PALATKA, Fla. — The St. Johns River has been a familiar destination for the Bassmaster Elite Series since the circuit first visited there in 2011.
But this year’s Elite Series visit will be different than all the rest.
Really, really different.
The 2019 Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River is scheduled for Feb. 7-10 with daily takeoffs at 7:30 a.m. ET from Palatka City Dock and Boat Ramp and weigh-ins at 4:10 p.m. each day at Palatka Riverfront Park.
It will be the season opener for the new-look Elite Series, which now features a smaller field of 75 anglers — down from more than 110 in years past — and a new payout scale that assures every competitor in the field will leave with a check.
The anglers will also find a new-look fishery, since much of the eelgrass the St. Johns River has long been famous for was decimated by Hurricane Irma last summer and has yet to return.
“To say that I’m excited for this tournament would be an understatement,” said Cliff Prince, a Palatka, Fla., resident and an eight-year Elite Series veteran. “Not only am I starting the season on my home water, but this is also a whole new ballgame, a whole new Elite Series. B.A.S.S. has given us an opportunity to really showcase what we can do — and I can’t wait!”
With that said, Prince knows the wealth of knowledge he’s acquired from living on the fishery may not help as much as it has in year’s past when he finished sixth, 56th and 16th in three previous Elite Series events on the river.
The hurricane changed things in ways that might force many anglers with experience on the fishery to start from scratch.
“In 2016, there was a lot more grass up and down the river from one end of it to the other,” Prince said. “When that storm came through last year, it just dumped so much rain. What grass didn’t get torn up by the storm got shaded out by the high water.
“This river was as high as I’ve seen it in my lifetime, and it stayed that way for a long time. Our tides are really just now getting back to normal.”
During past Elite Series events on the St. Johns, anglers who couldn’t find a solid pattern elsewhere could almost always rely on the tremendous number of bass that spawn in Lake George. But even that once-dependable area will require a different approach.
“Lake George is just not in good shape,” said Bernie Schultz, a Gainesville, Fla., angler who has fished the Elite Series since its inception in 2006. “There’s plenty of dollar weed — those little, small lily pads that grow in about 2 feet of water. But that won’t filter the water like it needs to.
“Eelgrass is a great filter. That’s why bass go to it —good cover, good filtration, lots of oxygen and it’s an ideal place to spawn.”
The number of bass that are spawning could play a major role in how much weight it takes to win the event’s $100,000 first-place prize.
Temperatures in the region have been colder than normal for the past 10 days. But a warming trend is predicted for this weekend, and several warm days could raise the water temperatures enough to send a wave of fish to the spawning areas.
“When the water temperature reaches the high 50s, there will be some fish go to the bank,” Prince said. “So there will be some fish caught sight fishing, I’m sure. In Florida, in February, you can’t afford not to at least look for them.”
With the absence of eelgrass, anglers will likely turn to dollar pads, wood, reeds, lily pads and even boat docks. Despite all the changes, Prince said he expects the usual tactics to play — topwater lures, bladed jigs, swim jigs, lipless baits, swimbaits and even standard Texas-rigged worms.
One thing he doesn’t expect, however, is the signature five-bass limits of big bass that have anchored the four-day weights of past winners.
“In 2016, Rick Clunn had a 31-pound bag and then three more good, solid days that helped him win,” Prince said. “That’s usually the way it works here. But if you look at the results from tournaments around here since the grass has disappeared, we just haven’t been having those 30-pound days.
“If you have a 25- to 27-pound bag and then back it up with a 20-pound bag and a couple of 15-pound bags, that’s gonna be strong."
The St. Johns tournament, like all Elite Series events, is a free, family-friendly celebration of bass fishing, with activities for all ages.
The Elite Series Expo at Palatka City Ramp will be open Saturday and Sunday starting at 10 a.m. ET. Fans will have a chance to take a demo ride in a Nitro, Skeeter or Triton boat, look over the newest Toyotas, develop fishing skills in the Berkley/Abu Garcia Experience trailer, and win prizes and check out new products from leading companies in the fishing industry.
Fans can meet the Elites at Angler Alley on Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m., and on Championship Sunday, they can join the Elite LIVE Watch Party and hang out with anglers and other special guests as they watch the final hours of Bassmaster LIVE. Elite angler clinics will be held onstage from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, which is also Military and First Responder Appreciation Day.