By Todd Ceisner
As an avid hunter, Alton Jones knows the importance of being stealthy in the field. When a deer locks in on you or hears something out of the ordinary, your chances of bagging it are likely cooked.
The same goes on the water, at least when fishing for bedding bass as he was at the St. Johns River Bassmaster Elite Series. The veteran pro from Waco, Texas, went to great lengths to blend into his surroundings and not draw the attention of the hefty females he was targeting all week.
"When you're deer hunting and that doe lifts her head and looks in your direction, you better remain motionless," he said. "These fish will do the same thing. If you watch them, they'll face you and look right at you. You cannot move, you cannot move your rod tip, you cannot do anything."
The strategy paid off as he broke a 4-year victory drought to claim the season-opener by weighing 75-09 over 4 days of competition. He was 17th after day 1, but his 28-07 sack on day 2 moved him to the top of the leaderboard and he held on from there. The win earns him an automatic berth in next year's Bassmaster Classic and gives him the early lead in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race.
“It does take some pressure off,” he said. “It frees me up in a lot of ways to focus on different goals. Instead of worrying about having to make the Classic, I can focus on maybe trying to get another win and not be so focused on points. It’s a little bit early in the year, but I’d like to focus on pursuing that Anger of the Year goal. That’s every angler’s goal, but for about half the field that goal died this week and for the other half, it’s still alive.
"This allows me to fish a little riskier in pursuit of those loftier goals."
Here's how he did it.
Winds on the opening day of practice were reminiscent of the final day of competition at last year's St. Johns event, when Jones let a potential wire-to-wire victory slip through his hands. The conditions made it impossible to build an effective sight-fishing gameplan, so he tried to pinpoint areas that might produce if the blows persisted through the week.
"I covered a lot of water, swimming a worm and throwing a swimbait and other moving baits because it wasn't a good day to try to sight-fish," he said. "I found some areas where I felt like I could do decent in, maybe not catch winning-type fish, but do enough to survive in if we had windy weather."
The final 2 days of practice cleared and allowed him to go over his sight-fishing areas from last year. He focused on the eelgrass flats in Lake George and noted the areas where pads and eelgrass were combined seemed to hold the best quality. He came up with four areas, two of which he had fished last year.
When looking at beds, he paid special attention to those that were fresh and clean.
"There are a lot of beds that aren't used anymore and they silt over real quick so they get a real dull, red color to them," he said. "What I was looking for were the bright, polished beds. If it was bright and polished you know a male was actively guarding it because he's keeping it fanned clean.
"I was certainly looking for fish, but I was also looking for areas that had those bright, clean beds."
> Day 1: 5, 16-07
> Day 2: 5, 28-07
> Day 3: 5, 18-00
> Day 4: 5, 12-11
> Total = 20, 75-09
Jones began the tournament fishing an area in George that he discovered on the final day of practice. It held numerous quality bed-fish, but as was the theme throughout the tournament, when he came back the next day, the fish were gone.
Jones focused on bright, clean beds in practice because he knew it was an active nest with a male nearby.
"I really thought a 30-pound sack was a legitimate possibility for me on day 1 if I had it to myself," he said. "I started my day there with five other boats and every fish was gone. In the matter of 12 hours, those fish were gone. I wasted my whole morning that day and had one little fish to show for it."
He moved to a secondary area and put together a 16-07 limit that put him 17th.
"That taught me that the fish we were finding were not staying around long and that told me that when I find a female I need to catch it because I didn't know if new fish were going to be moving in," he added. "Needless to say that put me in search mode for the rest of the week."
His big-fish quest on day 2 yielded three giants, all 8-plus pounds each. They helped him weigh the biggest bag of the event, a 28-07 sack that pushed him to the lead.
On days 3 and 4, he narrowed his focus to the area that produced the trio of brutes on day 2.
“It was an area I had to myself," he said. "The other area I was sharing with other anglers and they weren’t being careful to leave the males on the nests. So in that area, there was nothing left to attract the females. I wanted to make sure I was going to a place that still had plenty of males on beds to coax the females in.
“That’s why it became so important to have at least one area to myself where I could manage the fish. I didn’t have to worry about someone else un-managing them for me.”
His 18-pound limit on day 3 stretched his lead to 9 pounds while his final-day stringer of 12-11 was just enough to seal the victory.
"The female bites were at a premium here," he added. "I never caught five in one day. I had two on day 1, three on day 2, two on day 3 and one (on day 4). I literally just had to target those females."
Winning Gear Notes
> Sight-fishing gear: 6'9" medium-heavy Kistler Z-Bone rod, Ardent Edge Elite casting reel (7.2:1 ratio), 50-pound unnamed braided line with 25-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon leader, unnamed 1/4-ounce flipping weight, 4/0 Paycheck Baits Punch Hook, 6" Yum Dinger (junebug).
> A staple in most pros' boats last week was a push-pole, which was helpful when searching the shallows for remaining bed-fish. Jones, however, stayed on his trolling motor.
"There weren't enough fish and I couldn't cover enough water with my push-pole," he said. "I was actually using my trolling motor and that was one of the keys this week. The push-pole is an important tool in Florida and I've used it many times, but you need to know when to use the trolling motor.
"I was just more efficient with the trolling motor. The ones that would stick around when I'd troll by them would be catchable. If you can run a trolling motor past them and they still sit there, you're probably going to catch them."
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Being ultra-stealthy. I was really doing my best that once I found my fish to disappear and to make the fish as minimally aware of my presence in their environment as possible. The bass behave completely different when he knows you're there. It wasn't just my bait and quietness, but also my clothing. It was almost like dressing to go hunting. It wasn't camo, but the shirt I wore was basically the color of the eelgrass. I wanted the fish to look at me and not see a big red, white or blue thing standing up there."
> Performance edge – "My Yamaha SHO. We made long runs down there and just the piece of mind of knowing that I'm not going to have any mechanical problems because I'm running a Yamaha."