Story by Matt Pangrac and Brent Conway - Photos by Mark Jeffreys, Matt Pangrac and Dave Rush
Palatka, FL – The second stop of the 2011 Elite Series regular season on Florida’s St. Johns River was also the second consecutive week of competition where bed fishing was also the feature story.
After Shaw Grigsby took the Harris Chain title by looking at bed fish, it became apparent that the championship on the St. Johns River would also come down to capitalizing on the sight bite. The main question remaining was who would hoist the trophy on Sunday?
After two ideal days of sight fishing conditions featuring calm water and high skies, the winds of change swept through Palatka on Sunday, throwing a wrinkle into the carefully scripted game plan of each remaining angler. With steady winds surpassing 15 miles-per-hour, Alton Jones, who led the first three days of competition and was among the competitors fishing on Lake George who were forced into scramble mode.
Without a well defined backup plan, Jones was left with few options on Sunday but to just go fishing and hope for the best. Conversely, Edwin Evers who entered the final day in second place opted to avoid the crowded confines of Lake George for the majority of the tournament, keying on less pressured waters and hunting for new bedders each day.
He pointed out Saturday that he was still hunting, but liked what he’d found so far.
Then there was Terry “Big Show” Scroggins who has lived and breathed the St. Johns River for most of his life. As he pointed out multiple times throughout the week, there really isn’t such a thing as “scrambling” for him – it’s merely going through the rolodex of spots to determine which ones matched the conditions.
As for style, a portion of Scroggins’ day Saturday was spent with a spinning rod in hand as a result of a complete lack of cooperation from finicky bedding fish. With Sunday’s wind, it seemed certain that Big Show’s crankbait had the potential to spell disappointment for Evers and Jones.
Evers would have none of the drama though, as he put on a 19-pound clinic to boost his final weight to 77-1, and put Scroggins three pounds away from claiming a home town win.
To his credit, Scroggins did absolutely everything he could to close the four-pound advantage Evers had on him to start the day. His 20-pound, 4-ounce final-day weight pushed his final tally to 74-3 for a bittersweet second place finish.
After leading since Thursday, Alton Jones ended the tournament in third place with 73-12, after bringing 13-2 to the scales on Sunday. Fellow Texan Todd Faircloth finished the event in fourth place by weighing 14-12 to move his total weight to 68-13 overall.
Steve Kennedy ended his week in fifth, with 65-1 in total weight after weighing 16-12 on the day, and J. Todd Tucker brought in his lightest bag of the week at 7 pounds, 11 ounces to round out the Super Six with 61-8.
1st Place: Edwin Evers
Edwin Evers came to the scales following “Scroggins-palooza” that had just unfolded moments before. Needing 16-3 to take the lead, Evers calmly loaded 19 pounds onto the scales to unseat Scroggins.
“I thought I’d lost this tournament numerous times throughout the week, so to come out on top just proves that when it’s meant to happen, it’s going to happen. It’s very, very hard to win a sight-fishing event. This is a good win.”
As is often the case, the difference between a win and a loss is a single fish. For Edwin, his big bite came late in the day Friday – although the fish didn’t actually hit the scales until Sunday. “I found her late Friday in really shallow water,” he said. “I went back in there Saturday, and Scroggins was sitting in the area. I don’t know if he ever saw her or not, but I turned around and left.
“The northeast wind held the water up thankfully because she was so shallow, but I went back in there second thing this morning and caught the male. She bit five or 10 minutes later.”
Going into the day, Evers felt good about his chances. “I knew that the wind was going to be a big help for me,” he said. “I had areas that were protected. I knew that I just had to get them to bite, and get them in the boat.”
Confident that he would be able to at least replicate what he brought in Saturday, Evers admitted that if not for lost fish things could’ve gotten silly. “I lost so many fish – some of them big fish,” he said. “I had a 10-pounder that just smoked it right at the end of the day but came unbuttoned.”
While the wind may not have been a factor for Edwin, the tide certainly was. “Those fish get freaky when the tide goes out,” he said. “If the tide would’ve been out today, I wouldn’t have been able to catch that big fish – they were just too spooky.”
