By Todd Ceisner
The previous two times the Bassmaster Elite Series visited the St. Johns River, the fish were much further along in their spawning rituals than they were last week.
The prolonged and much cooler winter had the fish grouped up in massive numbers around Lake George and it resulted in more impressive across-the-board weights. In 2012, Alton Jones won the event looking at fish locked on beds. This time, however, actually seeing the fish was a losing cause, a result of dingy water clarity, changing wind direction and the fallout from a heavy downpour on the first day of practice.
While Chris Lane won the tournament making long casts and flips to clumps of lily pads in Lake Dexter, making blind flips and casts to holes and spots in the eelgrass of Lake George was the dominant method for the rest of the Top 5, as explained below.
2nd: Dean Rojas
> Day 1: 5, 17-15
> Day 2: 5, 19-07
> Day 3: 5, 17-09
> Day 4: 5, 21-10
> Total = 20, 76-09
In his previous trips to the St. Johns River, Dean Rojas had gotten caught up in the crowds – he called it "a circus" – at Lake George. This time, he vowed he was going to blaze his own trail.
"I learned through those mistakes, if you can call them that," he said. "To me, we were a little early in the spawn than we were the last times and everything was just pushed back. The fishing was a lot better and the weights showed that.
"Coming down here and going through it a third time, those are the easy ones," he added, referring to the fish that were bunched up in the grass flats in the southwest corner of the lake. "I want to win and the best chance to do that here is to find areas off the beaten path. I did that and felt like I could manage the area and the fish and hope to have enough to overcome everyone else. I felt like I did that and was able to be consistent."
While he did target eelgrass, his fish also came off lily pads, matted vegetation and out of hydrilla. The majority of his weigh-in fish fell for a 3 1/2-inch Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog.
"I keyed on everything and everything was good," he said. "You had to fish it all. It wasn't one specific thing. It was a combination of things and as long as it had the right depth range and was facing the right bank, it was good."
> Flipping gear: 7'6" Duckett Fishing White Ice and Macro Magic casting rods, unnamed casting reel, 20-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 3/16-oz. unnamed tungsten flipping weight, 3/0 Gamakatsu Superline EWG worm hook, 3.5" Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog (hematoma).
> When he could get a visual on a bedding fish, he'd flip a Big Bite Baits Warmouth (war party) rigged on a 4/0 Gamakatsu Superline EWG worm hook tied to 22-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon. The Warmouth was responsible for his bigger catches. "Those fish on beds can't stand that bait," he said.
> Main factor in his success – "Being consistent was a big key. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but I tried to catch big bag each day. I tried to catch good limit and I knew guys would move up and down the standings. After all, it's Florida and that's what happens with big fish being caught. I wanted to put myself in position for the final day and I was able to do that."
> Performance edge – "My MotorGuide trolling motor and Power-Poles and my Skeeter/Yamaha. Those four are so important to what I do and they allow me to do the best job I can."
Mark Davis sensed in practice that the fishing would be a step up from what it had been on previous trips to the St. Johns River.
3rd: Mark Davis
> Day 1: 5, 18-03
> Day 2: 5, 26-07
> Day 3: 5, 16-13
> Day 4: 5, 13-13
> Total = 20, 75-04
Mark Davis was pretty well spent after finishing 3rd at Lake Seminole in the season opener. Little did he know the fishing at the St. Johns River would be just as good.
He reported getting 40 to 50 bites on the second day of practice, which tipped him off that the fishing quality was much better than he'd expected.
"I'd never had that many bites on George before," he said. "I knew then the fish were up and the fishing would be good."
He was part of the throng of boats that crowded into the clear water in the southwest corner of Lake George on day 1 and came away with 18-03.
"I expected that would be a one-day deal and I never back over there after day 1," he said. "I had another area on the east side of the lake that I shared with Paul Elias."
Davis stuck 26-07 on day 2 and worked his way up to 4th place.
