Rookie field showed big at St. Johns Elite event

Jamie Horton isn’t your typical rookie, but he’s learning like one.

Horton got to the Bassmaster Elite Series as the winner of the Cabela’s B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Championship of 2011. He’s a veteran of many a bass battle at the grassroots level, and he’s a two-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier.

“I have a hard time considering myself a rookie, but I guess I am,” the 44-year-old said.

But even Horton said that when his first Elite event ended last week, he looked at the top level of pro fishing in a new light.

“I feel like I’m learning again. Sometimes when you fish only around home, you stop learning,” said Horton, who lives in a small town in northwestern Alabama. “I have sight fished at home, but sight fishing in Florida was unlike any I’ve ever done, so I feel like I learned a lot.”

Horton was a quick study. He started in 65th place, then climbed to 42nd and finished at 26th.

Going into the St. Johns River Showdown, Florida fishing was so new to Horton that he gave himself the goal of collecting one check between the two Elite events in Florida this month; with a 50th-place cutline, 26th was more than good enough to get a check.

“I’m satisfied with the decisions I made,” he said after Day 3 when he was knocked out of the competition. “I had a good tournament.”

Something else impressed him about the Elite Series. “Even though they are so competitive, all the guys are also so nice. That surprised me that they could be both,” Horton said.

As a group, the 2012 rookie class fared well. Cliff Prince, at 16th, turned in the best performance of all 10 rookies. Prince, 32, lives in Palatka and cut his fishing teeth on the St. Johns, so he had the rare advantage of competing on his home water.

Brandon Card, 25, of Caryville, Tenn., was the second-best rookie with his 21st-place finish. Casey Scanlon, 27, of Lenexa, Kan., ended at 45th after taking a tumble from 28th on Day 2.

The fifth rookie to make the event’s first cut was Kevin Ledoux, 33, of Choctaw, Okla. He was last man in under the cutline, and he did it by 1 ounce. The difference is taking home a paycheck for the event and having at least one more chance to move up in the standings.

Ledoux made a common rookie mistake: With only two fish for the day, he didn’t believe he could make the cut, so he did not stick around. He left the weigh-in site, his phone still stowed in his boat.

“I was in a mood,” he said. “Then I got back to the hotel and looked at my phone, I saw I had nine messages. Suddenly the worst day of my life turned into the best day of my life.”

The good feeling remained, even though another day didn’t help him much. He ended the tournament in 50th place, but he can forever claim a top-half in his first Elite event.