PALATKA, Fla. — If fishing conditions are any indication, you can expect some big changes in the leaderboard Friday at the Bassmaster Elite Series St. Johns River Showdown. Big female bass that are on a spawning bed one day are likely to be gone the next.
"I saw a bunch of big ones (in practice Wednesday)," said Alton Jones. "I thought I was going to go in there this morning and wreck 'em. They were gone. There were about 30 females swimming around in an area the size of a football field, and they were just gone."
Terry Scroggins, who finished second here last year and, as a Palatka resident, is one of the favorites here this year, experienced the same thing. Scroggins said he thought he could have weighed in 30 pounds if the tournament had started Tuesday and possibly 35 on Wednesday. But Scroggins sits in 35th place Thursday with 14 pounds even.
"I had seven or eight big females locked on beds yesterday," Scroggins said. "I was really looking forward to getting in there. Some of them were caught by other anglers, but a lot of them were just gone. Luckily I was able to do a bunch of running around and salvage the day.
"I was looking at a bunch of big fish the last two days. They just left."
With the majority of the 99-man field sight fishing spawning beds, that's probably a story you will hear over and over in this four-day tournament.
"I think you'll see guys catch them different days," said Jones, who salvaged his day with two bass that totaled about 11 pounds of his 16-pound, 7-ounce bag that put him in 17th place. He's not thrilled with that, but he's not discouraged either.
"They're moving fast, and that tells me that I have to keep moving fast," Jones said. "You'll find little groups where you can capitalize and catch a couple of good ones real quick.
"I'm going to treat (Friday) like a practice day and keep moving. I've got a couple of areas I'm going to go back to where I saw a couple of big ones this afternoon. What I've learned is that I can't bank on those fish being there tomorrow. I'm going to go look, but I'm not going to spend any time there."
Chris Lane, who won the Bassmaster Classic last month and grew up in Florida, saw enough change in the fishing conditions during practice that he wasn't tempted to sight fish Thursday.
"I'm not even going to think about it," said Lane, who now lives in Guntersville, Ala. "I don't even have anything rigged up to do it.
"Everything is happening — postspawn, spawn, prespawn. It is everywhere."
Will sight fishing hold up well enough for someone to win this tournament by doing that for four days?
"If you'd asked me that two days ago, I'd have said yes," Lane said. "If you're asking me today, I'll say I'm going to go stick 15 pounds in the box every day and see what happens here. But you're going to need 70-plus pounds to win this thing."
Lane is in 22nd place with 15-11. He's less than 4 pounds ahead of Elite Series rookie Jared Miller of Norman, Okla., who is 50th place with 12 pounds.
"That's normal Florida fishing, where 10 to 12 pounds a day will get you a check," Lane said. "They move in and out fast here. You've got that tide pushing them in and out here, and you've got hot water. It doesn't take long for these fish to come up, do it and go."
Even most of the lunker females weighed in Thursday appeared to have some slack in their bellies, as if they'd already deposited most of their eggs.
"You're late in the spawn," Jones said. "Females this late in the spawn have played this game a lot. They've been dropping their eggs off and on for about six weeks. A female will go on a bed and drop her eggs about seven times. These fish have all been doing that."
So look for some volatility in the leaderboard Friday. If you're sight fishing on the St. Johns River, you simply can't predict what you'll find from one day to the next.
"You could still have a wave of big ones come up tomorrow," Jones said.