Key for Mueller: Subtle punches

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Thomas Allen

You usually don’t associate the words “punching” and “subtle.” But it was soft, subtle punches through a vegetation mat that produced Paul Mueller’s two biggest bass – a 6-pound, 11-ounce game-changer on the final day and a 6-4 on Day 2 – in his victory at the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at the St. Johns River.

The 6-4 came at near the end of the day Sunday. It provided almost 40 percent of his 16-pound, 2-ounce five-bass limit that put him in first place going into the final. 

“What a key bite,” Mueller said. “I made an adjustment at the end of the day. I’d been catching fish on a swim jig and I did catch the majority of my fish on it. But at the end of the day I felt like those fish had moved under the mat a little bit." 

Mueller had two rods on his boat deck. One featured a 3/8ths-ounce black-and-blue Strike King Heavy Cover Hack Attack swim jig and a June bug-colored Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw trailer. On the other, the Naugatuck, Conn., angler had tied an unnamed, compact, 3-inch, June bug-colored soft plastic crawfish lure on a 4/0 Strike King Hack Attack flipping hook with a 1-ounce tungsten weight. It was his “punch bait.” 

“I think you want to have something compact, without a lot of appendages,” Mueller said. “I want to use the smallest weight I can get away with. That’s the key sometimes – the smallest weight you can get away with – so you can punch it through the mat with a nice little subtle entry.

“That fish came when I pulled the bait back up to the canopy. It pulled it down. Sometimes, when the fish are more aggressive, the whole mat will move. They weren’t like that. I put it on the fish’s head and got it to react.” 

The 6-11 in Monday’s final was, obviously, the difference between first and second or third place in his four-bass, 10-pound, 12-ounce bag. His winning weight was 47-6 in the three-day, weather-shorted 2020 Elite Series opener at the St. Johns.

Mueller had to change creeks to find this bass. He stopped at a mat that had 25 feet of water under it. That’s not a typo – 25 feet. Only after he caught that big bass did he realize what the fish were doing that day, when the fish up and down the St. Johns River seemed to be lethargic, no matter what the 20 anglers in the final threw at them.

“What’s crazy about it is after I caught that fish, I made a couple more punches and moved closer to shore,” Mueller said. “With my Garmin Livescope Panoptics I could see there was a school of big ones under the mat. They were suspended 8 feet under the mat.”

He couldn’t coax another one to bite. But he’d caught the one he needed to win the $100,000 first place prize. While the swim jig produced all five of his bass on Day 1 and four of his five on Day 2, it was with subtle punches that he caught three of his four in the final, including the difference-making 6-11.

“When bass are really aggressive, they’ll hit it as soon as it penetrates the mat,” Mueller said. “When they’re not aggressive, they won’t hit it on the fall. Sometimes I’d lift it back up to the mat and drop it two or three times, trying to get a reaction.

“It’s such a shocker to win with what I had. I still can’t believe it.”

Lester records a 50-point save

“Saves” are an important statistic in Major League Baseball. Every good team has a reliever that can come to the mound at the end of the game and record the final outs to preserve a lead. I’ve decided to keep tabs on saves during the 2020 Elite Series season. And Brandon Lester recorded a big one – a 50-point save – at the St. Johns River.

A save is determined by the difference in an anglers place in the standings from Day 1 to Day 2. Lester was tied for last place with three other anglers who didn’t catch a 12-inch minimum length limit bass on Day 1.

“I ain’t going to lie,” Lester said. “I was mad. That’s not how you want to start your season – with a freakin’ zero. That’s only the second time I’ve ever zeroed in my career. The first time was at the (2015) AOY Championship at Sturgeon Bay (Wis.). At least that day I caught like 20 fish. I just didn’t catch any keepers. But I had one bite all day (Saturday). It was about a 4-pounder that came off.”

Lester finished 12th at the St. Johns last year, en route to a sixth-place finish in the Angler of the Year final standings. So he had every expectation of getting off to a good start again this season.

“Here’s the thing, every single day you go out there is a new day,” said Lester, who lives in Fayetteville, Tenn. “You’ve got to be able to put the bad stuff behind you. You’ve got to be able to do that.”

Lester did just that on the second day at the St. Johns, catching a 19-pound, 14-ounce limit that moved him from 85th to 35th in the final standings – a 50-point save in his Bassmaster Angler of the Year point total. He turned around his tournament by reconsidering the changes he’d noticed from practice to Day 1 of the tournament. 

