By Todd Ceisner
The last two times the Bassmaster Elite Series has stopped at the St. Johns River, the bass have been toward the tail end of their spawning cycle.
Sure, some big fish were caught and some decent stringers were hauled to the scale, but there was a lingering sense that both events were near misses in terms of maximizing the fishery's true potential for this time of year.
This week, the Elite anglers will get their third shot in 4 years at the tidal river system in northeastern Florida and word is conditions may align just right this time around. There is some sense that the fish aren't that far along in their spawning phase, likely a product of the lengthy and cooler winter. Couple that with a recent full moon last Sunday and the stage is set for a shallow water shootout at what's commonly referred to as the "Bass Fishing Capital of Florida."
A downpour on Monday greeted anglers on their first day of practice and the rain didn't taper off until around sunrise Tuesday. The wind that followed rendered the eastern half of Lake George, a 46,000-acre lake known for its vast eelgrass flats and prime spawning habitat, unfishable. If it remains that way, expect some competitors to be compacted into certain areas as they push-pole around seeking out fish on beds.
By Thursday, the skies will have cleared and bright sun is expected to hang around for much of the event. Such conditions will bode well for those zeroed in on spawners.
Crescent Lake also figures to attract plenty of traffic along with Silver Glen Springs and Juniper Run, simply because the water in those areas tends to remain much clearer. Lake Woodruff, where two of the Top 5 finishers in 2012 spent most of their time, has been sprayed and isn't as productive as it was.
Like any other Florida tournament in the spring, the outcome will hinge on who can consistently trigger those 5-pound or better fish to bite and have some decent specimens to complement them. Numbers probably won't be an issue for most, but it's those kickers that will rule the day.
For those who got off to a lackluster start at Lake Seminole, the St. Johns River offers the perfect elixir. It's another fertile Florida fishery that is known for producing big fish. It appears this week the fish have been more cooperative than in years past on any number of baits and techniques and that could bode well for those who aren't inclined to commit to a sight-fishing pattern.
Among those who avoids sight-fishing at any cost is Elite Series rookie Brett Hite, who has posted two victories and a 6th-place finish to his name in three events. Considering he's back in Florida, where he's already won this year, he could be a force to be reckoned with yet again.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake 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, boats docs, lily pads
> 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: Mostly clear with highs in the 70s; chance of rain on Saturday
> Water temp: High 60s to low 70s
> Water visibility/color: Some areas are stained and aren't worth fishing; other spots are clear or on their way to clearing up
> Water level: About 2 feet above normal
> Fish in: 0 to 8 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn/post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing, flipping, cranking, topwaters, spinnerbaits, Senkos
> Winning weight (4 days): 85 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3): 42 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 25 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3.5
> Biggest factors: Patience. Waiting out a bedding fish or grinding it out in a certain area, it's going to be a grind this week.
> Wildcard: Someone finding a mother lode of big females all lined up.
Here's a quick glance at the playing field for this week's tournament. The fishable water stretches from the I-95 bridge in Jacksonville down to the Highway 44 bridge in Deland.
Steve Niemoeller, who operates the Central Florida Fishing Guide service and accompanies clients on the St. Johns River 3 or 4 days a week, says there should be plenty of bed-fishing opportunities this week even after the Monday deluge.
"The bass are still bedding and there are lot of bass on beds," he said. "They're going find some on Lake George, and once the wind cuts out, we should have some high skies so if the sun keeps shining like it is, there should be a lot of chances for guys to be looking at them."
He also says the canals around Astor just south of Lake George could attract some anglers.
"Fish are bedding in those canals, too," he added. "And if the guys aren't looking at fish, throwing a Devil's Horse or a Spook-style topwater bait could get them going."
A north wind is in the forecast for at least parts of Thursday and Friday. To Niemoeller, that means the river, which flows south to north, could back up and allow competitors better access to some prime bedding habitat on Lake George over even smaller lakes to the south like Dexter and Woodruff.
"I also think some guys will be out cranking ledges if they're not sight-fishing or even drop-shotting on the ledges," he added. "There are also some schooling fish on the river. If you can find the bait fish, there are some schoolers out there."
