PALATKA, Fla. — Cliff Prince is going to be considered one of the favorites at any bass tournament on the St. Johns River. The 52-year-old Palatka r
PALATKA, Fla. — Cliff Prince is going to be considered one of the favorites at any bass tournament on the St. Johns River. The 52-year-old Palatka resident has been competing in tournaments here since he was 19 years old. His first B.A.S.S. tournament anywhere was here in 2006 and he finished third. In his last four Elite Series tournaments on the St. Johns River, Prince has and 6th, 17th, 4th and 7th.
When the four-day AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at the St. Johns River begins Thursday, Paul Mueller believes the conversation about who is going to win starts with Prince. And it’s not simply because of Prince’s track record. It’s the combination of that and how the recent cold weather has left this fishery in less-than-ideal conditions.
“You’re going to see a few big bags,” said Mueller, who won on the St. Johns in 2006 when weather shortened the event to three days. “You always do, no matter how tough it is. This is setting up perfectly for Cliff Prince.
“Honestly, if it was a four-day event the year I won, Cliff would have beat me. I don’t mean to put any more pressure on him than he already has, but I feel that wholeheartedly. If I knew 10 percent of what he knows here, I’d feel pretty good about this tournament.”
Mueller explained that it’s the subtleties in this tidal-influenced river that gives Prince an edge, saying, “I think there’s a lot of that which most of us don’t fully understand. I didn’t understand it the year I won. It just worked out in my favor.”
Prince admits he’s seen the river like this before, but not for an Elite Series tournament, adding, “This is totally different from anything we’ve experienced. That’s not a bad thing. It makes other people shine.”
Like him, maybe?
Prince didn’t reveal any added confidence going into the tournament, saying only, “I’m due.”
When various Elite Series anglers were asked to estimate the winning weight, the estimates were wide ranging. Most were between 60 and 80 pounds, but there were some outliers too, both lower and higher.
“The fish are wanting to spawn bad, but the weather just hasn’t cooperated,” said Drew Cook, who has finished 18th, 18th and 23rd the last three times the Elite Series has visited the St. Johns River. “The temperature finally spiked up last week and they hit the bank hard. But it lasted only a few days. When we started practicing Sunday, there were still a few up there, but they pulled off.
“We’re not going to see that giant wave of fish like we saw in 2019. It would surprise me if anybody caught them sight-fishing for two days, much less three days. Pre-spawn is going to be the deal. I just hope they’ll warm up quick enough with the sun that they’ll actually bite.”
It seems that every winner of this event at the St. Johns River finds a little something off to himself. That’s what Brian New did last year, when he won the first tournament of his rookie season with a 26-pound, 4-ounce five-bass limit on the final day for a four-day total of 79-7.
“If you look at anybody that does good here, they always have something to themselves – no matter what year,” Mueller said. “And it’s always different, possibly somewhere where it has never been won. That’s the intriguing thing about this place.”
Maybe the most intriguing thing about this place is the number of big bass that are here. It will be difficult to be consistent, but you can make up a lot of ground with one big day. Rick Clunn’s performance on the final day in 2019 is an example. He was in 8th place after three days, almost 12 pounds out of first place. He weighed 34-14 on the final day to win. Bryan New had a similar rally last year, jumping from 6th place after three days, 5 ½ pounds out of first, to win the title with 26-4 on Day 4.
“I like this place because it’s got game-changers in it,” said Keith Combs. “You’ve got to get enough bites to get through, but the potential is there to catch one as big as a lot of guys bags.”