“I was getting bit in practice in canals,” Lester said. “With that wind, the tide went way, way low. The water dropped a lot. I saw something Saturday afternoon that made me think those fish might have come out of the canals and got on the first hard cover they could find. So that’s what I started on (Sunday).

“I caught all those keepers on one stretch in about an hour-and-a-half. I was flipping a little X Zone creature bait called an Adrenaline Bug – black-and-blue – with a 4/0 Mustad hook and a quarter-ounce weight. Every one came off wood cover and you had to pick it apart. There were pads around, but all of them came off wood.”

Lester wasn’t the only angler who noticed that bass were relating to wood more at the St. Johns River this year than they’d ever seen before. But then there’s a lot less aquatic vegetation in the St. Johns now than there has been in previous years.

“I think that’s where I missed it (on Day 1),” Lester said. “You come to Florida, you want to fish vegetation. I don’t ever fish wood much, but I did (Sunday), and I’m glad I did. Once I caught the first one, it clued me in.”

Florida native Drew Benton, who finished 25th, noticed too, saying, “The St. Johns River is transitioning into more of a hard cover fishery than a grass fishery.”

Canterbury’s 2019 AOY season included key 'save'

The idea for a season-long tabulation of Day 1/Day 2 “saves” came from looking back at Scott Canterbury’s 2019 Angler of the Year championship season. Canterbury had more than one key save last season when he won a down-to-the-wire race with 848 total points, topping Stetson Blaylock and Cory Johnston by eight points and Chris Zaldain by 10 points. 

Canterbury was 55th after the first day at the St. Johns River last year. He jumped to 17th on Day 2 with a 25-12 bag – a 38-point save. If you want to draw this out through the length of a four-day tournament, Canterbury continued his climb on Day 3 when he moved into 7th place with a limit weighing 30-4. He would finish 9th. 

But I’m going to limit this tabulation for the season to Day 1/Day 2 saves, which signal an adjustment in tactics and gaining clues from Day 1 that lead to success on Day 2.

Others with notable Day 1/Day 2 saves on the St. Johns River were as follows:
48 points – Cody Hollen, from 71st to 23rd;
40 points – Brandon Cobb, from 83rd to 43rd;
32 points – Jamie Hartman, from 48th to 16th;
31 points – Patrick Walters, from 36th to 5th;
29 points – Harvey Horne, from 46th to 17th;
25 points – Jeff Gustafson, from 66th to 41st.

A week of firsts for Cody Hollen

As the B.A.S.S. Nation champion last year, Cody Hollen earned an invitation to the Elite Series. To arrive at his first ever Elite Series tournament, Hollen estimates it took 49 hours from his Beaverton, Ore., home to Florida’s St. Johns River. Hollen’s first stop was Randy Pierson’s house in Oakdale, Calif., and they made the trip together. Pierson was the 2018 B.A.S.S. Nation champion.

Almost all of Hollen’s fishing experience occurred in Oregon and northern California. His only experience east of the Mississippi River took place at South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell last November, where he won the B.A.S.S. Nation title. So it wasn’t an easy decision to accept an invitation to the Elite Series, where every tournament is a long, long way from home.

Hollen didn’t have much success in his first tournament day on the St. Johns River.  He weighed one 3-pound, 6-ounce bass. But it was something to build on.

“Honestly, I just went fishing,” said Hollen, of his 19-pound, 11-ounce limit on Day 2. “I went back to the same spot where I caught the 3-6 the day before. I knew there had to be fish in there. I stayed there until about 1 o’clock and caught four of my five fish. I didn’t get another bite for a while. For whatever reason, I picked up a frog, and it happened.” 

“It” was his second 6-pound, 3-ounce bass of the day. You won’t see a topwater frog in any of the photos from the top 20 finishers at St. Johns, which can be frog-rich waters in warmer weather. This was an instance when Hollen’s lack of experience might have been an advantage.

Another first for Hollen – he boat-flipped both 6-pound, 3-ounce bass. 

“I’d never boat-flipped a fish over 31/2 pounds,” Hollen said. “And I’ve never caught two 6-3s on the same day.”

There are going to be a lot of “firsts” for Cody Hollen this year, including his first Bassmaster Classic next month.