Big Rain No Problem
Typically, when an area receives as much rain as the Palatka did on Monday (reports of 3 inches were common in some places), it spells doom for fisheries because the water clarity will almost certainly deteriorate immediately. The St. Johns usually holds up pretty well to such downpours, Niemoeller said.
"I used to fish up in Kentucky and on the Tennessee River and anytime they'd get 3 inches of rain, everything would get muddy," he said. "The St. Johns River doesn't do that. It'll stain up a little bit, but it'll never get muddy like some other places would."
In terms of the tide, it can certainly play a factor on the St. Johns, but it'll mainly impact those fishing north of Lake George and Palatka. Niemoeller can't foresee many competitors opting to go that route.
"Normally, anybody fishing north of Lake George will see the effects of the tide," he said. "Anyone south of George, it's a big enough body of water that it pretty much negates the effect of the tide. My experience has been if you come halfway down George, you won't experience any effects of the tide at all. The upper part may see the water come up or down 6 or 8 inches, but it's so massive, it disperses the water really well."
Niemoeller said that if he were to fish a tournament this week at the St. Johns, he'd be sure to have three baits tied on aside from his sight-fishing arsenal: A Smithwick Devil's Horse, a Heddon Tiny Torpedo and a Senko or Bass Assassin Tap Out.
Niemoeller has a hunch the weights this year are going to exceed the weights from the Elite Series event 2 years ago. Within the last week, his clients have caught numerous fish in the 7-pound class.
"This time of year, I do a lot of shiner fishing and if these guys find the right spot, they're going to catch them good. These fish have been stacked up for a while in some places. I really think we'll see some heavy weights."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"It's the same old St. Johns. There are beds everywhere. It was amazing, in the heavy rain (Monday), you could still see big fish on beds. Something I didn't know what a lot of fish spawn during heavy downpours. We're trained to think they'd want bright sun and warm weather. It's just an incredible fishery this time of year. There are a whole bunch of giant fish around here.
"I counted 19 boats in one spot in Lake George. I can't fish that way. First, I'm not a good sight-fisherman and I've been catching a lot of fish just fishing and making long casts. I'm trying to find some spots that aren't where the packs of boats are because they won't like me if I pull in and start making 100-yard casts while they're all push-poling around.
Hank Cherry says he can be more effective fan-casting an area for bedding fish than locking down on just one particular bass.
"This places scares me. I had a great day Tuesday because I had a few of those big bites that make all the difference in Florida. If I can get a couple of those bites just fishing, then I know where some bed fish areas are and hopefully they'll still be there. If they don't work out, I'm confident I can go fishing and catch some decent fish. Usually, if I just go fishing here this time of year when the spawn's going on, I miss a check by about a pound. The key will be who can get those 6-pound bites each day. I'd be tickled to come out of here with a Top-25."
"It's been challenging right now with the water being high and how the wind is blowing. It's fishing pretty well. They're doing what they should be doing and there are a lot of fish on beds. The only thing is you can't see them very well so you have to find areas that have them.
"I think it'll take some good weight to do well. There are a lot of fry guarders and the big females seem to be up and it's fishing pretty big. They're catching them from Lake George up to Palatka in a variety of different ways since there are still some pre-spawners along with spawners and post-spawners.
"There's a lot of dirty water and that's going to shove guys into some smaller areas. I think some areas of George will be really crowded."
"It's been a little different so far but I think that's because of the cold weather. Some places that had a bunch of grass before, there's not much there while other places have plenty of it. It just seems like the cold weather rearranged the grass a bit.
"The fish don't seem to quite as far along, which is good overall. We're usually here on the late part of the spawn and those fish can be hard to catch. I'm sensing we're here a little earlier in the spawn than we have been before. We haven't had optimal conditions to look at beds yet, but there are a lot of fish up shallow and I think the sight-fishing bite will do nothing but get better.
"I don't have my areas picked out just yet, but even if I don't find anything else, I have several good areas to choose from. I'm just hoping to expand on what I've found to give myself more options. You can never have enough options in a 4-day tournament. I plan to do some fishing, but sight-fishing will factor in to my plan."
