It’s safe to say the 94 anglers that set their sights on the 2022 Bassmaster Elite Series season opener on the St. Johns River had high hopes throug
It’s safe to say the 94 anglers that set their sights on the 2022 Bassmaster Elite Series season opener on the St. Johns River had high hopes throughout the winter of being greeted by sunny skies, 80-degree days and 50-degree nights.
That recipe for a whackfest occurs when the February weather favors big bass and heavy weigh-in sacks. When those conditions align, the bass pull up to spawn in the shallows, and its easy pickings for eager anglers who did all they could to stave off cabin fever through the dark winter months.
Those high hopes were dashed this week by nights in the 40s, days that aren’t much warmer and wet, cloudy conditions throughout official practice. Promise remains the big bass will be caught. However, the weather leading up to the start of the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River has some pros eyeing less of a slugfest, and more of a challenging week. Among them is Ed Loughran.
“I know of a guy in the tournament who caught an 8-pounder out there yesterday,” Loughran said, still holding onto hope for a few of those heavyweight bags for Bassmaster LIVE. Loughran also pointed out that the current cooling trend is headed in the opposite direction of optimum conditions.
Florida largemouth are overly sensitive to cold fronts, shutting down with even slight drops in temperature. On the flip side, it doesn’t take much to get them moving again. All it takes are a couple of warm nights and sunny days to trigger the wave. Though Loughran believes the chill will prevent the big waves of females from coming — think Clunn’s epic 2019 win here — there’s some promise better conditions will come on Day 3 and Day 4.
“Someone may have 10- or 11- pounds on the first two days, and the fish just show up,” said Loughran. “The weather Saturday and Sunday doesn’t look too bad.”
As for a prediction on the four-day winning weight, he predicts, “To me right now, 60 pounds sounds pretty good. I think somebody’s going to catch a good bag or two and struggle a couple days, but get to 60 pounds.”
What does an average bag look like on the St. Johns under these conditions? Loughran has a take on that as well.
“I talked to someone today that I think we’ll have a good chance of winning this tournament, and he said he thought 9 pounds a day might make the first cut.”
Loughran doesn’t believe this will be an easy tournament, meaning anglers will have to adjust as they go this week. As the conditions change, they’ll need to change as well, and likely catch fish several different ways and at several different depths.
Despite the chilly practice, the bass are in spawning mode. The weather has bass at various stages of the prespawn. Some are just outside of the spawning areas, and others are in deeper water. Movement to the shallows could happen at any moment. Getting locked down on what works in practice can be the kiss of death for an Elite Series angler, with an entire week between his first cast of official practice and his last potential cast on the final day of the event.
As for what area of the fishery the winning bags will come from, that’s a bit of a crapshoot as well in Loughran’s eyes this week. It plays into the hands of locals more than ever.
“With the conditions, I would imagine the springs on the west side of George are going to be fairly pressured,” he said. “They always are, but I think because they’re a little warmer, they’re going to get an awful lot of pressure this time.”
According to Loughran, Lake George is still void of the eel grass that made it so good a decade ago, and there’s very limited cover there now. Without the spawn playing a big factor here this week, he doesn’t expect George will either, except for the springs.
“I think you’re going to see a good number of boats in Rodman,” said Loughran. “Then there’s Crescent too. But the vast majority of it is shallow. And unless they’re up and spawning, it’s just hard to catch fish there.”
The water temps on the St. Johns River and the lakes that are open to the anglers this week will be in the 60-degree range, having dropped a few degrees throughout practice. Loughran expects some of the water temps to be bouncing around in the low 50s by the start of the tournament.
With one day of practice remaining, Loughran is still on the prowl and eyeing some of the canals along the St. Johns River, in hopes that they’ll produce the type of fish he’s looking for to have a strong showing.
“I don’t know if the canals south of Lake George and Astor, or even some of the popular canals around Welaka and other areas on the St. Johns. will do very well,” he said. “I intend to fish a couple canals, but typically those are good when fish are going in and getting ready to spawn. But I think there might be some that live in those canals year-round.
Punching thick matted vegetation also plays a role in Florida this time of year. Though Loughran isn’t on a punching bite himself, he wouldn’t be surprised for it to play some role here this week, though finding it will be the biggest hurdle.
“There are very few places you can do it. Some areas down in Astor have pennywort and hyacinth, and Rodman has some of that,” Loughran said. “Any creeks like Black and Dunns will have mats of that stuff too, but I don’t know how well it’s going to work.”
The shell bars on the river are often in play, and Loughran expects that to be the case again given this week’s conditions.
“There are a ton of them,” he said. “But someone like Cliff Prince, who knows the right ones, might do well doing that. Someone like that, if he can get a little bit of a lead, will be really tough to beat. He has a tremendous amount of history, and he knows what happens here and where to go.”
With practice winding down, anglers will have one more day to think things over during the scheduled official off day on Wednesday.
Then it’s off to the races Thursday morning to see who can best the conditions and tame at least a couple St. Johns giants to secure the coveted blue trophy on Sunday.
What is certain is the wintry weather (for north Florida), will make the winner earn his keep.