The top circuit in B.A.S.S. begins its 2020 season in Palatka, Fla., at the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River.
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The St. Johns is a famed fishery in Bassmaster lore. It will be hosting its 23rd B.A.S.S. pro level event, putting it in the top five all-time. It has also been in the upper echelons of the Bassmaster 100 Best Bass Lake rankings.
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The St. Johns is the longest river in Florida at 310 miles, forming in marshland west of St. Lucie. The river is navigable for around 200 miles, starting around Sanford, and it becomes a broad estuary near the takeoff site in Palatka.
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Riverfront Park in Palatka is tournament central. Daily takeoffs will be from Palatka City Dock and Boat Ramp, 319, River St., at 7:15 a.m. ET.
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The weigh-ins and expo are just a stone’s throw away in the park.
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Emcee Dave Mercer and tournament director Trip Weldon should begin the weigh-ins at 3:15 p.m. ET each day. For all the happenings at the Expo, click here .
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This will be the sixth Elite Series event on the St. Johns, the most recent two won by Rick Clunn.
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In 2016, Clunn had a huge third day with 31 pounds, 7 ounces. Trip Weldon and Clunn’s son, River, help him show off his historic catch that sent him to his 15th victory with B.A.S.S. and his first in 14 years. At 69 years, 8 months, he set the record as the oldest Elite winner and reminded everyone to “Never accept that all your best moments are in your past.”
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Last year, Clunn eclipsed his age record by winning again at St. Johns at 72 and 7 months. Yet he appeared like something wasn’t quite right, and it wasn’t — his family couldn’t make it to his historic 16th victory.
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The event began with high hopes of Big Bass. Big Stage. Big Dreams. — a rallying cry for the 50-year strong organization that lost a number of its anglers to another circuit. The field was reduced, but big fish were on the horizon for many of the 75 anglers who launched on Day 1.
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John Crews found the biggest of the week on that first day, pulling an 11-2 out of a mat to earn the Phoenix Boats Big Bass bonus. Crews has been a stalwart on the Elites, qualifying for 11 Classics.
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New blood in the circuit showed their merits, like Canadian Chris Johnston, who along with brother Cory vied for both the St. Johns title and the Angler of the Year crown.
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Sharing water with a number of anglers, Chris Johnston led after Days 2 and 3 and finished second while Cory, who had been as high as fourth, took eighth. The bass fishing world saw other newcomers like Patrick Walters make a huge splash. He scored a massive bag to climb into contention before finishing fourth.
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Veteran Mark Menendez started the year with a bang. He topped 20 pounds each day and held third after each of the four days.
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With Bassmaster LIVE and extensive coverage on Bassmaster.com, the world began to learn the skills of new pros like Lee Livesay. The Lake Fork guide who qualified through the Basspro.com Opens had a catch for the ages, using his rod butt to solve the puzzle of grabbing a 6-pounder from behind a gangway.
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Cliff Pirch made a huge move on Day 3, weighing in the event’s largest bag so far at 34-9 to jump into the top 10 and fish Championship Sunday.
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Scott Canterbury also had a bag of more than 30 pounds as he rolled to a ninth-place finish in his first Elite. The Alabama angler’s hot start sent him on his way to win Angler of the Year.
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But the story at the St. Johns was once again Clunn. He began in the middle of the pack but steadily climbed to go out on Championship Sunday in eighth place, 11-13 behind the leader.
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Like he had joked with Mercer at launch on what he might need, Clunn landed two fish nearing 10 pounds on the final day to complete an improbably rally. He totaled 34-14 on the day and came up just shy of another Century Belt with 98-14 to earn the $100,000 prize.
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Clunn goes into the 2020 event on St. Johns looking to become the first to three-peat on a fishery. “The probability of winning back to back is very, very, very rare,” he said. “The odds of doing that three years in a row is probably 10 times greater.” He added he’ll have to forget everything about his two wins there and concentrate on what the fish are doing.
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There will more competition this season as the Elite Series has expanded to 88 anglers. Added to the mix from the Opens and Nation are John Cox, Destin DeMarion, Bob Downey, Austin Felix, Buddy Gross, Cody Hollen (Nation champion), Takumi Ito, Caleb Kuphall, Wes Logan, Bryan Schmitt and Kyle Welcher. Back to the Elites are Gerald Swindle and Brandon Palaniuk, who received Legends exemptions due to winning AOY titles.
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Signups for Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing are open, and there are pundit articles to help you pick pros and hopefully increase your odds of grabbing some of the $90,000 in cash and prizes.
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Bassmaster LIVE will air six hours each day, so tune in and follow all the action on Bassmaster.com to see who will walk away with the first Elite trophy of 2020.