St. Johns River
26th Place / 15 fish, 47-08
We’ve been to the St. Johns twice before for Elite Series tournaments and both times I’ve gotten a check, but neither one has been a particularly good finish. In fact, the last time we were there in 2012, my 41st place finish was my worst tournament of the year. I finished 2nd in the Angler of the Year race that year and I feel like that was the one that cost me the title. Despite that bittersweet memory I was looking forward to this event. The last two times we’d been there I’d fished similar places and similar techniques. It’s a place that I’m very comfortable with and that freed me up to try some different things during practice.
We came down from Seminole on Sunday and that night the storms rolled through with heavy rain. From 4am until about 8 or 9 am they were particularly severe, with lots of thunder and lightning, so I didn’t get out on the water until sometime after 10. That’s pretty late for me. It was still raining, and it rained the rest of the day, but at least from there on out it was safe. With only a short day to fish, I elected to spend some time near the take-off area, where I hadn’t fished before, even though I know it produces some good finishes, including some top twelves.
I put the boat in and in less than 10 minutes I caught a 5 ½ pounder, then had a few more bites before moving across the river, where I caught some more solid keepers before landing one over 4 pounds. That was 15 pounds in just a couple of hours, junk fishing, and while 15 pounds isn’t a great bag down there, if you can do it every day it’ll get you a check.
On that first day of practice I could see a few beds, but with the bad conditions it wasn’t possible to tell if they were occupied, so on the second day I started in the river again. Once again I caught a good one in a hurry – this time it was over 4 pounds. The bite wasn’t quite as good as it had been the day before, but I dialed it in a little bit better. At about noon I loaded up the boat and headed to Lake George.
I had mixed feelings about Lake George. It always produces a lot of fish by sight fishing, but I knew it would be crowded. The first year we were there, there were 20 boats in it. The second time there were 35. I figured there’d be even more and I was right. If you could go there and share it with just five boats, one of you would have a pretty good chance to win, but 40 boats just spreads it too thin. There’s one big point in there that always holds a lot of fish, including some big ones, and they were there once again – but so were even more boats that I expected.
On the third day of practice I spent some more time on the river, then went down to Crescent Lake, but the water was so dark there that I couldn’t see many of the beds and I ruled that area out. That left me with the river and Lake George as my options for a starting spot. I was in the first flight and felt that if I could catch two or three fish out of the river quickly before moving, that would be a good start, but a fog delay that first morning held us up for about an hour. The run to Lake George isn’t horrible – maybe 35 to 40 minutes, and my Nitro Z9 is running faster this year than ever before, so the ride seems shorter than ever – but with an early weigh-in my day was cut short no matter what I decided to do.
I started in the river and got bites immediately, but they were smaller than the previous days. My first one was maybe 1 ¾ pounds and they got smaller from there. When I left around 11am, I had four fish for perhaps 5 pounds. It was time to make a change so I ran my Nitro Z9 hard down to George and caught my fifth keeper off of the first bed I found. After that, I picked off one here, one there. I never saw any giants on beds, but I caught a couple of 3-pounders and saw some good ones caught. In the end, I caught 10 or 12 keepers and only weighed in one of the fish from the river. It might’ve taken me a little bit too long to pull the trigger, but I made the right decision in leaving the river. My 12 pounds 10 ounces put me in 56th place.
I considered fishing in the river for an hour or so on Day Two, but ended up going right to George. I was in the last flight and when I arrived I got right into the mix. Last time we were there I caught some decent fish just casting a soft jerkbait, so I tried that again and caught 3 or 4 in an hour and a half, including one decent one. Once the sun got up I started bed fishing, but the better fish were spooky or had been picked over.
Most guys were fishing inside where it was easier to see the beds, so I moved outside to where the water was darker and started picking apart the holes in the grass. I’d pitch into each hole four or five times and then fish my bait really slowly. It’s hard to do when you can’t see the beds, but I forced myself. I’d put the Talons down and shake the lure like I knew one was looking at it. I can’t stress enough how important those Talons are at this time of year – I don’t know how we ever fished without them.
After catching one fish that helped me a little bit, I pulled up the Talons and got closer to the bed, continuing to shake the lure in place. Suddenly it felt like I was hung up, but when I went to pull the lure free it pulled back and I fought a 7-pounder into the boat. That gave me a huge boost. I’d been pitching a Berkley Power Hawg most of the time but after that I picked up a Havoc Sick Fish and started pitching it at the holes, too. In one, the line jumped before it hit the bottom and I fought the fish all around the boat before putting another 7-pounder in the livewell. Those two fish turned my day around and brought me up to 20-10, pushing me up 33 spots into 23rd.
Heading into Day Three I felt like my areas in Lake George had the potential to produce another big bag, so I launched with the same plan. It was cloudy and windier than it had been all week, though, so I made the gut decision to stop at a place at the mouth of the river where I’d caught a few the last time we were there. I hadn’t even practiced there, but it seemed like the right thing to do and there was healthy eel grass right where I started fishing. Five or ten minutes into the fishing day I made a long cast and a fish absolutely smoked the lure 10 feet from the boat. I can’t wait to put up the GoPro footage of that one. It was a 4-pounder, a great start to an important day and a good bonus fish. I didn’t catch anything else there, so after about 30 minutes I ran to my community hole point in George. With the wind it was hard to see many fish.