By Bernie Schultz
The St. Johns River is one of Florida’s most beautiful waterways. She winds her way north along the state’s eastern boundary for some 300 miles … and every mile can hold bass.
That was the challenge for this year’s Elite Series field: finding the most productive areas in just 2½ days of scouting. And boy did they ever!
This event not only produced some tremendous catches, it also delivered a very surprising and historical finish.
Throughout the week, I stayed with travel partner Cliff Prince and his family at their homestead in Palatka — site of tournament headquarters. With us were Elite Series pros Jason Christie, Edwin Evers and Dennis Tietje. It was a fun, entertaining week, and one that provided a solid start to the season.
On the first day of practice, I drove south to the town of Astor, just below Lake George. My plan was to scout lakes Dexter and Woodruff, then move farther north in the afternoon.
After a dismal morning, I decided to head to the mouth of Lake George early. Upon entering the lake, I noticed a thick grassline growing on an offshore bar to the east. I made that my first stop and in minutes I was catching fish. None were big, but it was a start nonetheless.
From there I moved to the western shore, to an area called Cabbage Point — the same place I fished the last time the Elite Series visited the St. Johns. Although the area receives constant pressure, it does hold tons of bass. As expected, I found them bedding as far as the eye could see.
Finding that, I spent the rest of the day marking specific beds with my Raymarine electronics. Depending on their size, I would mark them with specific symbols. (Fish under three pounds were designated with a red circle. Fish above, a red triangle. Anything bigger, a black triangle.)
Doing this would enable me to target the bigger fish first, once the competition got underway. All I needed was for them to stay put and benefit by an early draw in the take-off order.
Day-two, I headed north toward Jacksonville. The wind was up out of the west-southwest, so I was restricted to canals and protected shorelines on the river’s lee side. The day passed quickly but I managed to mark a good number of bedding fish while catching some randomly casting. My lures of choice were a Rapala X-Rap Prop and Yamamoto Stretch 40 (2-10 series).
On day-three, I fished near Palatka, both north and south of the city. Fishing was good, too. I found a main-river bar holding some nice topwater fish, plus two canals with a few spawners. It was short day, but one that bolstered my confidence going into the competition.
After drawing boat No.5, my plan for day-1 was to start at Cabbage Point on Lake George and catch all I could before the crowd arrived. I felt my chances of securing the best area were good, and that was confirmed once take-off began: this year’s boat is unusually fast. Even with an oversized load of tackle and fuel, my Mercury Optimax pushed the 70mph mark. Not one boat passed me during the nearly hour-long run south.
When I reached Cabbage Point, I idled to the interior of the grassbed to an area where I had marked more than a dozen fish in the 3- to 4-pound range. In minutes, I boated several keepers — the biggest of which was 3¾. By the time the field had arrived, things came to a halt.
Among the 30-plus boats scattered across the point, very few were catching quality fish. Yeah, there was an occasional whoop and holler, but for the most part it was unusually quiet.
It was breezy and overcast, which made sight-fishing difficult. By noon, I was still stuck on four fish. So I moved south to a small field of scattered dollar weed, where I was able to finish my limit throwing the Rapala prop bait.
Having an early check-in time, I decided to head north and hit a couple of grassbeds closer to weigh-in. On one spot, I culled twice with the topwater and boosted my weight to nearly 13 pounds. I knew it wasn’t enough, but at least I was able to salvage what could have been a disastrous day.
The next morning, I opted to go north to avoid the crowd, but more to test the waters I scouted on day-two of practice. Mired in 77th place, I felt it was my only chance for a strong recovery. It’s a good thing I made that choice.
I started in a small canal and by 9:30am, I had filled out a decent limit. Around 10am, I headed farther north near Jacksonville, to a grassbed on the western shore. My timing was perfect. When I came off pad, I could see quality fish striking in the shallows. Nearby was Skeet Reese and a couple of local boats. The area I wanted was wide open.
I started with the Stretch 40, fan-casting across the flat. The tide was such that the lure swam easily through the tops of the eelgrass. In minutes I culled several smaller fish, then luck struck. On a lengthy cast to a large hole in the grass, a 6-pounder exploded on the worm, taking it deep. It was a great battle, and by the time I got her to the boat we were both whipped.
A couple of high-fives with my Marshal and I was back at it. The window didn’t stay open long but by the time it closed I had amassed a 19-pound bag of St. Johns fatties. I knew I had made the money.
On day-three, my hope was to repeat the previous day’s stringer and vault myself into the Top-12. I believed the very same strategy might work again. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different plan. Between her and some interference by some locals, my day would see a much different and depressing outcome.
When I arrived at the grassbed, I found Skeet Reese fishing the interior near the shoreline — the very same stretch he was on the day before. Everything looked perfect, but for some reason there was no movement. Skeet shouted to me, claiming he hadn’t had a strike. That news didn’t bother me though. I felt in due time, the area would come alive with plenty of action.
Not long after our exchange, Skeet abandoned the grassbed and headed farther to the north. I told my partner we were staying, that I was fully committed.
Shortly after Skeet’s departure, I noticed two boats racing toward me from across the river. When they reached the grassbed, I could see that they were non-competitors. I figured they would keep their distance and watch. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Both dropped their trolling motors and began casting in my direction. Their determination was upsetting. After realizing their intent, I trolled toward them hoping to establish a boundary. It did no good. They split apart, flanking me on either side. That’s when I got vocal.
As if addressing my Marshal, I spoke loudly so that the pair could hear me. I scolded them, stating that non-competitors shouldn’t encroach on a tournament angler, especially if he had already established the area. To my surprise, one told the other he recognized me, acknowledging that I was “from the area and a good guy.”
Hearing that, I figured they would both back off. But I was wrong! The encroachment continued. Clearly, neither believed they were doing any harm.
Rather than confronting them further, I decided to turn my back and focus in the opposite direction. Soon, I caught a couple of keepers — both averaging about two pounds apiece.
As I reached the end of what I considered the most productive water. I circled back around. Still lingering behind me were my adversaries, chunking and winding as if they too were fishing on the clock. I muttered words of contempt and fished aggressively toward them once more. Both yielded but, by that time, the damage had already been done — fragments of chopped up grass littered the surface, and I could no longer work the topwater lure effectively.
Soon, the wind began to blow … and blow hard. I thought it would pass, but as the day progressed, it only got stronger. Switching to a ½-ounce Hildebrandt spinnerbait, I managed a couple of more fish.
Conditions deteriorated to the point that I was forced to retreat to a nearby canal. I had little more than an hour to fish and my hopes of making the Top-12 were fading.
My fifth fish finally came on the Rapala topwater and it weighed close to four pounds. I told my Marshal there was still hope ... I just needed one more good bite.
Thirty minutes before weigh-in, it happened.
At the mouth of the canal, I slung the topwater beneath an overhanging tree next to the shore and almost immediately, a big fish erupted on the lure. It missed it by inches. Involuntarily, I swung anyway. Gathering myself, I delivered the lure once more. The fish engulfed it and raced into a flooded bush. Seconds later, it pulled off.
The battle was over before it ever started. I collapsed to the deck and told my Marshal it was over. Time had run out.
Back at weigh-in, my meager 9-pounds 14-ounces dropped me to 44th place in the standings. I managed a good payday, but the lost points were hard to swallow.
As my story on the St. Johns came to a close, another one more powerful was being written. Angling legend Rick Clunn — at the age of 69 — was about to be crowned tournament champion. It would make his 15th career victory.
It was a magical and historic moment — one that brought many people together. And I was proud to be just a small part of it.