It’s a whole new Elite Series

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Andy Crawford

PALATKA, Fla. — In this new Bassmaster Elite Series season notable for its change, the St. Johns River has followed suit. Like the Elite Series, which has 18 rookies plus 18 other anglers in the 75-man field who did not fish the circuit last year, the river has a new look too.

Not only have veteran anglers like Kevin VanDam and Skeet Reese vanished from the Elite Series, so has the eelgrass in the St. Johns River, which typically set the table for a large spawning flat in Lake George where 30 to 40 pros would bump boats whenever the Elite Series came here in the past.

So when the four-day Power-Pole Bassmaster Elite at the St. Johns River begins Thursday, it will be like nothing we’ve ever seen.

“Hurricane Irma (in Sept. 2017) really gave this place a facelift,” said Chris Zaldain. “A four-foot blanket of water on top of the eelgrass killed it.”

As Zaldain enters his eighth season on the Elite Series, the annual first-tournament, longer-than-usual anglers meeting Wednesday afternoon created a sense of both excitement and unfamiliarity in Zaldain.

“This is a weird feeling,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since 2012. Normally, coming off the offseason, I’d be like, oh, there’s Kevin VanDam, and there’s Skeet – the heavy hitters. Now I feel like I’m a veteran, a leader.

“There are a lot of new faces. I’m still introducing myself to some of these guys. I know a lot of them are young, and I know they’re hungry. I can’t get caught being complacent. Plus, the three times I’ve been here in the past don’t mean anything because the conditions have changed completely.”

Even the weather is unveiling a new scene at the St. Johns River. A couple of weeks of unseasonably cold, windy weather have been followed by 80 degrees and sunshine the past few days. Practice days this week indicated the weather had spurred a spawning trend. There was no practice time on Wednesday.

“I think between (Tuesday) and all day today, the sun and warm weather is going to have them hitting the hill fast,” said rookie Drew Cook, a 24-year-old Florida native. He plans on sight-fishing for spawning bass every day. But without the eelgrass beds, the obvious spawning areas are few and the obvious ones are going to attract a crowd.

Bill Lowen, like Zaldain, is one of the Elite Series veterans who feels both the excitement and the apprehension of this new season. In addition to the smaller 75-man field, the Day 2 cut will be to the top 35 and only the top 10 will compete on Sunday.

“It feels different, but exciting,” Lowen said. “It almost feels like my rookie season all over again. I don’t want to say it’s a fresh start, but it feels that way. It makes you feel like there are opportunities that have never been there before. The sky’s the limit.”

Then Lowen was asked about this practice this week, and his mood shifted dramatically.

“It was horrible,” he said. “I’ve had some tough practices before, but this is probably the toughest I’ve ever had in my 12 or 13 years of fishing professionally. When I’m on a tough fishery and I have a tough practice, that’s the nature of the beast. But we’re in a place where giants are swimming everywhere.”

However, Lowen believes it will still take an average of about 20 pounds a day to win on the St. Johns River this week, like it usually does. When Rick Clunn won here in 2016, he finished with 81 pounds, 15 ounces. Chris Lane’s winning weight in 2014 was 90-13. In 2012, Alton Jones won with 75-9. In 2011, Edwin Evers took first place with 77-1.

Zaldain agreed on that 80-pound prediction for a winning weight this week, although he, like Lowen, hasn’t had a practice session that would indicate anything like that is possible.

Those predictions are more a testament to the quality of the bass that live in the St. Johns and the rapidly changing pre-spawn conditions that have fish moving to the shallows. Cook may have summed it up best when it noted, “Whoever wins this tournament has no idea yet that they’re going to win. There are so many fish moving. We’ve had two days in a row of 80 degrees. (Wednesday) we weren’t out there, so we don’t know what changed in 24 hours. Somebody is going to be very pleasantly surprised when this tournament starts.”