Solid start to Bassmaster Elite season for Jeff Gustafson

The 2021 Bassmaster Elite Series season kicked off over the weekend and for the third year in a row the season started at the St. John’s River in Florida. When the schedule for 2021 was released back in the fall and it was announced that we were going back to the St. John’s again, I have to admit, I was disappointed. My results the past couple of years were not great, with finishes of 61 and 41. Both years I failed to catch a limit the first day but had a better second day so I had some optimism.

This river is just a place that I have struggled to find consistency at. It’s a tidal fishery that flows into the Atlantic Ocean so the water levels are rising and falling several times throughout the day. It’s also different from most Florida fisheries in that there is not a lot of vegetation, which is the primary habitat for bass in Florida. A hurricane in 2017 ripped up a lot of the vegetation, causing the water to get dark, preventing it from growing back.

Despite the relatively tough fishing, this body of water consistently kicks out some monster bass. In each of the past two years, the biggest bass of the season came from the St. John’s River – an 11-pounder in 2019 and a 10-pounder in 2020. Knowing that those big fish are out there keeps you motivated on every cast.

In preparation for this tournament I decided I needed to forget the places I fished in past visits and try to learn some new water. I spent two of my three practice days in Rodman Reservoir, a separate lake off of the river that we were allowed to lock into. A lock transfers boats from one body of water to another that are different levels. In the past I have always been against locking in tournaments because of the risks associated with missing the lock and not getting back to the weigh-in on time.
At an FLW tournament I fished on the Tennessee River back in 2016, about 60 anglers locked from Pickwick Lake up to Wilson Lake and were not able to get back to the weigh-in on time because a barge got stuck in the lock. They all received zero weight for the day. It was pretty crazy.

This lock doesn’t have any barge traffic and there were scheduled times that it was operating so I was comfortable with getting through.The only downside was in took about 20 minutes to get through each day so you lose some fishing time there. The appeal for me was getting away from the tide and the moving water on the river to where it was more traditional Florida fishing in Rodman.

I had a decent practice and felt confident that I would be able to catch a limit of fish each day and maybe get a shot at a big one. The first day of the tournament we had heavy fog in the morning, delaying the start of the tournament until after 10:00 AM, so we lost about three hours of fishing time. I decided I still had to go for it, even though I would only have about two hours of fishing time. My goal was to just make sure I caught my five fish to survive the first day. I had a spot that had numbers of fish on it and I was fortunate that it worked out and I caught a quick limit weighing 9-14 to land me in 40th place.

On day two I returned to Rodman, this time with about five hours to fish. I went back to the area I caught them the first day and caught a few smaller fish but it didn’t seem to be working so I went to another area that I had found in practice. I quickly started having more luck and by the time I locked back to the river I had a limit weighing 19-10, which bumped me up to 20th place and into the day three cut. The full field of 100 anglers fished the first two days, then the field is cut to 50 on day three and then to the top ten on the fourth and final day.  

Day three was tougher for me and my limit weighing 13-04 lead me to a 24th place finish to start the season. I am happy with the result after the past couple of years. I finished in the money and earned some good points towards the qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic.

We now have a week off before heading north to Tennessee for the next event on the Tennessee River. I’m spending a few extra days enjoying the nice weather down in Florida before getting back on the road. I’ve been following the weather around home the past week and hearing about it from my wife. I know it’s been awful but it looks to be getting better this week. Stay warm everybody!