Evers threw a variety of YUM soft plastics, but pointed out that the shape of the bait didn’t really matter as long as it had YUM’s F2 attractant on it. “I can promise you that without the F2, there’s no way some of those fish would’ve bit,” he said. “I was fishing a lot dirtier water that a lot of guys were, so the attractant played a huge role for me.”
Based on his practice, Edwin was sure he’d have a good tournament but admitted that he had no idea he’d be able to win it. “Those things sort of progress as the week goes along,” he explained. “You find a couple of key fish on the beds, and are able to catch them and then you start thinking you might have a shot.”
Beyond the win, Edwin said that the automatic entry into the Bassmaster Classic is a huge bonus that comes with winning. “The pressure is off now,” he said. “That’s not to say that I’m done for the year, because my biggest goal is winning the Angler of the Year.
“Leaving Lake George was the key to the week,” Evers explained. “I went down to get away from everybody and was able to really just do my deal. Where I fished the last two days, it was just ugly. There wasn’t any eelgrass and the water was dirty. It just wasn’t pretty like George was. But that’s what kept everyone else out.”
2nd Place: Terry Scroggins
Terry Scroggins was on everyone’s radar to win the tournament this week, given that he’s dominant anywhere he fishes in the Sunshine State. He came to the scales needing just 11 pounds to take the lead over Steve Kennedy. His 20 pound, 4 ounce limit on Sunday briefly jumped him to the top of the leader board, but he ultimately fell short of victory.
“I just ran a whole bunch of stuff this morning trying to catch five,” he said. “I was six pounds behind going into the day, so the only thing I could do was catch them and hope the other guys didn’t.”
Scroggins said that the loss of three quality bites Saturday likely cost him the tournament. “I fell behind yesterday when I had the opportunity to really have a good bag,” he explained. “These guys are just so good that you can’t give them any opportunity. It’s as simple as that.”
Knowing that he needed to close the gap, Scroggins went offshore to “fish stuff that no one else could find,” which consisted of shell bars and other structure. “I wanted to catch five decent ones and then go sight fishing the rest of the day,” he said.
Scroggins estimated that he hit close to 150 spots this week, but still has “at least that many more” that he never touched. “Things really just didn’t set up right this week,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that just wasn’t working, but it was a good week just the same.”
3rd Place: Alton Jones
They say that the mark of a true champion is his ability to persevere under pressure. If that’s the case, Alton won this event by virtue of his positive nature at the end of a bitter defeat on the final day.
“I had the attitude this morning that I was going into (Lake) George to check my primary stuff before I made any decisions,” he said. “I didn’t even make it to my stuff because I saw the waves ripping through there and knew automatically that it was done.”
Alton was forced to retreat to back-up water and just go fishing. “I had to try and make something happen,” he said. “I was really pleased to have caught what I caught because I’d spent all of practice and the tournament sight fishing.”
Using the full day to amass a tournament limit, Jones said that on his third-to-last cast of the day he finally caught up with a quality keeper. “I just never quit fishing, and that’s something important to take away,” he said.
“It’s a top three finish and it’ll give me some great points. I’m grateful to the Lord for every fish I caught this week.”
Jones spent the week fishing a spawning flat inside Lake George that was “about the size of a football field” with well over a hundred beds. “I’d gone ‘all in’ with sight fishing – that’s what I did 100% of the time during practice,” he said.
“I knew that if any weather system came in I’d struggle, and that’s exactly what happened. We were a little late on the moon, and I knew that there would be less and less females as the week wore on. I just hoped that I’d done enough early in the week to stay out in front.”
Alton credited a six-inch YUM Dinger for all of his big fish over the week. On the final day, he was forced to throw a seven-inch YUM Ribbontail to get a limit. “That’s what saved the day for me today,” he said.
4th Place: Todd Faircloth
Todd Faircloth started the day six and-a-half pounds off the lead and felt sure that things were going his way from the start. Unfortunately, the early-morning mojo soon dissipated.
