PALATKA, Fla. — Big shallow-water bass will be targeted by 111 anglers at the Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River in Palatka, Fla., March 17-20.
The 2016 season kicks off with a return to the tidal river in northeastern Florida, which will pay $100,000 to the angler with the heaviest four-day weight.
The Elite Series has visited the St. Johns River three times in the past five years, and with the number of big bass weighed in each day at those events, it’s easy to see why fan attendance has increased with each visit.
March has been the magical month on the St. Johns — for fans and anglers alike.
The reigning Bassmaster Classic champion, Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., won the St. Johns Elite in 2011 with 77 pounds, 1 ounce. Alton Jones of Lorena, Texas, won in 2012 with 75-9; and Chris Lane of Guntersville, Ala., won in 2014 with a whopping catch of 90-13.
In 2011, 9,310 fans attended the event. In 2012, attendance increased to 10,225. And in 2014, more than 11,000 fans were in attendance throughout the entire event.
The bass fishing is likely to be especially exciting during the early spring because the fish can be easily seen from the front deck of a boat and caught while guarding their spawning beds. This technique is referred to as sight fishing, and it has been known to connect anglers to some of the largest fish in the system.
While currently an Alabama resident, Lane is originally from central Florida, and he knows how productive the fishery can be during the spring months.
“It’s been hot recently, and I really think the water temperatures will position the fish near the eelgrass,” said Lane, the 2012 Bassmaster Classic champion. “The timing is right to find fish in all phases of the spawn. I’m sure we’ll see new fish moving in shallow, preparing to spawn, and at the same time, we’ll find bass that just finished spawning. And then some fish in between.”
Lane says to finish in the Top 50 and remain in contention for a paycheck, an angler will need to weigh 11 to 13 pounds per day. He thinks the winner, however, will need to bring in 19 to 21 pounds each day to take home top honors.
“I love Florida this time of year,” he continued. “The weather is usually very comfortable, and the fishing is great. Right now the weather looks perfect, but you never know for sure until you’re there. Regardless how Mother Nature treats us, I expect it to be a fantastic tournament, like each time we’ve fished there.”
According to Lane, there will be an opportunity to catch bass by flipping a heavy jig into dense grass mats, a technique known as punching. He said the majority of the anglers would likely be targeting spawning bass sitting on beds.
Veteran Elite Series angler Bernie Schultz of Gainesville, Fla., is looking forward to returning to the St. Johns.
“It’s a fabulous fishery,” said Schultz. “There will be a lot of limits caught, and some large, impressive bass weighed in each day. The weather and water conditions have been stable recently, and that will play to the anglers’ favor. If it gets windy or a big storm system moves through, the daily weights could be affected.”
Schultz agreed with Lane’s estimation on the required daily weights to remain in contention for a Top 50 finish, or the championship title.
“The St. Johns River is an expansive system,” he said. “There is no shortage of good water to fish, but I won’t be surprised to find large groups of anglers clumped together as they fish over spawning flats. That will be the most popular way to catch bass during this event. And, it’s a fun way to fish.”
Schultz said there are thousands of docks, an abundance of cypress trees and laydowns, sandbars and plenty of lily pads and eelgrass that offer bass the necessary security needed to spawn and feed. There are plenty of canals and several lakes, including Crescent Lake, Little Lake George and Lake George that will appeal to the field of Elite Series anglers.
Launches are scheduled for 7:15 a.m. ET each day at Palatka City Dock, and weigh-ins will take place at 3:30 p.m. ET at Palatka Riverfront Park.
A total purse of $638,000 will be paid to the Top 50 anglers. Those anglers will also earn points toward the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and qualification for the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic.