Sumrall smashes big limit for Day 1 lead at Bassmaster Elite Series event on St. Johns River

PALATKA, Fla. — A little bit of water can make big things happen. Leveraging that logic, Caleb Sumrall sacked up a massive Day 1 limit of 28 pounds, 8 ounces to lead the MAXAM Tire Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River.

“That was the best day of fishing in my life,” the pro from New Iberia, La., said. “I’m trying not to get too excited because I don’t know what’s left on my spot.”

Leading Cory Johnston of Otonabee, Canada, by 5-5, Sumrall said he fished in Salt Springs and focused on sight fishing for bedding bass. Notably, Sumrall had not initially intended to fish this area, largely due to his take-off order.

“I was boat 99 today, so I didn’t even start there because I figured it would be loaded with boats,” he said. “But when I got in there around 9 o’clock, there was just one boat in there. I rolled up in there and immediately got a bite, then got another bite. I culled about every hour.”

Typically, a late arrival on a key area relegates an angler to picking through the leftovers. Today, Sumrall benefitted from recent meteorological factors.

“What I think saved me was Wednesday’s practice was really windy,” he said. “I think the guys that were in there looking for fish couldn’t see them.

“The wind came in fluctuations today. I’m looking for the ones that are out a little farther. I think that was the key to catching a big bag.”

With an outgoing tide in the morning, Sumrall fared well by working with the falling water. His best action came in the afternoon, as he drew upon his Southern Louisiana tidal bass fishing know-how.

“I think the tide was key and I think a couple other guys that fished (in Salt Springs) didn’t key in on something specific,” Sumrall said. “Anytime you’re fishing for spawning fish on a tide, 6 inches (of water) over their head is a big deal.

“That can make them go to lock (onto the bed) and bite. There can be a window where those fish go to snapping. I really think that was key. From 11 to 2 is when I got some really good bites.”

Sumrall said he caught his bed fish by pitching a mix of Texas-rigged plastics. Patience, he said, was essential, but a couple of persnickety fish tested his resolve.

“I fished the slowest I’ve fished in my entire life,” he said. “I was just calm and in my zone and I got the bites.

“I worked on one fish for about two hours. Then, I switched to a Missile Baits 48 and on the first cast, I got her to eat it.

Sumrall said he’ll return to Salt Springs for Friday’s second round. He’s not sure what to expect, but the potential is too great to resist.

“I have to go back; it would be silly not to,” he said. “I have boat No. 5 (for Day 2) so I could be the first one in there. Today, I saw an 8-pounder and a 10.

“If the weather remains stable and the wind lays down, there’s the potential for a 35-pound bag — easily.”

Johnston is in second place with 23-3. Notwithstanding his well-documented northern prowess, which included a century belt for catching 100 pounds of smallmouth during his second-place finish at the 2022 Elite at the St. Lawrence River, Johnston said the St. Johns suits his background.

“I grew up fishing just like this — flipping reeds, flipping pads, flipping matted vegetation,” Johnston said of his youth, prior to smallmouth coming into prominence. “There were no smallmouth that played when I was younger, so I grew up fishing largemouth.”

Day 1 saw Johnston employing many of his early fishing lessons. His success required mobility and a diverse bait selection.

“I ran all over (the fishery) and checked a bunch of stuff,” he said. “I had a good bag by about 10 o’clock, so I ran back and covered a bunch of new water.”

Johnston said he got bit on reaction baits early and then switched to flipping later in the day. His targets varied from docks, to pads, to mats.

Wes Logan of Springville, Ala., is in third place with 22-0. Spending his day in the Little Lake George area, he fished various targets including shellbars, wood, pads and docks.

Catching his bass on mix of winding baits and flipping, Logan said the afternoon hours proved most productive.

“I lost some big fish earlier and I don’t know why they came off,” he said. “I don’t know if the sun helped, or maybe it was the tide changing, but later in the day, when they ate it, they ate it.

“I haven’t figured out the windows yet, but you can tell when they start biting. They’re really eating.”

Jake Whitaker of Hendersonville, N.C., is in the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with his 7-15.

Rookie Trey McKinney of Carbondale, Ill., leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year race with 391 points. Jordan Lee of Cullman, Ala., is in second with 347, followed by Cory Johnston with 334, Chris Johnston of Otonabee, Canada, with 324, and Tyler Williams of Belgrade, Maine, with 305.

McKinney also leads the race for Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year.

Friday’s takeoff is scheduled for 7 a.m. ET at Palatka City Dock & Boat Ramp. The weigh-in will be held back at the ramp at 3 p.m., with only the Top 50 anglers advancing to Semifinal Saturday.

Bassmaster LIVE will be streaming on all four days and coverage will also be available on FS1 Saturday and Sunday.

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