Will St. Johns signal a season-long trend again?

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Andy Crawford

PALATKA, Fla. – Last year’s Bassmaster Elite Series season-opener on the St. Johns River foreshadowed a season-long trend for several anglers. None more so than eventual Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Scott Canterbury.

Canterbury can remember the moment as if it happened yesterday. As the National Anthem was played prior to the Day 2 takeoff, Canterbury had two rods strapped on his boat deck with lipless crankbaits tied on in expectations of going back to a shell-bed pattern that had produced in practice but left him in 55th-place with 10 pounds, 3 ounces after Day 1. That’s when he made a decision to switch gears and go flipping lily pads.

“Instead of fishing practice, I was fishing the moment,” Canterbury recalled. “I had several moments like that throughout the year.”

The change in tactics produced a 25-pound, 12-ounce five-bass limit on Day 2 that rocketed him into 17th place. The next day he weighed 30-4 and moved into 7th place. The Odenville, Ala., angler finished 9th in the first stage of his AOY season.

On the eve of the 2020 Elite Series opener at the St. Johns River, Canterbury was one of the few optimists found in the 88-man field at the anglers meeting Wednesday evening. The four-day AFTCO Bassmaster Elite begins Thursday at this storied bass fishery that appears to be in less-than-prime shape. High water levels had reduced the vegetation in the river last year, and have continued to do so this year.

“It’s a lot different,” Canterbury said. “But I think the weights will be a lot better than what everybody is saying. I don’t think it will be that way all the way down the standings, like it was last year. But some guys are going to catch ‘em.”

There is a full moon coming over the weekend. The low-temperature Wednesday night was predicted to be a warm 60 degrees with a high Thursday of 81 before a cold front arrives Friday. A wave of spawning bass is expected over the next day or two.

Florida native and BASS veteran Bernie Schultz agreed with Canterbury, saying, “I think there will be a wave of fish come in. The guys that are in the right spots when they come, they’re going to catch a lot of fish and big weight.

“But there will be a lot of guys that aren’t going to catch hardly anything. It’s not as easy as it was last year.”

Another factor making the case for a haves-and-have-nots scenario is high wind predicted to blow from the south on Thursday.

“A hard south wind with a falling tide will drain this place,” said Schultz of the northerly-flowing St. Johns River. “The water will drop significantly all the way down at Lake George. Those fish that were in three feet of water are going to be in 1 ½ and 2 feet of water, and they’ll be spooky.”

The wind will make some areas unfishable, further eliminating what already appears to be a lack of productive areas.

“It could be like last year in some areas,” Schultz said. “There won’t be as many areas, but there will be some that really get right.”

BASS legend Rick Clunn has won the last two Elite Series events here. He did it last year with a four-day total of 98-14. In the four previous Elite Series events on the St. Johns River, the winning weights have been 81-15 in 2016, 90-13 in 2014, 75-9 in 2012 and 77-1 in 2011. Most predictions are for a winning total in the 70- to 80-pound range this year.

Beginning with Thursday’s 7:15 a.m. Eastern Time takeoff at the Palatka City Dock and Boat Ramp, we’ll begin to see who makes the first of many in-the-moment decisions on the St. Johns River – a moment that keys an Angler of the Year run, like Canterbury enjoyed a year ago.