“I caught a limit pretty quick along with the big one I weighed,” he said. “I had a real legitimate shot at winning this thing. I caught plenty of fish but I just never had another big bite.”
Fishing the eelgrass flats in Lake George, Faircloth alternated between fishing and looking. “I caught some of them on a five-inch Senko just blind casting and I caught some on a Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog,” he revealed.
“If I could see the bed, I would pitch in with the creature bait. Otherwise, I was sort of dead-sticking the Senko. That was also a pretty good way to find beds because you’d mark where a fish swirled if they didn’t eat it.”
Faircloth tipped his hat to his competitors and noted that his tournament came down to one day, but it wasn’t the final day by any means. “I didn’t lose the tournament today. I lost it the second day,” he said.
“Anytime you come in with 10 pounds against this group of guys you’re not going to win, so I kind of put myself out of it right there.”
5th Place: Steve Kennedy
Thanks to a 26 pound limit on Saturday, Alabama’s Steve Kennedy jumped into the Top 12 and earned a spot in Sunday’s finale. He eyeballed the top spot for a moment, but ultimately didn’t have enough steam to close it.
“I didn’t catch my bites and that’s probably the biggest thing,” he said of his day. “I had a hard time seeing because of the wind. “Kelly (Jordon) had one big fish that he messed with for about two hours this morning and left her,” explained Kennedy. “He came back in this afternoon and caught her in about four casts. I was 10 feet away and I never even saw the fish sitting there, that’s how hard it was for me.”
Kennedy said that much of his success this week beyond sight fishing came on a Reaction Innovations Big Dipper which he reeled over the eelgrass. “If you could see one of the shiners in here, it’s a perfect match for them.” If a bass swirled on the bait, he would pitch back in with a Kinami Flash and dead stick the offering.
Kennedy spent the first two days fishing Juniper Point, which he said “was absolutely loaded with fish.” Wanting to get away from the crowd, he went to the east side of Lake George.
“I’m just happy to finish where I did,” he concluded.
6th Place: J. Todd Tucker
Knowing that he had a mountain to climb in order to run down the leader, J. Todd Tucker elected to gamble and return to Saturday’s big-fish water that he had been sharing with Alton Jones.
“I took a chance with the wind blowing but I knew that there was another big fish in there. When I got in there, I couldn’t believe it. It was clear and calm and I could see forever.”
Tucker revealed that he caught five quick keepers but knew that he’d need a lot more to be a contender. With that in mind, he decided to exclusively target big fish. “I found some big fish on beds but never could get one of them to bite,” he said. “I had an 8 pounder and a 10 pounder within 100 feet of each other but couldn’t get either one to bite.”
Knowing that he’d found game-changing fish, Tucker spent over an hour tossing a black/red-fleck Berkley Havoc Craw Fatty at the pair of giants. “When it comes down to the final day, that’s just what you have to do,” he said. “It just didn’t work out.”
Despite knowing that he found the fish that could possibly have pushed him over the top, Tucker explained that to have the opportunity to fish on the final day was worth it. “If you’re going to have a bad day, you want it to be Sunday I guess,” he said.
“Every single fish I weighed this week came from sight fishing, so my game plan worked. I just couldn’t get the bites in the end that I needed.”
7th Place: Kelly Jordon
Final Day Thoughts: “I thought that I would catch them early on a Lake Fork Tackle Magic Shad with the wind. I got a bunch of bites but they all missed it. I went for it and I saw a lot of bedding fish today and decided that I wasn’t going to stop on anything that was under four pounds. I knew that it would be a challenge today and I just had to go for the big ones.
Pattern: sight fishing in the eelgrass on Lake George
Baits: Lake Fork Baby Fork Craw, Lake Fork Magic Shad
Key to the Week: “I didn’t have all those big fish marked on sweet spots so I really had to expand my area as the tournament went on.”
Week in Review: “I regret that I didn’t practice in Lake George more than I did. I only got about four hours of practice in that area on the last day and I realized that I missed the boat. I thought that Rodman would be the deal but when I got to George I realized that it was the deal.”
