Posted by Z3 MEDIA STAFF on 03/18/2012

Alton Jones

Story by Matt Pangrac - Photos by Dave Rush and Matt Pangrac

Palatka, FL - Entering the first Elite Series tournament of the season on Florida’s St. Johns River, there was little doubt that sight fishing would play a major role in the outcome.  The question was, with the mild winter that Florida had experienced, would sight fishing prevail as the winner’s dominant pattern, or would the post-spawn bite define the event?

Texas’ Alton Jones answered that question on Sunday.   With a limit weighing 12-11, Jones relied on sight fishing to hold off a hard charging Todd Faircloth to capture the first Elite Series victory of his career with a total weight of 75-9.

Alton Jones

For the duration of the event, Jones stayed in Lake George and combed large flats with a combination of eelgrass and dollar pads.  “I wasn’t around a lot of fish, but I was around a few good fish,” explained Jones, who broke the tournament wide open on Friday with the heaviest limit of the tournament weighing 28-5.  “The important thing was to be in an area where the fish wanted to spawn, and then moving around a lot through those areas.”

Jones’ Lake George grass flats were located in the same general areas that he keyed on in 2011 on the St. Johns River when he led the tournament for the first three days of competition before strong winds and muddy water trashed the sight bite on the final day.  

“If a front had come through, I’d have been toast,” admitted Jones.  “I only practiced in Lake George.  This time of year, you need to be out in those eelgrass beds.  I felt like that was my best way to be in the Top 12 and have a chance.” 

Alton JonesAll 20 fish that Jones brought to the weigh-in scales fell victim to a 6” YUM Dinger in Junebug color.  “I’ve just gotten to where when I come to Florida, I have a lot of confidence in that color,” he explained.  He paired the Dinger with either a 4/0 Reaction Innovations BMF flipping hook or 4/0 Paycheck Baits punching hook (which he snelled), and pegged a ¼-ounce tungsten weight ahead of the offering.  Jones fished a 6’9” Kistler Z-Bone micro guide rod with an Ardent Edge Elite reel spooled with 50-pound-test braid and a 25-pound-test Gamma fluorocarbon leader. 

“I lost one 4-pounder on the first day, and I foul hooked a 2-pounder today that I had to release,” he explained.  “Other than that, I landed everything that bit.” 

Going into the final day with a 9-pound lead, Jones knew that the victory was anything but certain.  “I had to go out today and pretend like I was 2-pounds behind Todd (Faircloth),” said Jones.  “I caught one big female today at 11:30 that was 5-something.  Then I caught a few little ones to fill my limit.  I found one more big one and spent the last two hours of the tournament trying to catch that fish.  I knew if I caught that fish, I’d win the tournament.  If I didn’t catch that fish, I knew that I was leaving the door open.  As it turned out, I didn’t need it.”

Alton JonesThere were there were several factors which made the win especially sweet. “It’s been a little bit of a dry spell between victories,” said Jones, whose last win came at the 2008 Bassmaster Classic. “It’s such a special feeling to even be in contention on the last day.  I’ve had that opportunity a few times and just haven’t been able to get through that door.  I honestly entered the weigh-in line thinking that I’d lost the tournament.  It was a complete reversal in emotions.”

Aside from capturing his first Elite Series trophy and the accompanying $100,000 check, Jones also earned a berth in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic next February on Grand Lake in Oklahoma.  “What I’m most excited about is the Bassmaster Classic qualification,” he stated.  “It really frees me up to go for something like an Angler Of the Year and take a few risks.  If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t cost me the Classic now.  I’m leading the points and I love the schedule.  It’s going to be a great year.” 

Faircloth Fished Clean
Todd Faircloth’s bid at overcoming the second largest final day deficit in Elite Series history fell just over a pound short on Sunday.  Entering the day sitting 9-pounds, 1-ounce behind Jones, the Texas pro was anything but intimidated about the task at hand.  “Who knows what could happen tomorrow,” he said after weighing in on Saturday afternoon. 

