By B.A.S.S. Communications Staff

PALATKA, Fla. — John Cox grew up on Florida’s east coast, so he is intimately familiar with nearly every section of the St. Johns River. He believes this week's Bassmaster Elite Series event will unveil aspects of the river that previous events haven’t fully showcased.

Competition days are today through Sunday with daily takeoffs from Palatka City Dock & Boat Ramp at 7 a.m. ET and weigh-ins each day back at the dock at 3 p.m.

The past three Elite events at the St. Johns (2020, 2021 and 2022) were held the second week of February, so prespawn patterns and bed-fishing dominated the show. This year’s tournament will take on more of a postspawn flavor — and probably compel more anglers to turn left from takeoff.

“I think with us fishing in mid-April, that will open up the north part of the river and we’ll see more stuff (in) play with the tide,” Cox said. “I think we’ll see something different this year. I think we’ll see people spread out more than we normally do. We’ll see people get on something off-the-wall and unexpected.”

For clarity, the St. Johns stretches 310 miles from its marshy headwaters in lower Indian River County to its Atlantic Ocean exit through Jacksonville’s Mayport Inlet. Florida’s longest and only north-flowing river receives its inflow mostly from stormwater and natural springs, which results in a low-flow rate of 0.3 mph and qualifies the St. Johns as a “lazy” river.

The difference-maker comes via the fishery’s coastal connection. Tidal influence is strongest near the Atlantic, but daily ebb and flow is felt throughout the fishery.

As Cox points out, daily fluctuations diminish the farther south you go. Therefore, anyone fishing north of Palatka will experience greater tidal influence by way of water-level variance and feeding windows.

As Cox explained, the areas from south of Palatka — Crescent Lake, Rodman Reservoir, Lake George, Salt Springs and countless main-river subtleties — offer the majority of prespawn/spawn habitat. This year, he expects to see more of the field exploring the tributaries, offshoots and docks downriver (north).

Though southern areas are certainly not devoid of potential, they may offer lower seasonal appeal than they would have a month or two ago. Without the traditional expectations, anglers may have to explore different areas this time.

“A lot of fish have spawned already,” Cox said. “Normally we get (to the St. Johns) and 5 percent of the fish have spawned, and we’re trying to hit it just right. But now, I think 80 percent to 90 percent of the fish will have spawned. The one thing to consider is that farther north, the water is cooler. So, there may be more spawning left (downriver).”

Also, with an approaching full moon on April 24, any late spawners will start to feel the lunar prompting. A slight dip in air temperature is expected during the tournament, but the dramatic weather shifts of late winter/early spring are gone, so conditions could certainly favor a few straggling spawners.

For historical reference, when the Elites last visited the St. Johns in 2022, veteran pro John Crews won the event by focusing on the prespawn patterns in Rodman and its lock canal. Similarly, Bryan New won the first event of his rookie season by topping the 2021 Elite at the St. Johns by targeting spawners amid lily pads in Lake George and prespawners on main-river shellbars near Dunn’s Creek, which links to Crescent Lake.

Notably, 2020 offered a preview of 2024’s possible storyline when tournament winner Paul Mueller ran about 25 miles downriver from Palatka and caught prespawners out of pads in two different creeks. With severe weather shortening the event to three days instead of the usual four, the blown-out southern waters played a role in anglers’ strategies. Nevertheless, Mueller’s winning fish certainly hinted at the potential north of takeoff.

“I think the exception could be Rodman,” Cox said. “The (native eelgrass) still hasn’t come back yet in the river, but Rodman still has vegetation and clean water. That’s where a lot of the fishing will go on.”

Benefiting from the state’s regular drawdown and maintenance, the 9,500-acre Ocklawaha River impoundment comprises flooded timber and significant amounts of vegetation. A deep-water channel plus shallow habitat and a reputation for quality and quantity make Rodman a year-round option.

“I’m going to look for some spawners, but it’s mostly going to be a postspawn event,” Cox said. “I think the shad-spawn thing will happen if it warms up. The shad like to spawn on docks, pads, laydowns and seawalls.

“When someone finds the right area, it can happen quick. You might see someone on BassTrakk (post a sudden rally) — that’s the morning shad spawn.”

Spinnerbaits, topwaters, swim jigs, Fluke-style baits and jerkbaits are the common selections for this morning mayhem. Elsewhere, anglers will target postspawners with topwaters, swimbaits, bladed jigs, crankbaits and Texas-rigged plastics.

Another scenario that plays on both sides of the spawn is the assortment of St. Johns River shellbars. Existing north and south of Palatka, these freshwater mussel mounds create centers of life that attract largemouth bass.

“Someone’s gonna blast them on the shad spawn and maybe a few spawners, but I think the winning stuff will come off a shellbar,” Cox said. “If you have one good bar where the fish are coming to you, maybe you can ride that out and end up with 15 of your 20 fish coming from that pattern.”

Ultimately, Cox believes the typically moody postspawn fish will make consistency an elusive target. On the other hand, the recovering females will definitely be feeding, so a diverse game plan — or one anchored by the coveted honey hole — could produce impressive bags. Cox believes 18 to 19 pounds a day will earn a Top 10 spot, and a total in the low to mid-80s will win the blue trophy.