BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Bassmaster Elite Series pros are getting ready to see some big fish.
Sight fishing — targeting spawning bass visible on or near nesting beds — is expected to be the prominent pattern in the Bassmaster Elite on the St. Johns River out of Palatka, Fla.
The March 20-23 tournament, held back-to-back with the season opener in Georgia, pits the 108 Elite pros against each other (and the big bass of the St. Johns) for a first-place prize of $100,000 and an instant entry into the 2015 Bassmaster Classic.
Who are the favorites? Some people start their sure-bet list with Terry Scroggins and Cliff Prince because they grew up fishing the river. Then there are the sight fishing aces, such as Shaw Grigsby, also from Florida. Add in Edwin Evers, who won the 2011 St. Johns Elite event, and Alton Jones, who followed in Evers’ footsteps in 2012.
Also consider those who scored a Top 12 both times the Elites previously attacked the St. Johns: Todd Faircloth (a fourth and a second); Keith Combs (a ninth and a third); and J Todd Tucker (a sixth and a 12th). Include on this list Jones, who besides taking the win finished third in 2011, and Scroggins, who backed up a runner-up finish in 2011 with a sixth place showing in 2012.
Fact is, many in the 2014 field have the two St. Johns River Elite events on their résumés, thus a solid working knowledge of the fishery.
At the other end of the spectrum are the dozen pros who make up the 2014 rookie corps, especially those to whom the St. Johns is new competition water.
Justin Lucas falls into the latter group.
From northern California, Lucas, 27, has called Guntersville, Ala., home for about four years. He qualified for the Elite Series after just one season in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Opens presented by Allstate.
Lucas is hot off a Top 12 showing in a Southern Open; he finished fifth at the March 6-8 event in Alabama. That was a good warm-up for the season’s first event, happening this week in Bainbridge, Ga., on Lake Seminole, where the Elite field also could put their sight fishing game into play.
Thinking ahead, Lucas scouted the St. Johns for two days in January before the official off-limits period. It was the first time he’d seen the river and its pools, or lakes, where most anglers go to sight fish.
“The areas where the bass bed are obvious,” Lucas said. “I think that tournament, more than any other on the schedule, will be a true form of hunting — and we’ll all be hunting for the same fish,” Lucas said. “Being stealthy, like Alton Jones was when he won two years ago, will play a big role.”
Lucas said he is comfortable about his sight fishing skills, but under the time constraints of a tournament — and knowing that big prizes and a strong start to his Elite career are at stake — the technique can be a nerve-wracking, decision-questioning exercise.
“You have to make the call if one fish is worth staying on for what time it takes to get them to bite, or just to leave it. It’s like throwing darts blind,” he said.
To see how the underdogs and favorites alike fare at the St. Johns event, fans can watch in person and follow the action on Bassmaster.com.
The daily take-off is set for 7:30 a.m. from Palatka’s Riverfront Park. The weigh-in, at the same location, will begin at 4 p.m. The Bassmaster Elite Series Expo will open at noon March 22 and 23. There’s no admission charge to any Bassmaster event.
ESPN2 will air coverage of the St. Johns River event on The Bassmasters, Sunday, April 6, at 8 a.m. ET. A reair is scheduled for Sunday, April 13, also at 8 a.m. ET.
The local host of the Palatka event is the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, www.putnamcountychamber.com.