Todd FairclothWhat happened was that Faircloth went on a tear during Sunday’s finale, boxing his heaviest limit of the tournament that tipped the scales at 20-10.  With a four day total weight of 74-7, he finished in 2nd Place. 

“I did everything that I could possibly do to pull this thing out,” said a disappointed Faircloth.  “I left it all out there on the water, but I came up a little bit short. I really felt like I had a shot of winning this thing after yesterday.  One more fish and I would have been right there.  I knew what I was going to do and I knew my area.”

For the final two days of competition, Faircloth keyed on an area located on the east side of Lake George that he had all to himself.  “I had the right spot to win, but I came up one bite short.  You can sit here and say ‘coulda’ or ‘shoulda,’ but I fished a clean tournament for the most part.  I made good decisions all week and trusted my instincts.  I don’t know what else I would have done differently.” 

While Faircloth blind cast to bedding bass on the final two days, he mixed in some sight fishing on Thursday and Friday.  He relied on two primary baits throughout the week, a 5” Yamamoto Senko in watermelon/black flake and a Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog.  He pitched the Flappin’ Hog to visible bedding fish with a ¼-ounce tungsten weight. 

“There was a line on the inside of the grass where the dollar pads and the eelgrass met,” he explained.  “That’s primarily where I caught all of my fish all week. There was a clean bottom there and I think that was a big deal.”  

Combs Got Stronger
Keith Combs rounded out the trio of Texans who topped the leader board this week at the St. Johns River.  With 22-11 on Sunday (the heaviest limit of the day), Combs finished the tournament in 3rd place and was the only angler who increased his daily weight all four competition days. 

Finishing just over 4-pounds behind Jones, a key decision on the first day of the tournament most likely cost Combs a shot at his first Elite Series victory.  Rather than making the two-hour run to Woodruff, Combs opted to stay in Lake George and only brought in 12-6 on Thursday. 

Keith Combs

“I knew that it was a risky decision to make that long run to Woodruff because I could start the season off with a real bomb if it didn’t work out,” he explained.  “I knew that after the first day, my little stretch in Lake George wasn’t going to give me a shot at winning.

“It was a risky move, but it worked out,” continued Combs. “If a guy had 8-hours down there, he would have a shot at catching 35-pounds.”  With just four hours of fishing time each day, Combs said that the majority of his weight on the last three days came in one-hour windows.  “There’d be an hour-long stretch without any bites, then they’d move up and I’d slam them for an hour.  Then it’d get windy and I couldn’t see them anymore.” 

He relied on a Strike King Shim-e-stick in Green Pumpkin, with a 3/16-ounce tungsten weight and 25-pound-test Seaguar Abrazx line. He also flipped a 4” Strike King Game Hawg. 

“My practice was really bad, but I feel good about my decision to go down to Woodruff.  If I’d made that decision on the first day, there’s a chance that I could have won.  It was a gamble, so I feel great about it.” 

Chapman’s Gamble Paid Off
With a Bassmaster Central Open victory and 2013 Classic qualification already in his back pocket, Kansas’ Brent Chapman came to the St. Johns River with an aggressive game plan.  Rather than play it save in the friendly confines of Lake George and scratch out a respectable finish and valuable Toyota Tundra Angler Of the Year points, he opted to roll the dice and make a long run to water that he felt held winning potential. 

Brent ChapmanThe decision nearly paid off, as he brought in a limit weighing 20-1 on Sunday to finish in 4th place with a total weight of 67-8.  Like Combs, the majority of Chapman’s weight came from Lake Woodruff.  “The whole tournament was great for me,” he said.  “I never lost a fish that would have hurt me.”

Chapman, like many of the competitors that made the final day, relied on a soft plastic stick bait to do the majority of his damage on the St. Johns River.  His weapon of choice was a Tightlines UV UVenko in UV-Green color. 

“Today, I made a long cast to a hole in the grass and the water just boiled,” he explained.  “That fish ended up being my 8-pounder. I hunkered down and just kept looking for beds.  The first two days, I caught everything off of beds, but yesterday and today, I never caught a single fish that I saw.” 

