PALATKA, Fla. — The one word used most often by the anglers weighing in during today’s semifinal round of the Power-Pole Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River was “special.”
“Magical” was also floated around. So was “awesome.”
They all fit, and yet somehow they didn’t do justice to a day that saw 14 limits of bass totaling 20 pounds or more brought to the scales. Of those catches, six topped the 25-pound mark and three eclipsed the almost-unattainable 30-pound benchmark.
Canadian Chris Johnston caught 28-13 and held on to the lead with a three-day total of 75-13. But after standing in a weigh-in line surrounded by giants, Johnston said he knows he still has work to do if he hopes to earn his first Elite Series win.
“I did the same thing I did the last three days, but you don’t normally catch 7- or 8-pounders unless you’re on the St. Johns River,” Johnston said. “Apparently, everyone caught them today. I was hoping to have a little bit of a cushion, but I’m gonna have to catch them again tomorrow.
“I think I’m gonna need probably at least another 23-pound bag tomorrow to win this.”
With at least 24-3, Johnston could break the 100-pound mark and earn one of the coveted “Century Belts” awarded by B.A.S.S. to anglers who reach triple digits. But for the moment, he has much more important things to worry about.
The bags weighed in by the anglers just behind him in the standings were astounding.
First-year pro Patrick Walters of South Carolina weighed in 32-15 and moved into second place with 70-5. Kentucky veteran Mark Menendez topped the 20-pound mark for the third straight day with 23-7 that kept him firmly positioned in third with 69-5, and Cory Johnston — the Canadian brother of the leader, Chris — weighed in 27-13 to land in fourth with 68-13.
But the most eye-popping bag of the day belonged to Arizona pro Clifford Pirch, who weighed in five bass that pushed the scales to 34-9. His three-day total of 68-9 has him in fifth place, and his steamrolling momentum has him in position to make a final-day charge toward his first Elite Series victory.
“These fish can turn on a dime down here,” Pirch said. “It’s crazy how one day a bank can have a bunch of little males on it. Then you get a little temperature change, and all of a sudden there’s giant females everywhere.
“It’s fun when you hit that window right.”
Pirch, who caught a 10-4 largemouth during Friday’s second round, knew he was in the right area early this morning because he could see big bass everywhere. But for a while, he couldn’t put them in the boat.
After losing what he estimated to be 25 or 30 pounds of bass, he took a breather and his luck began to change.
“I’ve lost a few fish in this tournament, and they were giant ones,” Pirch said. “Today, I lost four of them, and I think the smallest was about 6 pounds. The rest of them were 7, 8, 9 to…who know’s what?
“I sat down, cut my bait off and just made a whole different program. I got re-rigged and luckily the next five stayed on.”
Pirch’s giant bag made performances that would have been otherwise jaw-dropping seem almost commonplace — like the 23-pound bag weighed in by Rick Clunn to position the 72-year-old legend from Missouri in eighth place with 64-0.
But one angler who almost matched Pirch fish for fish was Walters — the 24-year-old South Carolina phenom who was grinning from ear to ear after weighing in 32-15.
“It was just one of those days when everything was going right,” Walters said. “I promise you my boat was even running a mile and a half faster than usual today. When I was running down the river and it finally hit 70 mph for the first time, I got a little emotional.
“I thought, ‘This is what dreams are made of.’ A year ago, I would have been watching Bassmaster LIVE. But now I’m living my dream and chasing these guys.”
Things started happening quickly for Walters — and very little went wrong all day.
“When you get down there and they start biting like they did this morning, it’ll just stick the hairs up on the back of your neck,” Walters said. “Something pulled the fish up late last night, and they were just sitting there waiting. It was the perfect storm.”
With that said, Walters and the other nine anglers who qualified for Championship Sunday seemed to agree that things could be tougher during the final round.
Menendez, who said the fishing has been surprisingly slow for him during a week when he’s averaged more than 23 pounds a day, cautioned that the water temperature had already dropped several degrees from earlier this week. He said it could fall several more degrees with the cooler temperatures forecast for the region tonight.
“I had a deeper bite going on earlier in the week, but it went away today,” Menendez said. “The water temperature is going to drop tonight, and that’ll slow it down some. But there’s just so many of those good ones here that you never know what might happen.”
Despite today’s remarkable results, the leader for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass award remained intact. Virginia pro John Crews set that bar with an 11-2 largemouth on Day 1, and no one has eclipsed it yet.
Sunday’s takeoff will be at 7:30 a.m. ET from Riverfront Park — which was packed with a large and enthusiastic crowd of spectators today — and the final weigh-in will be held back at the park at 4:10 p.m. The winner will earn $100,000.