As the Bassmaster Elite Series kicks off the 2022 season, anglers have much to consider on the St. Johns River.
In the classic good news, bad news premise, Florida's St. Johns River welcomes the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite Series season opener (Feb. 10-13) with a bright palette of potential saddled with the reality of limiting considerations.
Florida's longest river, the north-flowing St. Johns stretches 310 miles from its headwaters in Lower Indian River County to Jacksonville where it meets the Atlantic Ocean through Mayport Inlet. Dropping about an inch per mile, the St. Johns flows at a creeping pace of 0.3 mph, thus earning the "lazy river" classification.
Tournament waters include the river and all tributaries open to public fishing between the Fuller Warren Bridge (I-95) in Jacksonville and Highway 44 in DeLand. While anglers typically spread throughout this range, two of the most popular areas are Crescent Lake (linking to the St. Johns via Dunns Creek) and Lake George--both south of the takeoff site at downtown Palatka.
Cold fronts--Florida-strain largemouth bass hate 'em and the first half of this week brought the kind of dim, chilly, damp conditions that makes pursuing persnickety fish downright uncomfortable. By Thursday's start, skies will be mostly clear, but the drop in temperature will have the fish in a pouty mood, as they'll put the brakes on any spawning plans.
The weather forecast looks a bit kinder for Days 3 and 4, with more sunshine and temperatures trending upward. This could trigger some shoreward movement, but there's no escaping the cold front's restraining impact.
The most significant impediment facing anglers is the lack of native eel grass. Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Irma (2017) killed most of this lanky vegetation, which once claimed the lion's share of St. Johns bass fishing effort. With this year-round habitat mostly absent, the fish have scattered and fishing has become less predictable.
Well-stocked with big bass, the St. Johns holds the potential for lights-out performances, like that of Elite legend Rick Clunn, who notched his 16th Bassmaster win at the 2019 season opener here with a four-day total of 98 pounds, 14 ounces. (Notably, Clunn also won this event in 2016.)
Last year, rookie Bryan New launched his Elite career by winning the event with 79 pounds, 7 ounces, and edging veteran Elite Greg Hackney by a margin of 9-9.
Since the eel grass loss, anglers have exploited more of the St. Johns' incredible habitat diversity. Last year, Hackney made a run at the title by focusing on Lake George's cypress trees, while New got the job done largely in lily pads.
Areas south of Lake George tend to hold more pads, hyacinth, and pennywort, but no-wake zones and manatee speed zones limit fishing time. Throughout the river, shell bars present prime prespawn staging structure.
While 2020 saw Paul Mueller win the St. Johns Elite by fishing creeks 25 miles north of Palatka, Gary Clouse ignited the first two days of last year's event by running two hours south of the takeoff site to fish Spring Garden Lake--a previously unnoticed body flirting with the tournament's southern boundary. Clouse would eventually run out of fish, but leading the first two days, he demonstrated this fishery's end-to-end potential.
Not to be overlooked, Rodman Reservoir--accessible through a canal and lock upriver from Palatka--extends the diversity with non-tidal waters full of stumps, timber, and vegetation. One of Florida's most famous big-bass fisheries, Rodman will host a handful of competitors.
Wherever anglers fish, most will flip/punch vegetation with Texas-rigged beaver style baits, craws and stick worms, while jigs and Texas rigs do well around docks, stumps, and cypress trees. In open water, lipless baits, bladed jigs, topwaters, and jerkbaits excel.
Ebb and Flow
Linked to the Atlantic, the St. Johns feels daily tidal influence. Day 1 will start with incoming water and a morning high at 10:39 (Palatka levels). Tides advance about 50 minutes each day, so those schedules move later as the event unfolds.
Tidal influence diminishes south (upriver) from Lake George and becomes less of a factor through the tournament's southern reaches. This could be a factor for anyone seeking consistent water levels in shallow vegetation.
The tournament winner will take home a $100,000 top prize. Bassmaster Elite events also award a daily $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass prize, an overall $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass prize, a $2,000 VMC Monster Bag prize (largest catch of the tournament), and a $1,000 BassTrakk bonus for the angler who most accurately reports his catches throughout the event.
Anglers will also earn points for the $100,000 Angler of the Year prize, while newcomers pursue the $10,000 Falcon Rods Rookie of the Year award.
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