Mother Nature creates exciting new format

PALATKA, Fla. — Maybe Mother Nature had a better plan. The AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at the St. Johns River was scheduled to be a four-day, Thursday through Sunday tournament, with the field cut to the top 40 after two days and the top 10 after three days.

However, Mother Nature sent that plan flying with the 25- to 35-mile per hour winds that have swept this river the past two days. When the tournament begins Saturday, the full 88-man field will fish the first two days, and only the top 20 anglers will fish Monday’s final.

With a warming trend beginning again Saturday and a full moon rising Sunday over a legendary big bass fishery, there could be big-time fireworks before this one is over. Throw in the fact that these anglers were last on the water for practice on Tuesday, and who knows what will happen?

“It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens,” said 2019 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Scott Canterbury. “It could be really close going into that last day. Twentieth place could be three or four pounds out of the lead. Or it might be 10pounds out of the lead. But on a river like this, you can make up 10 pounds with one swing. There’s the potential to catch a mid 30s- to 40-pound bag, if it was to get right.”

That’s what Rick Clunn did on the last day of the four-day event at the St. Johns River last February. Clunn was in eighth place, 11 pounds, 13 ounces out of the lead going into the final day and won the tournament with five bass totaling 34-14. His four-day total was 98-14.

And consider this: The only other time an Elite Series event was shortened to three days was at Lake Champlain in 2017, when Aaron Martens caught 23-5 in the final and came from 19th place to win by 14 ounces over Seth Feider.

“This one makes me nervous,” said Keith Combs, who along with Canterbury and a couple dozen other Elite Series anglers gathered at the Palatka Riverfront Park to meet and greet fans Friday afternoon. “If it doesn’t get won by someone who has found a group offshore in the river, it will be won by someone who had a few bites in an area and then the motherlode moved up.

“In practice, I tried to focus on big flat area that had some pads and stuff where I think a guy could win.” 

Cliff Prince is the man to keep an eye on Saturday. Palatka is his hometown, and the 50-year-old angler has been fishing tournaments on the St. Johns River since he was 18. Prince is the guy most familiar with the offshore mussel shell beds and similar structure where bass could be staging to spawn.

“I’m liking it, I’m liking it,” Prince said. “But you know my mind is running a hundred miles an hour. I’ve got some areas where they should be, and if they’re there, it could be good for me.”

Prince had his heart broken here in 2016 due to a livewell aerator malfunction. He had a decent limit early, but all five fish were dead at mid-morning. The rules prevent culling a dead fish and, after penalties, Prince was left with a Day 1 weight of only 10-12, which put him in 95th place. He rallied with over 70 pounds the next three days to finish sixth, 8 pounds, 9 ounces behind Clunn, who won with 81-15.

“I was really on ‘em in that event,” Prince said. “I should have blown it out. I should have had well over 25 pounds the first day. That one stung. The second day I had 23 pounds and I lost a 10-pounder.” 

In the five previous Elite Series events at the St. Johns River, it has always produced some fireworks. As Canterbury noted earlier, a 10-pounder can change things in a hurry here, as can one of those 30-pound bags that aren’t out of the question on this river. And in this particular Mother Nature-altered format, it’s anybody’s guess how this one plays out.