2016 Elite Series
St. Johns River
65th Place / 10 fish, 25-10
This marked our fourth Elite Series tournament on the St. Johns River and I felt that it was critical to go into it with an open mind. I didn’t want to rule out places where I hadn’t caught fish in the past and I also didn’t want to only focus on the places that had produced in prior visits. That’s a difficult balance to strike, but it’s important if you want to be consistently competitive at this level.
On the first day of practice I launched in Palatka and fished that stretch of river before spending a little bit of time in Crescent Lake, too. I didn’t catch any big fish, but I had a fair number of 2 to 3 ½ pounders. If you can consistently catch that type of fish down there and add a few big ones you’ll generally be in the hunt. What concerned me was that it was just one here, one there, no groups of fish. I’ve done OK in that scenario before, but it always worries me a bit to go into a tournament depending on it to work out.
The second day of practice I put in at Lake George, which always draws a sight fishing crowd. It was tough to see them because of the heavy winds, but I still managed to mark quite a few beds and some of them held good fish. While I spent most of my day looking, I also caught a few just fishing around with a topwater, even though I didn’t throw it much.
The west side of George typically has the clearest water and draws the majority of the boats, so on the third day of practice I tried to get away from them by focusing on the east side of the lake. I got a few bites throwing a vibrating jig and swimming a worm, and I also saw a few on beds, but nothing big. The ones that I caught were small, too. It wasn’t very exciting.
That left me with a choice heading into the first day of the tournament – stay out on the river or head to George and get in line? I figured that my best bet was to go to the lake. I’d found a single bed that held three bass in the 3-4 pound class, but when I got there I couldn’t see them well. There was just one little stretch of reeds in that area and there were a few boats crammed in there with me. I watched Bill Lowen catch a good one, then James Niggemeyer caught one. I missed one, then I had another one hit me at the boat and I jerked so hard that I broke it off. I missed all three bites that I had there.
I fished around a little and caught a couple of real small keepers, but that wasn’t going to do me any good so eventually I left for the “community hole” area of the lake.
In the most popular and productive part of the lake there were two groups of boats – one out on the edge and the other up shallow on the point. There were fewer boats out deep so that’s where I stopped. I’d marked some beds out there and those deeper fish tend to be more aggressive. I couldn’t always see them, but by pitching a Power Hawg into the holes in the grass I caught a few.
I wanted to head shallower, but I didn’t want to mess up the area by idling, so I headed that way on the trolling motor, making long casts with an X-Rap Prop topwater bait. On my first or second cast, as I slowly twitched it along, a 3 pounder killed it. That filled out my limit. Now it was time to cull.
I dropped my Talons, made a few more long casts, and caught a 5 ½ pounder. I pulled my Talons up, moved again, and caught a 2 ½ pounder, then proceeded to cull out the rest of the little ones with the topwater. That opened my eyes to what I needed to be doing, and because I was in between the two main groups of boats I only had to share my water with one other angler.
With an hour and a half left to fish, I had about 16 pounds in the livewell, when the wind shifted. Now it was coming out of the east, blowing directly onto where I was fishing, and the bite just cut off completely. I ran across to the protected side of the lake, to an area I’d fished in years past and quickly culled with a 3 pounder. Then I switched to a vibrating jig and caught one that weighed 2 ¾ pounds. Those culls helped me out by about a pound and they also gave me another area to rely on.
My bag weighed 17-04 that day which had me in 34th place. I’d caught approximately 20 keepers, and didn’t have a monster in the bag, just five solid fish. That left me pretty excited heading into Friday.
On Day Two I ran down to where I’d done so well the day before, thinking that I was going to wreck them on topwater. Almost immediately, one hit my prop bait hard but I accidentally pulled it away from him and couldn’t get him to bite again. I quickly made a long cast and had one roll on it. That fish pulled it down into the grass and I couldn’t get to the Talon button fast enough to move toward it. It pulled and pulled and pulled and finally straightened the hooks out. I never saw it, but it seemed like a pretty good one. Another fish missed my lure after that. Once again, I had a chance to have another pretty good bag early but this time it didn’t materialize. I finally cast out a wacky worm and sat down to work on my tackle and when I looked up my line was swimming off. I landed that 1 ½ pounder and when I left at 10:15 all I had to show for my effort was two very small fish.
At that point I ran across to where I’d done well the day before, but this time my X-Rap Prop didn’t produce. I knew there were beds in the area but I couldn’t see them, and finally caught keeper number three at 11:30. I saw a fish but lost it two times. It wasn’t a big one. Finally I caught numbers four and five but my limit consisted entirely of 1 ½ pound bass.
With a limit in the livewell I picked my topwater back up. In hindsight that was a fine decision. The bad decision was that I should’ve stayed in one place and worked on grinding out some bites. Instead, I ran back to where I’d started the day before and culled once or twice. Then I ran back to my main area with an hour left to fish and culled once more. In all, I had seven or eight keepers on the day and never caught a 2 pounder.
Overall, this was a frustrating tournament because on Day One I went with my gut and my decisions all seemed to work, but on Day Two I could never capture that again. I ended up in 65th place, and while that pays the same as 85th or 95th, it’s not quite as disastrous in terms of points. I haven’t completely dug a hole for myself right out of the gate.
My main lure in this tournament was the X-Rap Prop topwater in a yellow perch pattern. A lot of guys were throwing prop baits and I think this is the best one on the market. I threw it on a Fenwick Elite Tech 7’ medium action casting rod paired with a Pflueger Supreme XT reel (7.1:1 gear ratio) and spooled with 30 lb. Trilene braid with a few feet of Trilene XL 17 lb. mono as a leader. The key was fishing it painstakingly slow. On at least 50% of my strikes, the fish would eat it either right after the ripples dissipated or within the first two twitches.
I also could not have done this well without my Minn Kota Talons. I’d pull up to a new area, drop them down and fan cast all around the bow of the boat. Sometimes the fish would come on the first cast, sometimes it would come on the last cast. Then I’d pull up, move the boat forward, and do it again.
Next up is Winyah Bay, which I believe is new to all of us. I went there and looked around before it went off limits, but I still don’t know what to expect and I believe that most of the field feels the same way. In that respect, it’s the opposite of the St. Johns. It’s virtually a complete unknown, a clean slate, and those are the tournaments I look forward to the most.