish Monroe Signature Series Frog rod, Daiwa Tatula SV TWS casting reel, 17-pound Sufix fluorocarbon, 3/16-ounce VMC tungsten weight, 5/0 VMC EWG hook, Zoom Magnum Trick Worm (watermelon red) or Zoom Fluke (pearl white).
Main factor in his success – "I'd say it was finding clean water in the areas where fish were pulling up to spawn. They were coming fast."
John Crews' 11-02 monster on day 1 was the biggest fish caught in the tournament.
5th: John Crews
> Day 1: 5, 24-13
> Day 2: 5, 15-15
> Day 3: 17-14
> Day 4: 5, 31-01
> Total = 20, 89-11
John Crews didn't spend all of his time in Lake George; he also focused a lot of his attention on the main river. He caught an 11-02 monster on day 1 that held up as the biggest fish of the tournament.
"I was never married to any one area," he said. "Getting that 11 was just a total fluke; a real gift."
He used a Neko rig tipped with a Missile Baits Destroyer to catch a couple of solid spawning fish (a 6-pounder and a 4) on the first day. The vast majority of his weigh-in fish were enticed by a Texas-rigged Missile Baits 48 fished around pennywort and other types of vegetation.
"Sometimes I'd just run down the river and if something looked right, if it had certain types of reeds or lily pads, I'd go fish it. "The wind blew so hard (on day 4) that I was limited in where I could go."
> Worm gear: 7'6" medium-heavy Cashion flipping stick, unnamed casting reel (8:1 ratio), 20-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 3/16-ounce SPRO tungsten weight, 40 Gamakatsu Heavy Cover worm hook, 4.8" Missile Baits 48 (junebug).
Main factor in his success – "Just to keep fishing new water was a big factor."
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