8th Place: Dustin Wilks
Final Day Thoughts: “It was an ugly day. I was going to Rodman and caught one little one before going through the lock. When I got up there I couldn’t see anything with the wind blowing. All my good areas were blown out. I started looking for bed fish and caught another little one. On my way out I caught two more little ones and that’s about it. It was brutal.”
Pattern: sight fishing in Rodman.
Baits: Culprit T-Rex, hand poured lizard, RJA Crankbait
Key to the Week: “I actually got lucky to find a bunch of bigger fish. One day there would be a little buck on the bed and the next morning there would be a big female with it.”
Week in Review: “I’m very happy with my week because I told my wife after practice that I’d be coming home in two days because I just didn’t see any big fish at all. I covered half the lake and only saw seven fish in practice.”
9th Place: Keith Combs
Final Day Thoughts: “It was hard to see in the wind and one of my main areas was a little dingy today. Yesterday I found something casting the Game Hawg around. When it got cloudy, I caught three or four quick keepers and then just caught the rest off of beds. They were all around but it was just tough to see them.”
Pattern: Bed fishing on Thursday and mixing it up between casting and bed fishing the final three days.
Baits: Strike King Game Hawg, Senko, Lateral Perch, Zoom Speed Worm
Key to the Week: “On the first morning, I really had some fish locked on beds. I caught all of my weight within the first 8 minutes of the morning. That was big for the rest of my tournament.”
Week in Review: “It was a good week and I don’t think that there’s anything that I could have done differently. On the second day I fished for one that was over 10 pounds and on the third day I fished for one that was 11 or 12 pounds. I just couldn’t get them to go.”
10th Place: Casey Ashley
Final Day Thoughts: “I went to a new area today where I started on the first day. I hadn’t been back to it and there was a bunch of big fish everywhere. I caught a limit in an hour and couldn’t get the big ones to bite. I found a giant and fished for it for about an hour and never got it to bite.”
Pattern: Sight fishing and topwater.
Baits: Devil’s Horse, Zoom Speed Craw in Green Pumpkin and Okeechobee Craw
Key to the Week: “I was able to get in a few areas by myself and really work on the bedding fish.”
Week in Review: “I’m just happy to make a Top 12 in Florida.”
11th Place: Kevin VanDam
Final Day Thoughts: “It probably couldn’t have gone much worse for me. I thought that I could catch some fish with a moving bait with the wind but the area that I was fishing was muddy. I made a change and tried to catch some bigger fish and I kept getting bit but I couldn’t hook up with a big one. I spent over an hour trying to catch a big one off of a bed and nothing went right.”
Pattern: Sight fishing for the first three days and casting on the final day
Baits: Strike King Rage Craw, Strike King Shadalicious
Week in Review: “I had a good time down here. I knew those big ones were in Rodman and I should have gone there today. I wish I would have done that just to do something different because there’s the possibility of a 30 pound limit.”
12th Place: Billy McCaghren
Final Day Thoughts: “Today was really hard for me. I took a shot and went to the area where I caught a 13 pounder in practice. I saw some small ones that weren’t worth stopping on and around 11:00 I found a giant. I caught the male and decided to leave. When I came back about half an hour later, she was still there and I spent nearly three hours trying to catch it. I never could get her to bite but she was well over 10 pounds.”
Pattern: “I fished eelgrass all week and today I focused on lily pad clumps. I just trolled around and looked for bedding fish.
Baits: Zoom Ultra Speed Craw, Canyon Plastics Tora Tube.
Key to the Week: “The big Tora tube got me some of the biggest bites. 90 percent of my fish came on the Speed Craw but the biggest ones came on the tube. Also, I spent a lot of time looking instead of fishing and keying on the bigger fish.”
Week in Review: “It’s been a great week. I wish I could have brought in that giant on the last week, but very seldom do I get the chance to roll the dice and gamble. To make a Top 12 site fishing is pretty special.”