UPCOMING EVENT: TOYOTA SERIES - 2020 - Dale Hollow Lake

Gator Division Kicking off at St. Johns River

Gator Division Kicking off at St. Johns River
Preston Clark says to expect a few spawning bass to be up at the St. Johns River event, but most of the action to center on staging fish.

The Phoenix Bass Fishing League’s popular Gator Division, which is presented by A.R.E., kicks off its 2020 season on Saturday, Jan. 11 at the St. Johns River near Palatka, Fla.

The St. Johns is legendary for its unique tidal habitat, where saltwater and freshwater fish mingle among one another, but within the bass fishing world it’s known for clear waters where expert sight-fishermen can try their hand at plucking double-digit bass from the bed.

This weekend, when the Phoenix Bass Fishing League comes to Palatka, we might see the very start of a wave of spawners. Though, local hammer Preston Clark figures a variety of patterns will be capable of putting 20-plus pounds in the boat.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect. 

 

Tournament details

Phoenix Bass Fishing League Gator Division presented by A.R.E.

St. Johns River

Palatka, Fla.

Jan. 11, 2020

Hosted by the Putnam County Tourist Development Council

 

About the fishery

There’s plenty of water for anglers to spread out on the St. Johns, with more than 100 miles of river sprawling through the center of the state. Rodman Reservoir is off limits to this year’s competitors due to a drawdown, but according to Clark, everything within 30 miles north of Palatka and 70 miles south of it has plenty of great fishing.

“You can go as far as you want to, or as far as your boat will take you north or south,” he says. “It’s a brackish river, and it flows north. Not only does it have freshwater species, but it’s got all sorts of saltwater stuff. You can catch redfish, flounder, stripers, tarpon.

“Very rarely do we get a big tournament in Palatka. It’s nice,” adds Clark. “There are a lot of guys that are excited about it.”

 

Last time

There isn’t much to go on in terms of recent major tournaments held on the St. Johns in early January. The best indicators of what to expect are local tournaments held this winter. The trend lately has been slightly lower weights than the river is known for, but still much better weights than you’d find in most parts of the country this time of year.

“The river’s been fishing good for a few people every tournament, and then the weights really fall off,” says Clark. “I think you’re going to have a six to eight 20-pound bags, and then it’s going to fall off to 17. If you have a 15- or 16-pound bag you have a chance to make the top 10.”

 

2018 BFL Lake Okeechobee Apr 14 -  14 - PRESTON CLARK

What to expect this time

The biggest notable feature of the river this season is actually not something that’s there, but something that’s missing – eelgrass. The river used to sport prolific beds. In Lake George, for instance, Clark says the eelgrass grew a quarter to a half mile out from the shoreline, resulting in clear water and lots of great bass spawning habitat. Hurricane Michael in October 2018 tore up much of the grass. Since then the bass have had to adjust their patterns, and so have the local bass anglers. 

“The fish have basically repositioned. The big bedding areas we had with the sight-fishing and all that, they’re all gone,” says Clark. “The locals are having to re-learn where they’re going to spawn and where they’re going to stage to spawn.”

You don’t have to look too far to find the right cover. Docks, laydowns and shell beds attract plenty of staging and spawning fish. Those types of cover should produce a lot of the action this week. There are also some fish to be caught around various shoreline reeds, and out on prominent current breaks.

“There very easily could be some spawning fish that people are looking at, but there’s not going to be a ton of them,” predicts Clark. “We do have some freshwater springs that come out throughout the river that stay a consistent 72 degrees. Somebody will catch a few bedding fish near those.

“I think there are going to be two prominent patterns, and they’re total opposites. They’ll either be extremely shallow, probably around wood, or extremely deep on shell beds. I’m talking 15 to 25 feet. They’ll be on hard stuff, whether it’s man-made or natural.”

 

Baits and techniques

Tactics probably won’t surprise many people. Classic Florida fishing should work. Texas rigs pitched around wood cover or to spawning fish will catch bass, and lipless crankbaits, diving crankbaits, swimbaits and ChatterBaits will be used to fish current breaks.

The bigger key will be locating groups of fish, as they should be bunched up this time of year. Clark says it’s possible right now, if you can find them, to catch dozens of fish from one area, particularly on drop-offs and other staging spots near spawning areas.

 

3 critical factors

1. Wind direction – A south wind is best on the St. Johns and could really turn on the fishing.

“It’s a tidal river, and a south wind will cause it to run a little bit harder,” Clark says. “You want water movement, just like going to a reservoir.”

A cold north wind, however, could knock down the water temperature and set back the fishing.

2. Water temperature – Early this week, the water temperature was in the mid-60s, which should mean prime fishing. However, the temperature has been trending the wrong direction due to a couple of cold nights. What happens in the middle and end of the week will really dictate the patterns. If the water temperature drops into the 50s, prespawn staging patterns will be a bigger player. A warming trend could push more fish toward the banks. Anglers should also be on the lookout for protected coves that run a little warmer than the main river.

3. The scale of the fishery – The amount of fishable water on the St. Johns means that anglers should be able to spread out and find fish they won’t have to share. That’s good news for the prospects of good fishing. It’ll take a big bag to have a shot at the winner’s check.

Tags: curtis-niedermier  pre-tournament  2020-01-11-st-johns-river 

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