The start I needed at St. Johns

A few weeks ago published my column about my history of poor Elite Series starts and the need to reverse that trend this year. With the St. Johns River now in my rearview mirror, I’m thrilled to say that I got the job done with an 11th-place finish. 

Of course, it’s only one tournament, but if you’d told me the night before the event started that I could stay off the water and earn the 11th place points I would’ve taken that deal without a second thought. The footage you’ve seen and the huge weights that were caught may have made it look easy, but I can assure you that it wasn’t that easy.

During my rookie season, I bombed at the St. Johns (106th), and while 2016 was a little bit better (64th), I still didn’t get a check. This time around, I didn’t know what to think when practice ended. I wanted to get the monkey off my back, but I didn’t have much information to go on. Up until Day 3, when things got crazy, I was only getting about eight bites a day.

My key area was a little ditch in a creek, about 300 yards long and 6 feet deep, with 3 feet of water on the edges. The fish in there were mostly pre and postspawn, either on their way to the bank or back from the bank and when they weren’t doing their business they’d spend time in the deeper water. The first two days I used a jerkbait, but on Day 3 it only produced three little ones early. I told my Marshal that the bigger ones had clearly moved up so I went to the bank, started flipping a Bugsy Baits Sic Worm, and it was on fire. The bite had turned on like nothing I’d ever seen before.

The 20 pound, 2 ounce bag I weighed on Saturday was my best limit of the tournament, but it left me 1-02 out of the top 10 cut, which would have given me a chance to move up on Sunday. It figures – the year B.A.S.S. switches from “Top 12” to “Top 10” is the year that I fall into the gap. The difference in points between 10th and 11th in minimal, but the $5,000 difference in the checks hurts.

I can’t complain. I had the chances to do better and didn’t execute. It seems like everyone in the top 35 but me had an 8-pounder at some point. I got the big bite I needed but couldn’t put it in the boat. Also, I left my best area too soon on Saturday, thinking that 20 pounds gave me enough to make the cut, not realizing that it was lights out for everyone. That’s all history now, and I’m headed up the road to Lake Lanier. It’s loaded with big spotted bass, just like my home lake, and I’m hoping that I can keep the momentum going.

Starting off this strong takes a little bit of pressure off. As I’ve said before, you only get one mulligan per year, and I didn’t have to use it early. Hopefully I won’t have to use it at all. By earning those valuable 11th-place points, it allows me to think not only about a place in the 2020 Bassmaster Classic, but also about challenging for the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title.

The way this tournament played out, though, I know that our field is anything but diluted. I fully expected former FLW pros such as Scott Canterbury, Matt Arey and the Johnston Brothers to be stars, but I had no idea how competitive the anglers coming out of the Bassmaster Opens would be. Based on this tournament, it’s pretty obvious that we have a stacked field and none of us will be able to let off the gas at any time.

But it’s not just newcomers who are going to challenge for titles and trophies. Rick Clunn showed once again that he still has a lot of great performances in front of him. The way that he conducts himself and his continuing competitive abilities are an inspiration, and I’m thrilled that when my career is over I’ll always be able to say that I fished against a legend.