Overall, Chapman was pleased with his results.  “This is the momentum that everyone wants to start the year with, so I’m tickled to death and really looking forward to the rest of the season,” he concluded. 

Skeet ReeseReese Never Found the Big Bite
After a frustrating 2011, where his best regular season effort was a 23rd Place finish in the season opener, Skeet Reese appears to be back on track in 2012.  Consistently climbing in the standings each day of competition, Reese saved his best for last and brought in 17-6 on Sunday to finish in 5th place with a four day total weight of 64-5. 

“I targeted spawning fish all week,” said Reese.  “The problem was that when you saw them, they were hard to catch.  I ended up fan casting and blind casting in spawning areas to catch most of my fish.  It was just one of those things that I stumbled on to.”

He relied primarily on a Berkley HAVOC Rocket Craw.  “It just came down to the fact that I wasn’t around big ones,” he admitted.  “The area where I was fishing, 3- and 4-pounders were big fish.  I thought that 18-pounds a day would have a shot to win this tournament.  I still had a good tournament.

“With this new point system that we have, you can’t just have a Top 5 finish and jump way up there, so consistency is going to be a really key thing.  You’re going to have to have a lot of solid finishes and every point is going to make a big difference,” he concluded. 

Terry Scroggins6th Place: Terry Scroggins (60-11)
Final Day Thoughts: “Obviously, this isn’t the result I wanted, but these guys don’t miss a thing out here.  I was hoping for some nasty conditions that may have given me an advantage, but it just didn’t work out that way this week.  It’s a good way to start the season with a top 12 at the first event.”

Primary Pattern:  “On the second day, my fish all came from off shore structure. The rest of the fish I weighed were sight fish.”

Primary Baits: YUM Money Craw, YUM Houdini Worm

Key To The Week:  “The key to my week was covering a lot of water.  I was probably covering 100 miles a day, and was able to key on some areas that weren’t getting as much pressure.”

Week In Review:  “I’ve got a home field advantage here, but when it is a sight fishing deal against the top 100 guys in the world, that really doesn’t help out much.  The bottom line is that I was never looking at the right fish during the tournament.  I had some really big ones found during practice, but they were gone once the tournament started. That’s just the breaks sometimes.”

Cliff Crochet7th Place: Cliff Crochet (58-6)
Final Day Thoughts: “I had been beating on the same fish all week and had to make changes every day to catch them.  A top 12 is the right way to start the year.”

Primary Pattern: “I was fishing eel grass and lily pads, but they had to be combined.  The key was having some deeper water close by, and the most productive areas were in between docks.”

Baits:  Hunny Bunny Kickin Frog (Black), Zoom Horny Toad, Hunny Bunny C Tail Worm, Spro BronzeEye Frog

Key To The Week: “Being able to slow down and fish the right grass areas thoroughly was key for me this week.”

Week In Review:  “I was fishing certain types of areas where the grass was compressed, and that is where the fish were holding.  I had to switch up my baits every day to make the fish bite.  I lost a few fish that could have helped some, but I am happy with how my week went.”

Greg Hackney8th Place: Greg Hackney ( 57-7)
Final Day Thoughts:  “Today I had one opportunity to catch a big fish, but didn’t have but ten minutes left to catch her, and it just didn’t happen for me today.”

Primary Pattern:  “I was catching bedding fish.  Although I was just fishing for a lot of them, and not looking at them, they were definitely bedding.”

Baits: Strike King Rodent, Strike King Shim-e-stick

Key To The Week:  “Picking an area of the river where you really couldn’t see the fish was key for me.  It let me stay away from the crowds and my fish were less pressured.”

Week In Review:  “After the first day, I thought that I had made the right choice in my choice of areas, but every day it just got tougher and tougher.  I capitalized on what I had found in practice and fished a pretty clean tournament.”

Randy Howell9th Place: Randy Howell (55-7)
Final Day Thoughts: “I was hard headed today and waited too long to make a move.  Once I moved, I found some big ones but just ran out of time.”

Primary Pattern: “I was sight fishing and also just covering water catching some post spawn fish.”