"It's definitely been a big change for me because I have limited experience on tidal fisheries. The fish are cooperating a bit, though, and coming off that full moon there are plenty of fish that have moved up in both lakes. I think George will fish small and the guys who go in there will be limited to just a few areas, but those areas seem to have plenty of fish.
"I usually don't like to sight-fish. I find I can fan cast an area and cover it better instead of setting up on one. If I find a dumb one, I'll fish for it, but I'm not going to sit on one for 45 minutes."
"I'm getting a lot of bites, but a lot of them area small, which is par for the course here. You just go through a lot of fish. There are some fish on beds, but this place is totally different from the Potomac. It's mostly eelgrass and dollar pad. In my opinion, I think there are more fish coming in to spawn, but I still think it's going to be a grind.
"There are a lot of fish that live in George and a lot of other nooks and crannies to catch them in. We only have 108 boats. It's not like an FLW event with 180 or whatever we had. You're still going to have to work for them. It won't be like Okeechobee where you pull up and catch five big ones.
"I've got two or three areas with a lot of fish in them. I've had a lot of bites, but I shook off just about everything so I'm not sure if their 12-inchers or 9-pounders. Some of the areas were still real clear and there will be a lot of boats in those areas. It's still going to be one of those things where you put your head down and see what you can catch."
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Brett Hite We asked BassFans last week who will be this year's version of Jason Christie. We may have found the answer as Hite is on a rampage around the southeast. He's back in Florida this week, where he's already won this year.
2. Terry Scroggins A resident of Palatka, he knows plenty about the St. Johns and its tidal conditions. He's also pumped out two Top-10s here, including a 2nd in 2011. He'd love to win at home, especially after missing a check at Seminole.
3. Alton Jones When he won in 2012, he keenly swapped his jersey for a muted green polo shirt in an effort to blend into the surroundings. His tournament record in March is almost unrivaled, plus he's among the best bed-fishermen on tour.
4. Todd Faircloth Nearly erased a 9-pound deficit on the final day 2 years ago only to finish 2nd to Jones. He has two Top-5s at the St. Johns and is fresh off a runner-up at Seminole, which came on the heels of a 7th at the Classic. Safe to say the quiet Texan is on a roll.
5. Cliff Prince Like Scroggins, he's a local with plenty of knowledge and experience when it comes to the St. Johns, site of his Elite Series debut in 2012. Coming off a money finish at Seminole, some home cooking could bode well for him.
Shaw Grigsby got off to a great start at Lake Seminole last week and always performs well in his home state.
6. Randall Tharp A 22nd at Seminole might be considered a letdown in his case, but he's still on a tear and with another grass fishery on the menu this week, we look for that to continue.
7. Edwin Evers Started with a dud at Seminole (94th), his worst Elite Series finish since 2007 (102nd at California Delta), so expect him to come out swinging this week. He won at the St. Johns in 2011 and was 14th in '12.
8. Keith Combs Was a Top-10 finisher in both previous trips to Palatka. Wants to avoid leaving Florida without a check.
9. Justin Lucas He's finished outside the Top 30 in a tour event just once since last March. He didn't look out of place in finishing 10th in his Elite Series debut last week.
10. Shaw Grigsby If looking is on the docket, it's tough to overlook Grigsby, who proved last week he doesn't necessarily have to be sight-fishing in order to be effective this time of year.
> Anglers will launch at 7:30 a.m. ET all 4 days from Riverfront Park (101 Memorial Parkway, Palatka, Fla. 32177). Weigh-ins will get under way at 4 p.m. at Riverfront Park (same address).
> Thurs., March 20 Partly Cloudy - 76°/52°
- Wind: From the NNW at 2 to 5 mph
> Fri., March 21 Clear - 76°/56°
- Wind: From the NNE at 4 to 8 mph
> Sat., March 22 Chance of Rain - 78°/59°
- Wind: From the SSE at 4 to 8 mph
> Sun., March 23 Partly Cloudy - 79°/56°
- Wind: From the WNW at 5 to 10 mph
> Brent Chapman expects the St. Johns River to fish small this week as a result of Rodman Reservoir being off limits and some other areas not as "fishy" as they have been in the past. To read his practice recap, click here.