Big bass played big roles in the season-opening AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River last week. Scroll down for the eye-popping eye candy and what the larger largemouth meant for the Elites who caught them.
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Phoenix Boats founder Gary Clouse didn’t catch one monster bass on the fog-delayed first day of the 2021 Elite season, but his average of more than 5 pounds gave him the Day 1 lead with 25 pounds, 15 ounces. The trick was Clouse caught them in less than an hour of fishing, with most of his day eaten by the two-hour run to and from Garden Springs Lake down near DeLeon Springs. It’s surprising he even went after a 3-hour, 15-minute fog delay, but he said it was all he had.
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The shortened day was certainly trying, with only 54 of the 99 anglers able to squeeze out limits. John Crews caught three for 11-10, but his 6-13 was among the top five on the day and helped him stand 28th. Crews caught a limit on the second day, but without a kicker he totaled only 7-14 and missed the cut.
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Greg DiPalma followed suit, having a 7-11 among his three fish weighing 10-4 that put him 39th on Thursday. His limit the next day was nearly a pound-and-a-half less than his lunker, dropping him to 72nd. DiPalma’s finish showed that catching limits might not be as important as landing a giant.
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Hank Cherry’s 8-1 was nearly two-thirds of his Day 1 bag of 12-14, putting him 16th. Cherry dropped one spot after bringing in a limit on Day 2, and he advanced with a super successful Semifinal Saturday — 23-7 — and eventually finish sixth.
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Derek Hudnall had one of the limits on Day 1, including the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of 9-8. In the previous six Elite tournaments on the St. Johns, 10-pounders took big bass honors, including Crews’ 11-2 that held as heaviest throughout the 2019 Elite season.
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Hudnall said he caught a 4-pounder at 3:25 p.m., and he brought in 22-5, good for second place. On the second day, Hudnall held second place with 16-0 but fell 6-12 behind Clouse, whose 19-5 had him setting a great pace with 45-1 total.
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With a full day, the Elites had much better showings on Day 2, with 81 catching limits. Mike Huff made quite the dramatic cull with a 7-11, and he brought in 19-14 to rise into the top 10. His 18-8 on Day 3 left him just shy of Championship Sunday, but his 11th was a great start to the season.
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Quentin Cappo was among the big bass leaders with an 8-3, which helped him build a 17-4 bag that put him inside the top 50 cut. Without another biggun, Cappo caught less than 10 pounds on Saturday and finished 42nd.
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Kenta Kimura, who popped one of the six 20-pound bags on Day 2 behind this 8-7, had mixed results in his first Elite. Kimura, of Osaka, Japan, landed another lunker in his 20-4 limit that helped him make the 50 cut, but his other five fish in the event weighed about half that. He finished 49th.
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On Day 1, the average fish weighed 2-4, but that went up a half a pound on Day 2, which was helped by Wes Logan’s 8-7. Logan earned the $1,000 bonus as Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day, and his 21-2 had him knocking at the Top 10 cut. Weighing 17-14 on Day 3 left him 15th.
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Seth Feider started slowly with 8-3 on Thursday, but he got in the mix with 18-8, the heaviest of which was this 7-4. In his first Elite event, Feider took 33rd on the St. Johns in 2016 and improved to 22nd in 2019 before a disappointing 67th last year.
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Bryan Schmitt, riding high after a tournament win in Florida the week before, started strong with two limits of 15-8, and this 8-1 on Day 3 gave him 21-11 and a spot in the Top 10. A subpar 11-13 on Sunday saw him finish eighth.
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Randy Pierson knew he didn’t have the big fish on Day 3 but wanted this 6-14 weighed because he wanted to talk about “craziest catch” in 35 years of fishing. Similar to Lee Livesay’s circus catch in 2019, Pierson faced swinging the bigger-than-anticipated bass over a dock. As he got the lunker in the air and headed toward his boat, his rod broke in half, but, after careening off the dock, it landed in the middle of his front deck. The video is on social media and racking up views. Pierson had a nice start to the year at 31st.
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Brandon Palaniuk, who won two events in 2020, was making moves on BassTrakk with a 7-0 early then a 9-4 late, which weighed 9-8 on the scales and took the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day. It tied with Hudnall’s Day 1 beast, and they each took home $1,500 bonuses for the daily winner and sharing the overall.
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Greg Hackney vied for the title in his return to the Elites. After a decent 12-7, he followed up with 22-10 to move into third then caught 23-6 on a rainy Day 3, sending him into the final day just 3 ounces out of the lead.
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In previous events on the St. Johns, Hackney had big bass twice, including a 10-8, but he didn’t hook anything close this time. Another day like the past two might have sent Hackney to his seventh B.A.S.S. victory, but he didn’t find a consistent bite on Championship Sunday, and with 11-7 he finished runner-up again, as he did to Rick Clunn in 2016.
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Palaniuk had hopes his two big fish would propel him from 35th into the Top 10, but he said his downfall was having a couple of 2-pounders. With two fish estimated at 17 pounds making up almost 70% of his 24-11, those dinks left him a pound shy of fishing on Sunday. He finished 14th but also lamented having only four fish on Thursday.
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Another monster storyline on Day 3 was Patrick Walters, who fished in Rodman Lake and jumped from 10th to first with 26-7, the big bag of the event. Walters wasn’t on the radar as he only had 18 pounds entered on his BassTrakk, including a 7-15 that was put down as a 5-0. Walters, who doubled the previous record margin of victory with his 104-12 in last year’s season finale on Lake Fork, couldn’t go back-to-back, managing only 10-3 on Sunday to finish fourth.
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Without anything over 6 pounds, Bryan New was building off his 12-0 on Day 1 with 20-3 then 21-0. New, a rookie from Belmont, N.C., was catching a quick limit off shell beds before plying lily pads just south of Lake George. He moved from 22nd to ninth to sixth, starting Day 4 just 5-7 off the lead.
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Feider made a big move Saturday, when the average weight of bass caught by the field jumped another half pound to 3-4. Feider climbed 20 spots to eighth with 25-8, the fourth largest bag of the week. The largest he entered on BassTrakk was a 6-2. Feider began 6-7 out of the lead on Championship Sunday but weighed the second-biggest limit of 17-3 to finish third. His move up increased his payout to $30,000.
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Betting men would have put their money on most any of the top five— Walters, Hackney, Hudnall, local favorite Cliff Prince or even Cherry, the reigning Classic champ. Despite a nice push by Feider and Mark Menendez, who jumped from 10th to fifth, Championship Sunday was all about the new kid in town. Bryan New caught solid fish early and often as he put on a clinic for Bassmaster LIVE.
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New even had the big bass of day, 5-14, as he totaled 26-4 to win going away with 79-7, almost 10 pounds ahead of Hackney. New, who was the overall Opens Angler of the Year champion in 2020, spoke freely that he has the goal to win the 2021 Bassmaster Angler of the Year title.