Jones extends Elite Series lead in third day of St. Johns River tournament

Hackney, Crochet go into finale in top five

Texas pro Alton Jones extended his lead in the 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series opener on Florida’s St. Johns River to just more than 9 pounds yesterday (March 17).

His 62-pound, 14-ounce total might seem insurmountable, but anything can happen in a tournament during huge sacks of bass are being caught.Proof that one bass can wipe out that lead is seen in the current big bass for the event, a 10-pounder weighed in Thursday by Gonzales’ Greg Hackney.

Todd Faircloth is second with 53-13 going into today’s finale, with Hackney in third with 51-3. Keith Combs is fourth with 48-7, and Pierre Part’s Cliff Crochet is in fifth with 48-6.

Only the top 12 are fishing today. Click here for full standings.

Jones is on the verge of being able to rewrite his own St. Johns River history. In March 2011, he led the Elite Series event on the St. Johns going into the final day. But Edwin Evers and Terry Scoggins stepped up their game, and Jones’ Day 4 catch was so-so. He finished in third place, his lead of 2-plus pounds not enough to carry him.

Is 9 pounds enough to ensure that this time he will win his first Bassmaster Elite Series event? No way, said Jones himself.

“That’s one bite here. I just have to make sure it’s me that gets that 9-pound bite,” added Jones, who has won five B.A.S.S. events, including the 2008 Bassmaster Classic.

Faircloth said any of the finalists could catch three or four big ones and knock Jones out. He wasn’t ready to even think he would be fishing for second place.

“I won’t say that, absolutely not,” Faircloth said.

The field was cut to 12 anglers for Sunday’s competition. The 12 will compete for a first prize of $100,000 and an instant qualification for the 2013 Bassmaster Classic. The pros also are vying for points that count toward the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award, postseason qualification and entry in the 2013 Classic.

Jones, who has been targeting the river’s bedding flats throughout the tournament, bagged 18-0 Saturday. He said his day started with a bonus, a 3-pounder at about 8:30, before the sun was high enough for him to see bass on beds, so he was blind-casting.

“The fish bit and pulled my Yum Dinger off on my first cast, but two or three flips later, I had it in the boat,” he said.

He filled out his five-bass limit, then found and caught what turned out to be the largest of the day for him, a 6-3. The bigger one allowed him to trade up from a 1 1/2-pounder in the livewell. Then another decent cull with a 4-pound fish bumped his weight up into leader material.

“That last one solidified what was already a good day,” Jones said.

His strategy for Sunday is based on precautions he took Saturday.

“I’ve been intentionally leaving the males,” he explained. “You don’t want to pluck those males, or there’s no reason for the (bigger) females to be there. There’s at least a dozen males in my area, plenty enough for one of the big girls to come to tomorrow.”

His strength on the St. Johns is how he stalks big spawners. “Stealth is a big part of my game, and I pride myself in catching fish others might deem uncatchable,” he said.

Faircloth weighed in 17-7 Saturday. The anchor was a 7-15 from an area he left, then returned to, the same place he had pulled a limit from earlier in the day. He mostly made long casts to holes in the grass that might hold spawners, but he wasn’t sight fishing, and he said he slowed down.

“I’m excited about what I figured out today. I’m going to settle down in that area tomorrow and expand on what I was doing,” said Faircloth, who finished fourth on the St. Johns in 2011, one spot behind Jones.

Hackney had 19-4 on Saturday, and Combs 19-10, the day’s two largest bags. A 9-9 by Combs was the biggest fish to hit the Saturday scales, but not enough to topple Hackney’s 10-9 of Thursday. If it holds, Hackney would collect the Carhartt Big Bass bonus of up to $1,500.

Jones’ Friday bag of 28-7 remains the frontrunner for the Berkley Heavyweight Award of the Tournament, a $500 bonus.