By Todd Ceisner
Heading into last year’s St. Johns River Bassmaster Elite Series, the talk amongst anglers focused on the abject lack of vegetation throughout the fishery. The eel grass, which had been so prevalent for years, had virtually vanished, a victim of the compounding effects of destructive weather events. Still, Rick Clunn amassed nearly 100 pounds in winning for the second time at the St. Johns.
The vegetation situation has not improved over the past 12 months as the field of 88 competitors discovered this week during practice for the 2020 season opener, but it hasn’t sapped the confidence of competitors who are well aware of the quality-sized bass that swim in the semi-tidal waters south of Jacksonville, Fla.
“It has to be the least amount of vegetation I’ve ever seen at the St. Johns,” said John Crews, who is embarking on his 15th Elite Series season. “Whatever none minus more is, that’s what’s out there. That’s the baffling part – it’s just not there.”
But the fish are still around and the task will be rooting out the areas where they are or are coming to in order to spawn.
“It’s been eerily similar to last year in that it’s hard as hell to get bit,” Crews added. “It’s crazy because you know they live here, but where they go before they come up to spawn is anybody’s guess. Everybody is saying the same thing. It’s not like half the field is missing the boat. I think those fish are right there and they want to be up there spawning, but it hasn’t been stable long enough.”
Adding to the lack of vegetation, Brandon Cobb, a two-time winner in 2019, feels like there’s just less fishable cover overall.
“To me there’s 50 percent less stuff in the water than there was,” he said. “I feel like they were shallow last time and I almost feel some of the stuff is unfishable this time around.
“To be perfectly honest, it’s not been good. Last year, it was bad, but then the tournament was great. I don’t think we’re in the same kind of situation where they’ll just show up like last year.”
According to San Mateo, Fla., resident and MLF Bass Pro Tour competitor Terry Scroggins, bass fishing on the river was “super good through the winter,” but it had toughened over the past few weeks as bouts of cold weather moved in. It was 76 degrees Monday afternoon as Scroggins drove out of town to head to the BPT season opener in Alabama and with a full moon coming on Sunday, he figured conditions will be favorable come day 1 on Thursday. Beyond that, especially on the weekend when a stiff cold front is scheduled to arrive, it could be a grind.
“Things are setting up to get really, really good,” Scroggins said. “I look for it to be good Thursday, but with that cold front Friday, that‘ll set the bite back. The spawn has not been that great so far and I think it’s on the verge of busting open. If it wasn’t going to get cold Friday, it could be super good. I think guys will catch ‘em good Thursday and struggle Friday.”
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: Warming trend will end abruptly Friday when highs will be around 60 (with overnight lows in the 30s)
> Water temp: Upper 50s to mid 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): 83 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 10 after 3 days): 50 pounds
> Check weight (Top 35 after 2 days): 28 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3
> Biggest factors: Will cold front shut down certain areas?
> 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:
While the current state of vegetation and the potential impact of a looming cold front will be storylines to monitor at the St. Johns, they are just two of many subplots set to unfold over the next four days. Here’s a sampling of what else to keep an eye on:
> Can Clunn pull off a St. Johns three-peat?
> How will Brandon Palaniuk and Gerald Swindle fare in their return to the Elite Series?
> Will John Cox, fresh off an FLW Pro Circuit win in Texas, miss a beat in making his Elite Series debut?
> How will Scott Canterbury fare while wearing the reigning Angler of the Year label?
> Who amongst the 11 newcomers to the circuit – some true rookies, some FLW Tour vets who qualified via the Bassmaster Opens – will get off to a strong start and carry it through the season?
The St. Johns has become a fixture on the Elite Series schedule with this week’s event marking the circuit’s sixth visit to Palatka, Fla., since 2011. The first four Elite Series stops were slotted in the mid- to late-March time frame with winning weights ranging from the mid 70-pound range up to 90. Last year, the event shifted to early February and the higher-than-normal water levels and “perfect storm” of warming weather ignited the fishery as Clunn topped out at 98-14, which included a 34-14 haul on the final day. Three others topped the 90-pound mark and the river kicked out five 30-pound stringers over the final two days.
The looming cold front will have a big effect on whether BassFans see similar stringers brought on stage this week. It will also make it imperative for anglers to cash in on every possible opportunity on Thursday when cloudy skies are due to give way to afternoon rain.
“One key on Thursday will be the few key areas where the fish are spawning,” said Cobb. “Everybody has seen them and I doubt very many will move up with the cold. One wild card is it will be warm Wednesday [off day] and some fish might show up where they haven’t been.”
“Thursday will be huge and I think during the front on Friday whatever fish are available should bite a little bit, but you have to be around them,” added Crews, who boated an 11-02 kicker during last year’s tournament at the St. Johns. “That’s very key.”
Brandon Cobb says it'll be important to capitalize on every bite Thursday with a significant cold front in the forecast for the weekend.
Rather than hunt for the few swaths of eel grass, anglers are likely to find bass relating to hard cover if they’ve decided it’s time to spawn. Bulkheads and dock pilings in protected canals are just two examples.
“A PVC pipe or a beer can – anything hard,” said Scroggins. “(The lack of vegetation) scatters them out more, but they still have to spawn. They just might spawn on something different like cypress trees or shallow pilings.”
Cobb also senses that some of the bass may have already run through the spawning process as it did not get as cold over the winter this year.
“Last year, I think a lot of fish had not spawned at all,” he said. “This year, I don’t think it’s gotten as cold so there could be a fair number that have spawned and the cold earlier this week has them screwed up now.”
Crews said the change in conditions makes it necessary to be ready for all scenarios. It’s like preparing to fish two tournaments in one, which is fine, he said, as long he makes the top-35 cut after day 2.
“You definitely have to take it one day at a time and you have to prep yourself for changing conditions,” he said. “I hope I’m feeling that cold on Saturday morning.”
A Few to Watch
Based on the current conditions, here are a few anglers who might fare well in this event.
> John Cox – Cox makes his Elite Series debut this week and he’s in his home state so it would not be surprising whatsoever to see his name near the top of the leaderboard.
> Brandon Cobb – Spent his offseason fixing up a saltwater boat but now he’s ready to get back to chasing bass. A two-time winner during the ’19 season.
> Drew Benton – A sight-fishing ace (need proof? Check out his day-1 kicker from a year ago) who has finished fourth and 21st in two previous St. Johns events rode the wave of consistency through the campaign. A good start to ’20 would not come as a surprise.
> Brandon Lester – He’s due, plain and simple. He’s collected five single-digit finishes over the past two seasons and finished no lower than 44th last year. His last two stops in Palatka have resulted in top-15 finishes.
> Anglers will launch at 7:15 a.m. each day from Palatka City Dock and Boat Ramp. Weigh-ins will get under way at 3:15 p.m. at Palatka Riverfront Park.
> Thurs., Feb. 6 – Cloudy with afternoon rain - 81°/50°
- Wind: From the SSW at 15 to 25 mph
> Fri., Feb. 7 – Mostly Sunny - 60°/34°
- Wind: From the W at 10 to 20 mph
> Sat., Feb. 8 – Sunny - 64°/40°
- Wind: From the ENE at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., Feb. 9 – Mostly Sunny - 70°/48°
- Wind: From the NE at 5 to 10 mph