PALATKA, Fla. — The St. Johns River is a fertile fishery with proven big-bass potential, but local Bassmaster Elite Series pro Cliff Prince said the fishery will provide a challenging chessboard when the Elites kick off their 2020 season there.
Competition days will be Thursday through Sunday, with daily takeoffs from Palatka City Dock and Boat Ramp at 7:15 a.m. ET. Weigh-ins will be held at 3:15 p.m. at Palatka Riverfront Park.
Grass will play a role — or more specifically, the lack thereof. Historically, the St. Johns has held lush fields of eelgrass, but the majority of this thin-bladed vegetation fell victim to a one-two punch delivered in 2017 when Hurricane Irma ripped up existing grass and dumped a massive volume of water into the system. Dark outflows from local swamps blocked sunlight and impeded regeneration.
The habitat picture was also dire last February when the Elite Series opened its season on the St. Johns. But the event benefitted from a major meteorological whip cracking, and B.A.S.S. legend Rick Clunn claimed his 16th Bassmaster victory with an astounding 98 pounds, 14 ounces.
Prince says weather patterns may sway the script again.
“Last year, we had the perfect storm of conditions,” said Prince, who lives in Palatka and considers the St. Johns his home fishery. “We had a month of really cold weather and then all of a sudden, we had a week of 80 degrees. If the forecast holds, I don’t foresee another scenario like that.
“We are going to have a full moon on Saturday of the tournament, so you know there’s going to be some big females pulling up (shallow) somewhere. It’s just a matter of how many and who can capitalize on that.”
Stretching 310 miles from its marshy headwaters in Lower Indian River County to its Atlantic Ocean exit through Jacksonville’s Mayport Inlet, the St. Johns is Florida’s longest and its only north-flowing river. Fed mostly be storm water and natural springs, the St. Johns’ low flow rate of 0.3 mph classifies it as a “lazy” river.
That being said, the St. Johns’ coastal connection also makes it a partially tidal fishery. As Prince notes, daily ebb and flow fluctuates the water level in 72-square-mile Lake George — the most commonly fished pool, located south of the tournament’s takeoff and weigh-in site — and nearby Crescent Lake.
Noting that the lack of eelgrass will make the St. Johns fish small, Prince said the one significant patch on the east side of Lake George may be less productive than normal.
“The wind’s supposed to blow out of the west for a week, so that patch of grass is going to get (disrupted),” he said.
While the primary habitat source may be lacking, the St. Johns River and its major pools offer several viable options. Offshore shell bars often hold staging prespawners, while laydowns, stumps and loads of docks provide substantial targets.
“There’s a lot more vegetation — pads, hyacinth, pennywort — south of Lake George,” Prince said. “I don’t go down there a lot, just because of the no-wake zones and (manatee) speed zones, but some guys may capitalize on that.”
In the floating vegetation, flipping/punching beaver-style baits will produce. Similarly, dock and laydown fish like those Texas rigs and jigs. For searching open water, Prince suggests lipless baits, spinnerbaits, bladed jigs and topwaters.
A full field of 88 anglers will fish the first two days, with only the Top 40 making it to Saturday’s semifinal round. Only the Top 10 remaining anglers will advance to Championship Sunday with a chance to win the $100,000 first-place prize.
Prince said he expects 15 pounds a day to make the Top 10 Championship Sunday cut, but fireworks are never far away.
“If you look back in the history of the Elites visiting the St. Johns, the person that wins always has a 28- to 31-pound bag,” Prince said. “Somebody’s going to run into three big ones in a day — somebody always does.”
The AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River is being hosted by the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce.