PALATKA, Fla. — Bryan New launched his rookie season in blockbuster form by topping a stout field of well-established finalists and winning the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River with a four-day total of 79 pounds, 7 ounces.
Starting Championship Sunday in sixth place, New trailed Day 3 leader and rising star Patrick Walters by 5-7. Saving his best for last, New posted the event’s second-heaviest bag, 26-4, and edged Elite veteran Greg Hackney by a margin of 9-9. For his efforts, New earned $101,000.
New caught most of his fish out of lily pads, but he found a few keepers over main-river shellbars about halfway between Palatka and Dunn’s Creek, which connects to Crescent Lake. Targeting bars in about 5 to 7 feet, he fished a Berkley Warpig lipless crankbait in the bleeding shiner color with a slow yo-yoing technique.
“That wasn’t a winning-fish deal, but without those fish, I don’t win this tournament,” New said.
The pads that produced the bulk of his weight were located at the lower end of Lake George. Fishing 5-inch black and blue Zoom Zlinky worms Texas-rigged on a 5/0 Berkley Fusion hook with a 1/8- and 1/4-ounce weights, New said he focused on isolated pads.
“I fished dense pads too, but I definitely liked the sparse pads for multiple reasons,” he said. “First, on an isolated target, it’s easier to pick out where the fish are sitting and they have more light penetration. That’s important for the spawning fish I was targeting.”
The key, New said, was a meticulous presentation that maximized every aspect of his target area.
“You don’t just have one target on each cast; sometimes you’ll have 10 targets on each cast,” he said. “You can feel the sweet spots. You can feel a little rough patch on the bottom where there’s a bed or you can feel the hard spot of the root. Sometimes, you can even feel a little depression.
“I’ve always heard that slow and steady wins the race,” New said. “That’s not always my style, but I can do it.”
New caught good numbers the first three days. Day 1, which was shortened by a three-hour fog delay, yielded 12 pounds and put him in 22nd place. The second day, he added 20-3 and rose to ninth before securing his Championship Sunday berth with a Day 3 limit of 21 pounds, which pushed him up to sixth.
Following the Day 3 weigh-in, New said he’d approach Championship Sunday focused on getting the big bites. On Sunday, he caught four in the 5-pound class and another over 4.
New qualified for the Elites by winning the Falcon Rods Bassmaster Opens Angler of the Year title, an accomplishment that began with a win at his first 2020 tournament — the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on Florida’s Kissimmee Chain.
Before the St. Johns event began, New stated that his 2021 goals included winning Bassmaster Angler of the Year — not only Rookie of the Year — and winning the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, which is set for June 11-13 on Lake Ray Roberts.
New summarized his Elite debut: “I have a pretty good start!”
Hackney committed his tournament to fishing cypress trees on Lake George’s east side. He caught 12-7 on Day 1 and placed 19th and then rose to third on Day 2 by adding 22-10. He’d improve to second on Day 3 and held that final position with weights of 23-6 and 11-7.
Returning to the Elites after a two-year break, the Gonzales, La., pro caught all of his fish on a junebug-colored Strike King Rage Bug rigged on a 5/0 Hack Attack Flipping hook with a 1/4-ounce Tour Grade Tungsten weight.
“There’s not any cover left in the lake (2017’s Hurricane Irma killed the eelgrass) and this was one of the few areas that had enough depth and enough protection from the elements for those lake fish to spawn on.
“There’s only a handful of docks and cypress trees in the lake and I spent one whole day in practice fishing all the way around (Lake George). I knew this was the area of the lake where the biggest population of fish lived and I knew where they used to spawn. I just looked for anything that was close by.”
Seth Feider of New Market, Minn., finished third with 69-6. He turned in daily weights of 8-3, 18-8, 25-8 and 17-3.
Derek Hudnall of Denham Springs, La., and Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho, split the event’s Phoenix Boats Big Bass award of $1,000 for their 9-pound, 8-ounce fish. Hudnall won $1,000 for the big bass of Day 1, while Palaniuk claimed the Day 2 award. Wes Logan of Springville, Ala., won the Day 3 award with his 8-8 and New won the Day 4 award with his 5-14.
2020 Bassmaster Classic champion Hank Cherry of Lincolnton, N.C., took home $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program, and Cliff Prince of Palatka, Fla., earned $2,000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
The AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River was hosted by the Putnam County Tourist Development Council and Putnam County Chamber of Commerce.