B.A.S.S. opens its 2021 pro season with the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River this week with an expanded field and expanded reach via its TV contract with FOX Sports networks.
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St. Johns has become a familiar Elite venue, with this year being the seventh visit in the past 10 years. It will be the 23rd top-level B.A.S.S. tournament held on the St. Johns, the first of which was in 1973.
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The St. Johns, the longest river in Florida, starts in marshland west of Vero Beach and flows north for 310 miles, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville. The anglers have approximately 100 miles of the lower basin to fish, from the I-95 bridge in Jacksonville to Hwy. 44 near DeLand.
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The city of Palatka is tournament central, with takeoffs each morning at the Palatka City Docks and weigh-ins set there for 4 p.m. ET. Spectators will be allowed at no charge, but B.A.S.S. asks everyone to follow local mask and social distancing protocols. Marathon sanitizing stations will be set up at the venue.
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From its headwaters to estuary, the St. Johns River falls only 30 feet, or about 1 foot every 10 miles, making it one of the laziest rivers. The St. Johns is influenced by tides, which in times of low water can affect water levels 160 miles upstream.
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Last year, anglers didn’t have as much vegetation to fish as in year’s past, the aftermath of hurricanes, but some has grown back since. Largemouth are known to ambush from underneath canopies and regularly spawn in lake shallows.
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While there are 3,000 lakes on the St. Johns and areas of clear water, back in the numerous canals, bass can be enticed from the blackwater as they lurk under structure like docks.
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In last year’s Elite, high winds forced the anglers to sit idle for two days and shortened the tournament by a day. When fishing began, it was a stingier St. Johns, with only a handful of anglers topping 20 pounds over the three days.
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Connecticut angler Paul Mueller began the event in second place after Day 1 with one of the few 20-plus-pound bags, a big drop from 2019 that saw many 30-pound bags. Mueller bucked the trend by running downriver from takeoff, where analyst Davy Hite suggested the event might be won, and Mueller held the lead going into Championship Monday.
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Mueller made a critical decision to move midday, putting him in 6-Mile Creek as tides raised water levels. Despite coming in one fish shy of a limit, Mueller punched thick mats for this game-changing 6-11 bass.
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Mueller, who landed his first Elite championship the previous year at Lake Lanier, brought in 10-12 for his winning total of 47-6. The northern angler known for his use of electronics called his second victory on the circuit unlikely.
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Big things can happen on the St. Johns, where two of the top 10 largest bass in Bassmaster competition have been caught. Last year, Elite rookie Kyle Welcher earned $1,000 for Phoenix Big Bass of the week with his 10-1 largemouth, which held out to be the biggest fish caught during the 2020 season. Welcher turns 28 on Friday.
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St. Johns hosted Elite tournaments in 2016 and 2019, and legendary angler Rick Clunn had historic wins in both. On Day 3 of the first, the four-time Classic champion stunned the field by doubling his weight from the first two days. Waiting on his family to arrive, Clunn was last to weigh in. Helped by tournament director Trip Weldon and son, River, he weighed the only 30-plus bag of the event and took the lead as Elites hung around to witness history. Clunn outdueled Greg Hackney on Day 4 to win with 81-15 before delivering this inspirational line: “Don't ever believe your best moments are behind you.”
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At 69, Clunn’s win at St. Johns gave him the record as oldest Elite winner, and his quote proved prophetic as he eclipsed that mark. In 2019, down 11-13 on the final day and sitting in eighth, Clunn landed two fish nearing 10 pounds in a monster bag of 34-14 to rally to victory, just missing the 100-pound mark and earning a coveted Century Belt. Clunn was proud to increase his lead on the active list to 16 wins, but his lost look can be attributed to his family not being in attendance that time.
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The anglers will see some rain this week as they begin practice, but the forecast calls for temperatures to stabilize before a front hits Friday. Weather is always key as Florida's bass bite can cool with the temps.
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Again, the 2021 event will allow spectators, but B.A.S.S. asks attendees to follow the local rules set up at the venue as safety for fans, staff and anglers is priority No. 1. The expo, with sponsor displays and activities along with demo rides and refreshments, opens at noon Saturday and Sunday.
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If you can’t make it, watch all the action on Bassmaster LIVE. The crew, including Davy Hite, Tommy Sanders, Ronnie Moore, Mark Zona and Mike Suchan, will begin LIVE on Thursday at 8-11 a.m. ET, take an hour break then air from noon-3 p.m. ET. On Saturday and Sunday, Bassmaster LIVE airs on FOX Sports 1 for the morning segment. New this year is a hosted Inside Bassmaster LIVE show, which will run simultaneously with the FS1 broadcast on Bassmaster.com.