VISION IMPARED FISHING
Story by Matt Pangrac - Photos by Dave Rush
Palatka, FL – From all indications, it appeared as though the first stop of the 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series regular season on Florida’s St. Johns River was going to be a carbon copy of 2011’s edition of the St. John’s River Showdown, where anglers who employed sight fishing tactics controlled the leader board.
After an unusually mild winter, higher water levels, and recently prevalent winds, the general consensus among many of the anglers that The BASS ZONE spoke with at the ramp prior to the final day of practice on Wednesday morning was that the sight bite may not be as dominant as previously expected.
For the first time in recent memory, the Palatka area didn’t experience many of the notorious “Florida cold fronts” over the winter months that typically delay the spawning season and lead to mass migrations of egg-laden females to the banks in early March.
“They’ve been spawning since December, and it’s fishing almost like it should be in mid to late April,” explained Florida’s Shaw Grigsby, who won the first tournament of the 2011 Elite Series season on Florida’s Harris Chain by focusing on bedding bass.
That being said, sight fishing will still undoubtedly still play a critical role this week. Many anglers reported seeing ample schools of fry roaming the banks and numerous buck bass still patrolling the shallows. Last year, spawning fish were everywhere and now they’re just in certain pockets,” said Dean Rojas, who was one of dozens of anglers who made the run to Lake George each day in 2011.
The biggest challenge this week could be finding which pockets the larger females are still bedding in. As the longest river in Florida, the Elite Series pros have miles of river, canals, ponds, and lakes to explore.
In 2011, Oklahoma’s Edwin Evers edged out hometown favorite Terry Scroggins to take the St. Johns title with a total weight of 77-1. Throughout the competition Evers keyed on spawning bass with a variety of YUM soft plastics.
While isolated thunderstorms are possible on Wednesday night in the Palatka area, the forecast for the duration of the tournament is impeccable. Temperatures are predicted to top out in the mid 80’s with mild winds and mostly sunny skies.
Here’s what some of the anglers had to say about their practice on the St. Johns River:
“It’s fishing a little bit tough this year. We had a northeast wind blowing over the weekend, and it really pushed a lot of water in the river and made it hard to see. It’s made things a little bit tougher, but that’s what I was hoping for. I like it when the fishing is tough here on the St. Johns. It gives me a little bit more of an edge.
“The fish actually spawn here until May, so it’s not over by any means. What has happened is that we are fishing in between moons, so the spawn just isn’t very strong this week. It gives the locals an upper hand. Cliff Prince is also a local, and he and I know a lot of offshore structure stuff that’s probably going to end up paying off. It’s a lot of stuff that’s not on maps – stuff that you can only find by putting in time on the water.
“It’s very easy to run a pattern on a 50-mile stretch of the river. You just have to run the tide, stay in the moving water, and run with it. Weight wise, I think it will actually be a little bit better than last year on the top end. Overall, the weighs are going to be a little lower due to the fact that the water is high and it’s hard to see.
“You always want to do well in your hometown, but it is fishing and anything can happen. I’m excited to get out there and get this thing started.”
“The water is a lot higher than last year, and it’s been really windy so the water is dirty and you can’t see the fish. I have just not caught anything of any size that I think I can duplicate. This week is going to be a challenge and I really don’t feel good about what I’ve seen so far.
“I’ve kind of developed a plan to try and do something a little bit different that I think might work. I’ve played with it a little bit and I’m just trying to find something where I have a shot to win. I got lucky last year and caught a few big sight fish, but I just haven’t seen any of those this year.
“I think that it’ll probably take about the same weight to win as it did last year, but overall the field isn’t going to catch them as good as they did.”
“I think that there’s going to a lot of sight fish caught this year. There’s been a lot of warm weather here, so there are a lot of fry in the water and a lot of fish done spawning. Last year, spawning fish were everywhere and now they’re just in certain pockets.
“The water is up about a foot-and-a-half higher, so it’s harder to see the fish in some of the areas. I’ve had a good practice so far just fishing. That’s really my game plan this week. I think that you’re going to see a lot more guys fishing the River, but there are still a lot of fish in Lake George like there was last year. The problem is, most of the ones you can see are the males. You have to target the females, so it’s a challenge to find something different. A lot of the guys are on top of each other.
“It’s typical Florida fishing. You’ve got to get a big bite over the first two days to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. Getting that big bite each day is going to be the real key.”
“It’s a little bit tougher than what I expected. Normally, we’re here after a cold winter and the fish are really getting it on spawning. They’ve been spawning since December, and it’s fishing almost like it should be in mid to late April. The patterns are different and it makes thinks just a little bit tougher.
