Elite Analysis – Day 2 St. Johns River

Pete Robbins provides an in-depth analysis after Day 2 of the MAXAM Tire Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River.

It’s not what we know. It’s what we don’t know.

In some respects, that’s the beauty of bass fishing. We are always dealing with imperfect information, and things that we believe to be stone cold facts are repeatedly called into question.

For example, regardless of where you stand on forward-facing sonar, it has made clear that there are populations of bass that roam, rarely if ever coming to the bank, and they’re catchable. Similarly, if you’ve always thought that fish spawn in confined temporal windows, you’re wrong – as proven by the bass of Florida. Some of them likely did it back in the late fall and they’re still getting busy in the latter half of April.

It seems fitting that all of these new lessons are crystal clear in the 500th tournament for Rick Clunn, someone whose knowledge is beyond extensive and who nevertheless embraces the idea that we can never know it all. He’s a lifelong learner.

So what do I know now?

I know that Cory Johnston has established a massive 11 pound 9 ounce lead, and also that it’s not safe. He had company today, and Mark Zona informed us that his fishing grounds are likely to get more crowded tomorrow. “That is the known party zone,” Zona said. Two days left to go, a lot can change.

Here are my notes and quotes from Day 2 on one of the most frequent – and occasionally confounding – stops on the Elite Series schedule:

Century Belt – The St. Johns River has not produced a Century Belt in Elite Series competition, and most of us didn’t expect it to happen this week. The closest we’ve come was Rick Clunn’s winning weight 0f 98-14 in 2019. That year the top four anglers all topped 90. Don’t look now, but Cory Johnston’s 50-11 has him on track. He previously earned one with 100 pounds 5 ounces of smallmouth at the St. Lawrence in 2022, when he finished 2nd to Jay Przekurat.

Rolling on Twenties – There were eight bags of 20 pounds or more on Day 1. There were eight again today. Leader Cory Johnston is the only one to have done it twice so far. Justin Hamner gained valuable points today, but his 20-11 limit left him short of the cut in 55th.

Edge of Seventeen – Only four anglers have weighed in over 17 pounds both days.

Don’t Look Now – In a surprising reversal of fortune, there are no rookies in the Top 10. The top-ranking rookie after two days is Wesley Gore in 24th.

Rookie Watch – Only four of this year’s ten rookies made the cut: Wesley Gore (24th), Trey McKinney (26th), Robert Gee (45th) and Ben Milliken (48th).

Past Winners – None of the four past St. Johns Elite Series winners in this week’s field made the cut to Saturday. Their average finish was 76th.

Sibling Rivalry – Both Johnston brothers improved upon their Day One catches by over 4 pounds. Cory rose from 2nd to 1st by putting an extra 4-5 on the scales. Chris rose from 23rd to 4th by catching 4-14 more than his Day 1 catch.

Floridians at Home – John Cox is the highest ranking Floridian, in 9th with 34-6, thanks to a big bag of 20-15 today. He’s far out of the lead, but if Cory Johnston were to stumble, the anglers in 2nd through 8th better watch out for the man in the Crestliner.

Reelin’ Ray – Mild-mannered Ray Hanselman doesn’t get a ton of press, and except for the 2019 season when he finished 29th, his Elite results have generally put him in the middle of the pack (five AOY finishes between 43rd and 61st). He has one top five finish in an Elite event – 3rd at the Harris Chain in 2022. Nevertheless, no one should be surprised if he “comes out of nowhere” to win at some point. Hanselman had one of the most impressive seasons in professional fishing history in 2015 when he won three consecutive Toyota Series events in Texas (Amistad, Rayburn, Texoma) and then went on to win the Toyota Series Championship on the Ohio River. Today he added 19-10 to the 17-6 he caught on Day One and rose from 20th to 5th.

The Baby Pattern – Bob Downey missed last week’s tournament at the Harris Chain to be home for the birth of his son, and now he’s making the St. Johns River bass pay for it. This was also the site of his best Elite finish – he came in second to John Crews in 2022 by 1 pound 4 ounces. He also won an Open at Grand Lake in 2019. Like Hanselman, he’s mild by nature, so he may not get his due respect, but with this cut he’s finished in the money in a remarkable 85% of his Bassmaster entries. In two Elite appearances at the St. Johns prior to 2022 he finished 82nd and 87th, two of seven times in his career that he missed the cut, but apparently he’s figured something out. He added 22-11 to his Day One catch of 16-1 and rose from 28th to 3rd.

Cut Weight Math – Based on the traditional formula, I expected today’s cut weight to be 27-14. It fell 1 pound 1 ounce short of that, an ounce short of doubling the Day One cut weight.

Clunn’s Humility – After landing in 63rd place yesterday, today Rick Clunn wrote on Facebook that “I’ve got one last chance tomorrow to make things right…I just feel like I’m letting folks down if I don’t bring in a big bag.” At first it made me sad that he’d think he has anything left to prove, but then I thought about it a little more and it just seems like one additional factor that drives him to excel and that has fueled his unparalleled career.

Japan and Florida Don’t Mix – The three Japanese pros in our field – Kenta Kimura, Kyoya Fujita and Taku Ito, have exemplary records on the water. Since Fujita joined the field last season they’ve fished a dozen Elite events, and including this week all three of them have missed the cut together three times – last year at Okeechobee, and this year at the Harris Chain and now the St. Johns. It may be coincidental, but those are the three events where the field launched and fished in Florida. They almost all missed the cut at Santee last year, but Taku snuck in with a 50th place finish (although, notably, he’d been in 26th after Day Two).

The Nile of North America – It’s confusing for many of us to recall that the St. Johns, like the Nile, flows from south to north, but they’re hardly outliers. There are many others like them throughout the world, including nearly 50 in the US, spread across 16 states.

Luke Palmer – “Fishing’s a lot like basketball. You can’t get hot if you quit shooting.”

Continuing the Basketball Theme – “They block more shots than Shaquille O’Neal.” Gerald Swindle is not a fan of the river’s lily pads.

Brandon Lester – “I’m fishing a lot of the way I would if we were on the Tennessee River and it was post-spawn.”

Scott Canterbury — “I think that late flight is really the deal.”

Ben Milliken — “Tomorrow we’re keeping ‘em pinned….hopefully.”

Chris Zaldain – “The bite changes every 20 minutes.” The Cal Delta veteran added 17-12 to his Day One catch of 15-2 and rose from 33rd to 13th.

Logan Parks — “I feel like I went to Wendy’s today and got the ‘Four for Four.’” His four fish for four pounds dropped him from 80th to 102nd.

Tim Dube – “I haven’t been home since January and I don’t plan on going home until July.” He’s the first Elite Series pro from New Hampshire. He finished 58th with 26-3.

Tarponmaster Classic – Not quite a trash fish, considering how much time, effort and money people put into catching them, but Will Davis won the non-bass category today thanks to the silver king. Alas, he could not weight the estimated 20-pounder in and finished 83rd.

KJ Queen — “If anyone wants a guided trip to catch mudfish, let me know….We can catch gar, too. I’m on them as well.”

I Can’t Drive 55 – Famous person born on April 19, 1969, same day as Steve Kennedy: Zsusza “Susan” Polgar, Hungarian-born chess master and the first woman to be named Grandmaster of the Year by the United States Chess Federation.

Still trying to figure out something that rhymes with “Palatka.”