"The majority of fish I caught came where I'd see a bright spot in the grass or just pitching to holes," he said. "It was a typical St. Johns River/Lake George pattern. It was all about trying to get your bait around a bed this week."
Even though his weights tailed off on the weekend, he came away with a second straight 3rd-place effort and the quarter-pole lead in thee Angler of the Year points chase.
"I'm really happy to get through here," he added. "Some of us when you go on a Florida swing, it's so iffy. You just want to survive those two tournaments points wise. I actually love to fish Seminole. The St. Johns River not so much. This is the best start I've had in a long time and it'll be fun to see if I can keep it going."
> Flipping/pitching gear: 7'4" heavy-action Lew's Team Lew's casting rod, Lew's BB1 Pro Speed Spool casting reel (6.4:1 gear ration), 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 1/8-oz. Strike King Tour Grade tungsten weight, 4/0 Gamakatsu offset round bend worm hook, 5" Strike King KVD Perfect Plastics Shim E Stick (watermelon red flake), 4" Strike King Rage Tail Bug (green-pumpkin), unnamed cut tail worm (green-pumpkin).
> Davis said the majority of his fish bit the Shim E Stick, including a 5-pounder on the final day, but the bigger fish fell for the Rage Bug, a new bait in the Rage Tail series that will be introduced at ICAST in July. To check out the Rage Bug, click here.
> Main factor in his success – "Making the right moves at the right time as far as areas. The other factor that helped me was I wasn’t seeing the fish I was catching. Only a couple did I actually see and when you're not seeing them and you're not sure if one's there, you have to maintain a lot of confidence. You have to stay with it and fish real slow. Having the confidence it takes to keep it down in that grandma gear and grind it out when you're not seeing them. That was the key more than anything."
> Performance edge – "Nothing out of the ordinary. I didn't use a push pole any. I stayed on my trolling motor and moved real slow, which is real important down here. Two things I'm always thinking about down here are wind and sun angle. What you'd like is to have the sun behind you so it's lighting the bottom of the lake and a gentle breeze to push you along. That way you don't need a push pole and you barely use your trolling motor and you can just glide around."
Alton Jones posted his third Top-4 finish at the St. Johns River last week.
4th: Alton Jones
> Day 1: 5, 18-01
> Day 2: 5, 21-11
> Day 3: 5, 19-08
> Day 4: 5, 15-03
> Total = 20, 74-07
As much as Alton Jones wanted to sight-fish last week, the conditions just weren't conducive for looking at spawning bass like how he won at the St. Johns 2 years ago.
After the big rainstorm on the first day of practice, he began preparing for the conditions that would be prevalent come tournament time.
"I practiced for a spawning event," he said. "I wanted to catch them sight-fishing. The water was a good, clean tannic color, but the water was too deep to see the beds or the fish. They were definitely spawning in holes in the grass, though. The combination of mud and wind made it difficult to be efficient in putting baits where they needed to be."
All of the fish he weighed came out of Lake George with most coming on what's grown into his signature bait – the 6-inch YUM Dinger soft stickbait.
"On day 1, we were all beating around on literally one big grass flat," he said. "I felt fortunate to get 18 pounds, but I didn't see that area holding up. I went to my back-up water the rest of the week.
"It's the first time I've ever seen half of the field go to one spot. We were all piled in a 25-acre area. It was an amazing sight. What was more amazing was seeing everyone catch a limit there and some catch huge limits. I've fished in crowded places before, but nothing like that."
He said he could catch a small limit early in the morning swimming a worm, but culled everything later on with the Dinger.
> Flipping/pitching gear: 6'10" medium-heavy Kistler Z-Bone casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 50-pound PowerPro braided line, 20-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader material, 1/8-oz. unnamed tungsten worm weight (pegged), 4/0 Gambler KO Hook, 6" YUM Dinger (junebug).
> He used a 1/4-oz. weight to reach deeper holes or when the wind picked up.
> He said when he'd find a place where he thought there was a bed, he'd pitch his bait out and let it sit for 30 seconds to a minute before lifting his rod tip.