“I’m expecting a good tournament with a lot of fish caught, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see someone bring in a big bag in the 30-pound range one of the days. Most likely, if you can stay in that 12- to 14-pound range each day, you’ll be doing OK.
“I think that bed fishing will supplement the winning stringer. A guy could bed fish for one or two days and then go do something else to close it out. I’ll tell you right now, my money is on Scroggins. I’m not really good on this river, and I usually do well here in January or February when the fish are just getting on the beds.”
“I’m not the best sight fisherman in the world, so the fact that there are more fish in a post-spawn phase should really allow me to just go out and fish, which should help me a little bit.
“This is Florida, and it’s still going to take a lot of weight to win this thing. You’ve got to be keying on getting a five- or six-pound bite. The water temperatures are actually pretty stable. I’ve seen between 67- and 70-degrees. You’d think by those water temperatures that the fish would still be bedding, but with the warm winter I think it’s mostly over.
“I think that it’s going to end up being more of a junk fishing tournament. I hope that it spreads the field out a little bit more than last year. I don’t mind fishing in crowd, but it’s nicer when you don’t have to. I think that weight wise it should be very similar to what we saw last year.
“The biggest one that I’ve caught during practice just fishing is around three-pounds. I really believe that in order to catch a true giant you’re going to have to find it on a bed somehow.”
“I’ve really been looking forward to this tournament since making the final day last year. All year, I’ve been shopping for some really good sunglasses and ended up getting some great Typhoon’s to take advantage of the sight fishing. Now that I’ve been on the water for a few days, I think that the fish are farther along than I thought they would be.
“I’ve found a few on the beds, but not enough to think that I’ve got a shot at a Top 12. The water is higher, but I just don’t think there are many fish there. I’m sure there are a pile of spawners somewhere, but this river is just so massive.
“It’ll probably be a stronger post spawn bite. I’m still planning on fishing for ones that I’m seeing, but there are just not that many fish. Last year, there were literally hundreds of fish to choose from but right now it’s slim pickings. There’s a lot of fry in the water but there are very few fish guarding fry. I’m still learning how to sight fish, and it’s really intriguing to me.”
“The first morning of practice went really well for me. I accidentally set the hook on two of them and they were both solid fish. About 10:00 on Monday morning, my back went out. I can stand alright, but I was really struggling to bend over or move around.
“I went to a chiropractor and got worked on for about an hour. I ended up going to the minor emergency room and ended up just taking some pain killers. It seems to be helping a little bit, so we’ll see if I’ll be able to set the hook.
“I’ve seen a lot of fish on beds, but it’s the same deal as when I was down here pre-practicing a few months ago – it’s just a bunch of little ones. I don’t think that we’ll be able to look at them as much as I was hoping for. “
“Dude, I’ve had cabin fever for the past year-and-a-half. It’s been over a year of sitting on the banks, watching the other guys fishing and waiting to get back after it. I think I’ve got every single split ring polished and every hook sharpened. I’m so excited just to get back after it.
“It’s been hit or miss for me in Florida in the past. I’m definitely going to be a hero or zero in this one. The weather is beautiful and I’m stoked to be out here. I don’t think that sight fishing will be the determining factor in this tournament from what I’ve seen. This mild winter really hurt the sight fishing thing because the cold snaps didn’t come.
“There will be some sight fish caught, but I don’t think it will be won sight fishing unless I’m missing something. Usually, you need a couple big bites each day in Florida. Consistency is hard to get here.”
“It’s been an OK practice for me. I’m not getting a lot of bites but I’m getting a few decent ones. I haven’t seen near as many spawners and I thought that I’d be seeing, and I get the feeling like the majority of the fish are done spawning and we’re entering the post spawn bite.
“I’m a little bit more comfortable fishing for the bass rather than looking at them. The top weight this year might be a little bit more this year, but the cut weight will probably drop.”
“I don’t think that I’ve caught enough fish to dirty a skillet quite yet. I’ve really been struggling and I’m not sure why. If nothing else, I’ll just go fishing. I’ve done that in the past and done awesome, so I’m not overly concerned with it.
“The frustrating thing is that I really love the St. Johns River, and it holds a lot of special memories for me. I could spend a month down here and not catch any fish and still have the best time in the world. It’s one of those deals where it’s the first tournament of the season so I want to do well, but I’m having an awesome time soaking up all the memories.
“The guys who can fish fast and move around a lot should do pretty well this week. I’ve got one area that I’m going to check out that used to be really good years ago. It’s going to be my attempt to hit one out of the park, but if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just find an area and settle down and start fishing.”
NOTE: The BASS ZONE’S Wide Open coverage will kick off at 7:30 CST with the LIVE pre-game show from the banks of the St. Johns River.