PALATKA, Fla. — Patience, local experience and a "What the heck?" attitude paid off Saturday for Bassmaster Elite Series pro Peter Thliveros, who lives less than an hour from the St. Johns River, where he won the Bassmaster Southern Open.
The familiarity of hometown waters also paid off for second-place finisher Lee Stalvey, a fifth-generation Palatka native who now lives just north of town in Green Cove Springs, and Elite pro Preston Clark of Palatka, who finished fourth. Second-day leader Jonathan VanDam, the 19-year-old nephew of three-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam, finished third.
Thliveros, whose final-day weight of 26 pounds, 0 ounces, moved him up from a fourth-place tie with an overall total of 55-3, said he had told his wife he might not bother entering the Southern Open, but at the last minute decided, "What the heck?" The Bassmaster Elite Series pro, who won more than $50,600 for his effort, was glad he changed his mind and gave himself more warm-up time on the water for the upcoming 2008 Bassmaster Classic.
"It was actually kind of frustrating to start off, because the fishing was a lot slower than it has been all week," Thliveros said. "I had one flurry of fish at about 8:30 this morning, and the rest were just one here and one there. Not nearly as good as it had been the first two days, but better quality fish as the day went on."
Thliveros, who said he hasn't fished the familiar waters of the St. Johns regularly in nearly 20 years, stuck with the same strategy throughout the tournament, fishing mostly a Carolina rig with a Zoom trick worm in the same seven or eight spots about twice a day each day.
"The local knowledge was a huge factor, and to me it was even more of a big deal," Thliveros said. "I don't get to fish this river as much as I used to before I started following the circuit."
The 2007 Bassmaster Memorial winner spent some time recently fishing the river with his friend and former fishing partner Frank Streeter, who helped jar Thliveros' recollection of some favorite spots. One of those locations Thliveros hit Saturday produced three keepers, including one of more than 8 pounds, his biggest.
The top 30 anglers and co-anglers advanced to Saturday's final round of fishing, which offered more of the same cloudy, cold weather as a front stalled over the area.
"You just had to keep moving until you hit one, is what it boiled down to," he said, adding that the tide had everything to do with Saturday's patterns. "Not one specific tide, but different stages of the tide. You never know that you're going to pull up to one spot on a specific tide and catch them, that's just luck if it happens that way."
The wind dying down Saturday gave Stalvey the boost he'd hoped for going into the final day.
"It helped out a lot, but it got slick as glass for a little while there this morning," Stalvey said, who boated two 7-pounders on Saturday in the Salt Run area. "I just picked one off here, one off there, and finished the limit off about 11 o'clock."
Stalvey, who sight-fished throughout the tournament, was grateful for the new fish on twice as many beds Saturday. He caught all of his fish on a Lucky Strike G4 pumpkin seed on 20-pound test.
VanDam, whose Saturday weight of 7-10 couldn't compare to his 16-2 on Thursday and 24-1 on Friday, was disappointed, but said he was pleased with his first experience in the boater division. The teenager returned to fish Salt Springs, where he'd had steady success previously with crankbaits, but Saturday's sight fishing didn't work out as well.
"I'm pretty excited," he said. "I just wanted to make the cut, that was my goal all along. I never expected to do this well, especially after the practice I had. This wasn't at all what I expected."
Tony Haymon, of Penney Farms, Fla., shot from 13th to first place in the co-angler division with a final-day total of 15 pounds, 0 ounces, for a five-fish limit. His overall weight for three days was 24-4, as he edged two-day leader Fred Hood of Monroe, Ga. Hood finished with 23-12 overall.
Haymon took home more than $32,000 in cash and prizes, including a boat package.
Haymon had the Purolator Big Bass of the day on the co-angler side with a fish that weighed 7-9. Pro angler Chris Daniels of Panama City, Fla., who led the first day of the tournament Thursday with two 9-plus-pounders in his bag, won the Purolator Big Bass Award for the tournament with his 9-4 bass. Bassmaster Elite Series pro Bobby Lane, of Lakeland, Fla., won Purolator Big Bass of the day with a 9-0 catch.