There will be no surprises this week – the St. Johns River Bassmaster Elite Series will be a sight-dominated event. Anglers who aren't getting a pre-bite look upon at least some of the fish they're catching are unlikely to be around on Sunday when the biggest checks are handed out.
There are spawning fish on the beds throughout the 300-mile system, and more are certainly on the way with a full moon coming this weekend. Some 30-pound bags will hit the scale and it will probably take an average of more than 20 pounds over 4 days to claim the top prize.
There's lots of water to choose from, but the way things are shaping up, B.A.S.S. almost could've saved itself some logistical hassles and limited the derby to Lake George, which is about a 40-mile trip upriver from the launch in Palatka. That's actually a southerly run, as the St. Johns has the rare distinction of flowing to the north.
Some feel that as many as 75 of the 99-angler field could end up in George, which covers 40,000 acres. Its most attractive features are huge eelgrass flats that congregate reproduction-minded bass and ultra-clear water that emerges from a trio of natural springs. It seems to have as many fish as anyplace in the system, and they're bigger and more accessible than at most of the other options.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown 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: Eelgrass flats, shell beds, drops, humps, ledges
> Primary forage: Shad and golden shiners
> Average depth: 8-9 feet
> Species: Largemouths only
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: Prolific numbers of fish, including lots of big ones, but can be tough on anglers not familiar with the tides
> Weather: Sunny and warm
> Water temp: High 60s to low 70s
> Water visibility/color: 2 feet in some places, 6 feet in others/stained to clear
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 0 to 8 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn/post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing, flipping, cranking, Carolina rigs, spinnerbaits, plastics
> Winning weight: 90 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12): 54 pounds
> Check weight: 15 pounds a day
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Harris
> Biggest factors: The conditions – a full moon is coming and should bring even more fish to the beds
> Wildcard: A stretch of bank with pre- or post-spawners that a competitor has to himself
Two in a Row?
This is a new venue for much of the field, although some competed in a Bassmaster Invitational here in 1999. The winner of that event was the same guy who won last week at the Harris Chain – sight-fishing pioneer and native Florida son Shaw Grigsby.
Many think that Grigsby stands a strong chance of becoming the first back-to-back victor on the Elite Series since its inception in 2006.
"I'm going to predict you'll see a repeat winner," said Palatka-area resident and former Elite Series competitor Preston Clark. "Shaw has as good a chance as anybody ever has to pull it off."
The last B.A.S.S. tour-level event at the St. Johns was in February 1992. Grigsby didn't win that one – he finished 2nd to Peter Thliveros, another Sunshine State veteran who'll compete this week. Paul Elias was 3rd.
Thliveros also won a Southern Open here in January 2008.
Terry Scroggins' vast experience on the St. Johns could lead him to a few fish that have gone unbothered by other anglers.
Notes from the Field
Here are some practice notes from anglers who'll be competing this week.
Terry Scroggins"It'll be a sight-fishing deal, but it might be a little tougher than I thought it was going to be. There are a lot of males up, but in some places it's hard to find a female. There's a full moon coming Saturday, though, so a lot of it has yet to happen.
"It's going to be congested – that'll be 90% of the deal. I feel pretty good about it, though. I know the water well and I've got a lot of experience here and a lot of history."
"I don't know if it'll be a total sight-deal, but for me it will be because that's what I spent all my practice time doing. Somebody may well catch some just fishing.
"Some of the areas are going to get crowded, but some of them have a bed every 10 feet for 3 acres. A lot of the fish are spooky, so that tells me it's getting late in the spawn.
"Some areas have some females and others seem to be all little bucks. To make some good money, you're going to need one or two ladies every day."
"I've gotten more sun in the past few days than I have in the last 6 months and it feels really good. The weather is a lighter shade of beautiful down here.
"I've mostly been looking around, but I've also been catching a few just fishing. The biggest factor is the best areas are going to get caked up, but it's not as bad as it is in some places.
"Most of these fish are on big, open flats and so forth and you might be able to race to one fish, but you can't cordon off a 5-acre part of a flat and have it to yourself. I wish there was a way to do that."
"I feel decent about what I've found – I'm not overly confident, but I feel okay. It's a lot better feeling than last week.
"I think I'm going to do a little bit of both (fishing and sight-fishing). Being in the right area where there's a lot of the better fish will be the key. There's fish on the beds everywhere, but you need to be around the right ones."
Native Floridian Chris Lane hopes to sustain the momentum he picked up last week at the Harris Chain.
"My problem is I've only been here twice in my life and I don't know all the nooks and crannies. I do know that a lot of big females have already spawned.
"Everybody seems to be dialed in and there'll be a lot of guys looking at the same fish. Guys like (Scroggins) and some of the guys who got help might know where a pocket of the big ones still left are, and that could be a game-changer."
Top 10 To Watch
Here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event.
1. Shaw Grigsby – He's riding a huge momentum wave, he's very familiar with the venue and the conditions are set up perfectly for him. Back-to-back victories are a distinct possibility.
2. Terry Scroggins – He knows this place better than anyone in the field and he was unusually tight-lipped during practice. Chances are he's got quite a few big 'uns pinned down.
3. Kevin VanDam – He was in contention last week even though he didn't sight-fish. He's not the best looker on the circuit, but he's good enough, and his other attributes make up for whatever he lacks in that department.
4. John Crews – He's a very good sight-fisherman and there was no hesitation when he predicted that 100 pounds would be needed to win this event. He's seen some quality.
5. Alton Jones – He excels around the beds and notched his first Top 10 in a year and a half at Harris. He has lots of incentive this year after a sub-par 2010 campaign.
6. Kelly Jordon – He turned in a stinker (68th) at Harris. His reputation as a top-notch looker calls for much better than that this week, and he should deliver.
Peter Thliveros won the last B.A.S.S. tour-level event at the St. Johns – all the way back in 1992.
7. Skeet Reese – His 23rd at Harris certainly wasn't a bomb, but it kind of seemed that way because it's become such a rarity for him to not be around on the final day. He's a strong sight-guy and will be motivated to do better this week.
8. Chris Lane – He's had a couple of rough years in a row, but got the new one started solidly with a 7th at Harris. He's a guy who seems to sustain momentum for a while – whether it's good or bad.
9. Peter Thliveros – His 21st at Harris was a welcome relief after his struggles of 2010. It was similar to how he started last year (with a 19th at the California Delta), but this time he gets to follow it up with a "home game."
10. Ish Monroe – This is a definite wildcard pick because he hasn't fared well anywhere recently and was 89th at Harris. But when sight-fishing's "the deal" and everybody knows it, he usually comes to play.
Anglers will launch at 7:30 a.m. each day from the Palatka City Docks on Third Street. Weigh-ins will get under way at 4 p.m. at Palatka Riverfront Park (south of the Palatka Memorial Bridge).
> Thurs., March 17 - Sunny - 80°/53°
- Wind: From the N/NE at 9 mph
> Fri., March 18 - Sunny - 82°/52°
- Wind: From the E/NE at 5 mph
> Sat., March 19 - Sunny - 84°/54°
- Wind: From the W/SW at 6 mph
> Sun., March 20 - Sunny - 83°/62°
- Wind: From the E/NE at 9 mph
> BassFan Big Stick Brent Chapman is resigned to having to do at least some sight-fishing this week and he's mentally preparing himself to operate under crowded conditions. To read his end-of-practice report, click here.