> The tournament caused him to miss the wedding of his nephew Trevor Smith to his wife Kellen. "One of the hardest parts of the job of being a pro fisherman is all the time we spend away from home," he said. "I hope they're as happy in their marriage as I have been in my marriage to Jimmy Sue."
> Main factor in his success – "One thing about Florida fishing is you need to learn to fish slow – just put your Power-Poles down and go through an area real slow. If you go through with your trolling motor, you'll go over fish and not maximize an area's potential."
> Performance edge – "It was a long run from Palatka to Lake George and my Skeeter and Yamaha are tools that help me ride in comfort. I'm very grateful to have good a quality ride under me that I can count on."
Davy Hite rethought his approach to fishing in Florida and it paid off with a Top-5 finish.
5th: Davy Hite
> Day 1: 5, 24-01
> Day 2: 5, 14-07
> Day 3: 5, 24-13
> Day 4: 5, 9-14
> Total = 20, 73-13
Missing the last two Bassmaster Classics didn't sit well with Davy Hite, so he devoted himself to getting into better all-around shape to make a push toward earning a ticket to his 15th Classic next February at Lake Hartwell in his home state of South Carolina.
"I got mentally and physically more prepared than I have in a long time," he said. "I was on a strict workout regimen for the last 3 months and I feel better physically than I have in a long time."
Another matter he refocused his efforts on was paring down his tackle choices for the season-opening Florida swing.
"I've always had a tendency to make things more complicated," he said. "I had less tackle in my boat and truck the last two weeks than I've had in the last 15 years. I only brought baits that I knew were traditionally good in Florida. I scaled down and fished baits and patterns I knew are prevalent in Florida. I just made things more simple than I have in the past."
He came with a game plan, too, that wound up paying off.
"My practice was good," he said. "I fished way up north on the first day and had a good day. I didn't go back there during the tournament. I checked out other areas and by the end of the day Wednesday, I had a plan and I decided I was going to stick with it no matter what.
"When I think of a good Florida fisherman, I think of someone who fishes with patience and confidence and fishes slow. That's not who I am in most situations, but I think my lack of confidence here is based on my previous tournament finishes in Florida. It's easy to be patient when you've done well in the past. I just needed to have confidence in my ability and also in the baits I know how to use in spawning situations."
That plan called for him to stay in Lake George. He did some "straight up" sight-fishing, but also pitched a worm and threw a bladed jig, mostly in 3 to 4 feet of water.
The highlight of the week for him was catching a 10-03 on day 1 that anchored his 24-01 stringer.
"I found that fish on a bed Wednesday afternoon and I thought about it a bunch during the night," he said. "I had a good boat draw and with my boat and a good draw, no one was going to beat me to a fish like that. I caught it pretty quick and to start Thursday with a 10-pound was pretty awesome. That helped the patience thing a lot.
"I had confidence in a few areas. I didn't go running around when I didn't get bites for a few hours."
> Worm gear: 7' medium-heavy All Star ASMicro casting rod, Pflueger Patriarch casting reel, 10-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, 1/8-oz. unnamed tungsten worm weight, 5/0 VMC flipping hook, 6" Trigger X Flutter Worm (black/blue).
> Bladed jig gear: Same as worm rod, same reel, 20-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Shakin' Shad (golden shiner pattern).
> Hite said he fished the bladed jig like a crankbait, adjusting the retrieve every day depending on the movement of the fish. For example, he went with a fast retrieve on day 3 since the fish were more aggressive.
> When Hite opted to sight-fish, he used 65-pound Spider Wire braid and switched between various creature baits depending on how the fish were acting.
> Main factor in his success – "My state of mind and being patient and having confidence. I needed a different mindset for Florida. I really think my big problem is trying to fish too fast and cover too much water."
> Performance edge – "When I left the dock second today, when I got to Lake George, there was not another competitor in sight of me. It didn't really matter today, but on Thursday, to get to a 10-02 on a bed, it mattered. I'm really excited about the Phoenix boat I'm running."
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.