Clouse Makes Most Of Bites To Lead Bassmaster Elite Opener
BY DAVID A. BROWN
PALATKA, Fla. — Despite having longer to fish on Friday, Gary Clouse found fewer big bites than he did during Thursday’s fog-shortened first round.
Nevertheless, the Tennessee angler sacked up a five-bass limit of 19 pounds, 5 ounces and held on to his lead in the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at the St. Johns River with a two-day total of 45-1.
Clouse is making a nearly two-hour run south of Palatka, so Thursday’s fog delay, which postponed the scheduled 7 a.m. takeoff until 10:15, left him with about an hour of actual fishing time. Despite the limitation, he led the day with a limit of 25-12 — the tournament’s heaviest catch so far.
On Friday, Clouse seemed to have a hard time replicating his opening results, which he called the most amazing day of fishing he’s ever experienced.
“It was a struggle today, but I’ll take it,” Clouse said. “Yesterday, I caught everything in an hour; today it took me four hours to get what I had. I think I’m wearing my area out; I hope there are some more coming in.
“Yesterday was one of those days you dream about as a fisherman. Everything just worked. Today, I didn’t fish as well; I think I was a little amped up early. I don’t feel like I presented my baits as well, and I moved around too fast.”
Clouse is targeting small patches of reeds scattered across a supershallow flat. Some of the bass were relating to the cover, while others positioned around the perimeter.
“I caught my first big one out away from it and I caught my second big one close to it; I think they’re just roaming around back there,” Clouse said. “I really haven’t seen any fish on a bed. I’ve seen some beds, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on because I have to stay way back and there’s so many other fish — tilapia, carp — back there.
“I can’t say that I’m bed fishing. They’re just in there roaming around and possibly trying to bed.”
Clouse used a 1/4-ounce swim jig and a 1/4-ounce ChatterBait, both with Yamamoto Zako trailers, to cover water and find fish. He didn’t end up weighing anything on the reaction baits, but they helped him locate active areas where a Texas-rigged Zoom Magnum Ultravibe Speed Worm earned the bites.
Around 1 p.m., with a limit of approximately 15-4, Clouse switched from braided line to fluorocarbon. Within minutes, he caught a 6-2 that culled out a 1 1/2-pounder (all weights estimated per BassTrakk).
The warming trend that arrived Wednesday has prompted good numbers of big bass to move into spawning zones like the one Clouse has been fishing. However, after two days of stable weather, Saturday’s forecast for wind and rain will likely change the playing field.
This won’t necessarily kill the bite. But shallow, exposed areas like Clouse's will likely get blown out at some point. He’s hopeful he can squeeze another day of productivity and secure a Top 10 spot for Championship Sunday.
“If I have to try something different, I’m in trouble,” Clouse said. “I tried for three days in practice and that’s all I have.”
Derek Hudnall of Denham Springs, La., remains in second place with 38-5. Sticking with the same game plan that yielded 22-5 on Day 1, he added 16-0 Friday.
Hudnall has been targeting spawning fish tucked into gaps in shoreline cover by skipping a wacky-rigged Missile Baits 48 worm in the bruiser flash and junebug colors with 15-pound braided line facilitating precise presentations.
Today, after missing several big-fish opportunities, Hudnall made a key adjustment.
“I had a handful of big ones that had the bait for just a second and would just pull off immediately,” he said. “It was really hard to get that bait in their mouth, but around midday, I downsized my hook from a Size 1 Gamakatsu G-Finesse Weedless Stinger Hook, to a Size 2.
“It’s not (significantly) smaller but can make a difference. When I made that adjustment, I started hooking up with more of those fish. They’re locked on beds right now, so they’re not eating; they’re 100% protecting.”
Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., is in third place with 35-1. Clearly benefiting from a full fishing day, Hackney gained 13 spots by adding 22-10 to his Day-1 weight of 12-7.
“Today, I just got to fish a lot slower,” Hackney said. “I just fished over those fish yesterday. I knew they were there yesterday, but I just couldn’t slow down enough to catch them, because I knew I had to catch five so I fished a little quicker.
“Today, I fished the same 300-yard stretch, and it took me all day. I seined it, and I’m going to go back there tomorrow. I knew better than to leave because I’d see them every now and then.”
Hackney said his spot is a protected shoreline with a mix of wood cover and shallow vegetation — an ideal spawning scenario. He caught all of his fish by flipping a Strike King Rage Craw.
Hudnall is in the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with his 9-8.
The Top 50 remaining anglers will take off Saturday from Palatka City Docks at 7 a.m. ET. Saturday’s weigh-in will be held at Palatka Riverfront Park at 3 p.m., with only the Top 10 anglers advancing to Championship Sunday.
FS1 will broadcast live from the tournament beginning at 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Coverage of the event can be streamed on Bassmaster.com and the FOX Sports digital platforms.
The AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River is being hosted by the Putnam County Tourist Development Council and Putnam County Chamber of Commerce.