St. Johns River – So many options, so little time

PALATKA, Fla. — This marks the eighth time the Bassmaster Elite Series has come to the St. Johns River. However, those previous seven tournaments were held from mid-February to mid-March, when bass spawning activity was often at or near a peak.

Then there’s the fact that the river was only available for practice two days instead of the usual three, after the Harris Chain event didn’t end until Monday. The combination has left more than the usual number of questions in the minds of the 103 anglers on the eve of the MAXAM Tire Bassmaster Elite at the St. Johns River.

“Some bass are still bedding,” said Cliff Prince, who is from Palatka and knows this river better than anyone else in the field. “But there are a lot more ways to catch them right now. Bream are bedding. Shad are spawning. I believe the weights will be similar to what they have been in the past.”

The winning weights in the past have generally ranged from the mid-70s to 90-plus pounds. When Rick Clunn posted the most recent win in his illustrious B.A.S.S. career, he totaled 98-14 on March 7-10, 2019. There were five bags over 30 pounds in that event. In the most recent Elite Series stop at the St. Johns, John Crews won with 75-4 on Feb. 10-13, 2022.

“Practice wasn’t long enough to really know what to expect,” said Carl Jocumsen. “Usually, I try to check everything. I put one day in on Rodman (Reservoir) and one day on the river. You can get bites in both.

“You know they’re going to catch them. They live here. It’s just real difficult because I haven’t had enough time to go to places I’d normally go.

“The cool part about it is that we’ve never been here this time of year. Are there going to be a few fish on beds? Are they going to move offshore? Is there a shad spawn? Are the shell beds going to be dynamite this time? There’s a lot of what-ifs in this one.”

There’s also the puzzle created by a tidal fishery, like this one. Matt Herren has competed here “eight or 10 times,” he said. He has finished as high as 13th and 21st at the St. Johns River and missed the top 50 cut several times as well.

“It has fished different every time I’ve been here,” Herren said. “There’s just a whole lot of stuff going on in this one. You’re going to have to fish by the seat of your pants and change by the hour with the tide. The tide is everything. Tidal fish live their lives by it. Two hours each side of low tide is magic time. Or you can go to Rodman, where the tide is not a factor.”

There will undoubtedly be several boats in Rodman Reservoir, the manmade 13,000-acre lake connected to the St. Johns River by a canal. Herren’s boat won’t be one of them.

“One of those years Clunn won (he won in 2016 and ’19 here), it was freezing cold in practice,” Herren recalled. “I caught them punching mats in Rodman. The temperature went up to 85 degrees the first day of the tournament, and I couldn’t catch them punching mats anymore. Everybody that went to the upper end of Lake George nailed ‘em. They moved up overnight. I’m never going back.

“But Rodman will be a factor in this one, especially with forward-facing sonar. It’s going to be a big deal.”

Prince, nicknamed, “The Prince of Palatka,” says he’s going to be “a hero or a zero” Thursday. Odds are that he’s not the only angler feeling that way about this tournament.