Beatin' the Bank: 2019 St. Johns River BASS Elite

By Bernie Schultz

Fishing in February on the St. Johns River can mean feast or famine, rarely anything in between. It’s all dependent on the weather. If a severe cold front moves in, forget about it. But if temperatures are on the rise, you better make sure your tackle is up to the task.

After several weeks of bitter, cold weather and a warming trend in the forecast, I was cautiously optimistic.

This was our season opener, so B.A.S.S. decided to give us an off day between practice and competition — mostly to make sure all competitor’s boats and jerseys complied with Elite Series template rules, and to hold an orientation.

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That day off the water, combined with a 3-day warming trend had all the competitors anxious to see what might develop by tournament time.

Practice Begins

My first day of scouting began at the village of Astor — a narrow part of the river located just south of Lake George and north of Lake Dexter. Places where previous Elite events had been won.

I started on Dexter flipping lily pads supporting rafts of floating dollar weed. In minutes, I got my first bite by punching a heavy-weighted Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog. The fish easily weighed six pounds, and that gave me added confidence.

Unfortunately, it took nearly two more hours to get a second bite, and that fish was just a keeper. So I aborted the flipping pattern and moved to Lake George to search for bedding fish.

Finding nothing near the mouth of the lake, I moved to Silver Glen Run on the western shore. Immediately, I discovered active beds holding small males with bigger females. I recorded their precise locations on my Garmin GPS, then moved out of the Glen to the main lake. That yielded nothing, so I returned to Astor to probe a few canals.

By day’s end, the only thing I felt confident in were the bedding fish in Silver Glen Run.

On day two, I ventured into Rodman Reservoir — a small impoundment located just above where the Ocklawaha River enters the St. Johns.

Filled with timber, Rodman is also lush with fields of submerged grass … normally. This year was different, however. After a massive spraying campaign by state authorities, the lake’s submerged grassbeds were completely eradicated, and with it, any type of consistent, quality bite.

After 11 hours of trying, I managed only six fish, none of which were of the size needed to compete.

On day three, I returned to the river — this time accessing it at the official launch site in Palatka. I started just north of the bridge, cranking some shell bars. After no reward there, I ran south to fish some stretches of bank in Dunn’s Creek.

Two hours later, I had only two fish to show for the effort. Fed up with that, I headed for Lake George hoping to find more bedding fish. By evening, I had discovered one really promising area.

A new year, a new look! - photo courtesy of BASSMASTER.com

A new year, a new look! - photo courtesy of BASSMASTER.com

Competition Begins

After a lot of deliberation during our off day, I eventually decided to commit to Lake George and Silver Glen Run. Having an early draw in the take-off order helped cement that decision.

When my number was called, I headed south on the more than 50-mile run. When I arrived, there was only one boat ahead of me, and that was Steve Kennedy.

To my surprise, he stopped short of the key bedding area. Seeing an opportunity, I put the MotorGuide on 36 high and trolled directly to the sweet spot, where I found what I was looking for; a pair of three to four pounders locked on a bed.

I dropped the Power-Poles and went to work. Twenty minutes later, I hooked the male, hanging him in a bush next to the bed. By the time I reached his location, he had pulled off. Disgusted, I backed out and re-rigged, hoping to try for the female.

By this time, other boats were beginning to show up. Among them were Cory Johnston, Koby Krieger and Hunter Shryock — all aces at sight fishing. Seeing that brought on a greater sense of urgency.

I decided to abort the first pair and scan the area for larger fish. During my search, I boated several small males. Sometime around 10am, I poled down on a five pounder. It took nearly an hour, but I was finally able to make her bite. That gave me a limit weighing approximately 11 pounds. I knew I needed more.

As the afternoon sun warmed the water, more females started showing up. That’s when I found a 3-pound male paired with a 7-pound female. My gut told me I should commit fully to that bed.

An hour later, a second seven pounder began skirting the bed, trying to join the nuptials. At first, the male ran her off, but 20 minutes later, she was locked on as well. But neither female would respond favorably to any of my presentations.

At the hour and a half mark, I finally got the male to bite. Unfortunately, when I set the hook, I pulled the bait from his mouth into the back of one of the females. Disgusted with myself, I believed I had blown the opportunity.

The clock was ticking down with only minutes to fish.

After releasing the foul-hooked female, I re-rigged a Yamamoto D-Shad and slid it back into the bed, watching it glide perfectly in front of the second female.

To my amazement, she bit instantly. After a very challenging battle, I lifted her over the gunnel. It was time to go, so I quickly raised the Power-Poles and headed toward weigh in. (watch the video here)

Back at the scales, she weighed right at 7 pounds — boosting my overall weight to more than 17 pounds. I was in good shape heading into day two.

This pair vaulted me up the leader board on day one. - photo courtesy of BASSMASTER.com

This pair vaulted me up the leader board on day one. - photo courtesy of BASSMASTER.com

More of the Same

The next morning, I returned to Silver Glen Run, hoping to find more big fish on beds.

My first fish weighed 1½ pounds. Minutes later, I boated its partner , a 2½-pound female. A little later, I boated two more keeper males. Then I discovered a six pounder sitting super shallow behind a patch of sawgrass.  It took nearly an hour, but I finally got her to bite a small tube jig.

The battle was epic. And after what seemed an eternity, I pulled the big female into the boat. By that time, the area had filled with competitor boats. I told my partner it was time to leave … I wanted to spend the afternoon on the promising main-lake shoreline I had located in practice.

Once there, I trolled steadily through the shallows while fan-casting a large swimbait. Almost immediately, a five pounder engulfed the lure. That culled a bare keeper. Minutes later, I added a 2½ pounder. At that point, I knew I had made the cut. 

Fishing on the Weekend

Knowing Silver Glen had been hammered and most of the fish picked off, I decided to return to the main shoreline of Lake George. Overnight, the winds increased and were now blowing from the north. I knew that might dirty the water.

And when I arrived, I found that to be the case.

Having less clarity, I opted for a vibrating jig with a Yamamoto Zako trailer, fan casting it downwind. Ahead of me was another competitor that I couldn’t identify. He appeared to be doing the same.

An hour later — with nothing to show for my efforts — I decided to abandon the area and move to cleaner, more protected waters. It turned out to be my worst decision of the week, as I would later learn that it was Clifford Perch in the other boat — an angler who would weigh a 34-pound limit at the end of the day.

The rest of my time was spent probing leeward banks on the northern end of Lake George. I managed only one keeper bass, registering a disappointing 35th place finish. My tournament was done.

The next day, watching B.A.S.S. Live only added more salt to the wound. That’s when I learned where Clifford Perch had caught his huge stringer. I also watched as Rick Clunn pulled the hat trick, bagging back-to-back nine pounders for the victory.

With this one behind me and no time to rest, it was off to stop number two — Lake Lanier in north Georgia.