Baits: Reaction Innovations Big Dipper, Gary Yamamoto Senko, Gary Yamamoto Flappin Hog

Key To The Week: “Covering water and changing areas was key for me this week.  I caught some of my fish in Crescent, and some in Lake George.”

Week In Review: “Every day went pretty good for me.  It’s a good way to start the season and will give me some momentum going to Okeechobee.”

David Walker10th Place: David Walker (55-2)
Final Day Thoughts: “I don’t know of anything I could have done different.  I fished a good event, but just got beat.  There is really nothing you can do about that and that’s what happened today.”

Primary Pattern: “I caught 95% of my fish this week sight fishing.  I was catching a few bonus fish early just fishing.”

Baits: Z Man Punch CrawZ, Z Man Flappin CrawZ

Key To The Week: “The Z Man baits just looked so natural and alive on the beds, that I think I got some fish to bite that I normally wouldn’t have.  Also, using 20-lb Sunline Fluorocarbon instead of braid, which I normally use, was a big factor in my success this week.”

Week In Review: “I just truly enjoyed this whole event.  To start the season out with this kind of focus and result is great.  If we fished tomorrow, I would be right back out there doing the same thing.  I feel good about the week and am happy with the results.”

Dean Rojas11th Place: Dean Rojas (54-6)
Final Day Thoughts: “Today I mostly just fished, pitchin’ and flippin’ in the holes in the grass.  I was able to catch one good one guarding fry today, but never really got any other good bites.”

Primary Pattern: “I was mainly site fishing, but also was just fishing the holes in the grass for fish I couldn’t see.”

Baits:  Big Bite Baits Warmouth, Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog

Key To The Week:  “The Warmouth was a big key for me this week.  The first three days, all my fish came on the Warmouth.”

Week In Review:  “I’m just happy to get out of here with a Top 12 finish and some good points heading to Okeechobee.   Any time you can get off to a good start, it helps you build momentum going forward.”

J Todd Tucker12th Place: J Todd Tucker (51-15)
Final Day Thoughts:
“I did the same thing today that I did all week long.  I saw a lot of big fish today, including one that looked to be about 14-pounds.  I just never could get any of the big ones to bite today.”

Primary Pattern:  “I was throwing a topwater a little in the morning, but was primarily sight fishing this week.”

Baits:  Berkley HAVOC Pit Boss (Black Emerald), unnamed topwater bait

Key To The Week:  “I was just fortunate to be able to find and catch some bigger spawning fish early in the tournament.  I was also able to catch a limit pretty quickly each day, which allowed me to spend time looking for the right size fish.”

Week In Review :  “I was very fortunate this week to get a few of the right bites.  I am happy to have done well here, and get the year off to a good start.”


Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4 Total Fish Total Weight
1 Alton Jones 5 16- 7 5 28- 7 5 18- 0 5 12-11 20 75- 9
2 Todd Faircloth 5 15-14 5 20- 8 5 17- 7 5 20-10 20 74- 7
3 Keith Combs 5 12- 6 5 16- 7 5 19-10 5 22-11 20 71- 2
4 Brent Chapman 5 17- 5 5 18-13 5 11- 5 5 20- 1 20 67- 8
5 Skeet Reese 5 16- 2 5 15-15 5 14-14 5 17- 6 20 64- 5
6 Terry Scroggins 5 14- 0 5 18- 4 5 13- 5 5 15- 2 20 60-11
7 Cliff Crochet 5 21- 5 5 10-12 5 16- 5 5 10- 0 20 58- 6
8 Greg Hackney 5 23-14 5 8- 1 5 19- 4 5 6- 4 20 57- 7
9 Randy Howell 5 14-10 5 18- 1 5 11- 1 5 11-11 20 55- 7
10 David Walker 5 20- 9 5 17- 1 5 6- 7 5 11- 1 20 55- 2
11 Dean Rojas 5 17- 2 5 15- 5 5 12- 5 5 9-10 20 54- 6
12 J Todd Tucker 5 24- 0 5 9- 9 5 10- 6 5 8- 0 20 51-15