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Photo by Seigo Saito/B.A.S.S.
PALATKA, Fla. — Paul Mueller’s crucial decision delivered a key fish on Championship Monday that propelled the Connecticut angler to a three-day total of 47 pounds, 6 ounces and what he described as a most unlikely victory at the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at Florida’s St. Johns River.
After grinding most of the day in Trout Creek, about 25 miles downriver from Palatka, Mueller called an audible and relocated to nearby 6-Mile Creek where he had found a key stretch of pads with 25 feet of water.
Punching this thick vegetation with a craw bait rigged on a 4/0 Strike King Hack Attack hook with a 1-ounce weight yielded a 6-11 bass — the day’s largest — that dramatically changed his outcome.
“That was the horse that brought me here, no doubt about it,” said Mueller, who earned $101,000 for his second career Elite Series victory. “A big bite is the best thing you can have on the final day. I knew I was leading, but I got off to such a bad start, throughout the entire day, I didn’t think I had enough.
“All day long, I never felt like I had a shot. It wasn’t easy today, but when it’s God’s will, everything works out.”
Mueller kept himself in contention throughout the event by remaining consistent. He placed second on Day 1 with 20-8 and took over the lead a day later by adding 16-2.
During Monday’s final round, Mueller fell short of a limit by one fish, but four bass that weighed 10-12 were enough to deliver the win by a 3-2 margin.
All three days, Mueller punched pads when he found sufficient water for prespawn staging fish to move into the cover. His punching bite consistently improved later in the day, as the week’s tide schedule brought higher water to the relatively shallow pads in the afternoon.
With wind advisories from the National Weather Service postponing the tournament’s official start by two days, B.A.S.S. officials shortened the event to three days total instead of four. The final day’s shorter schedule afforded Mueller a smaller window of the rising tide, so moving to the deep spot in 6-Mile Creek allowed him his shot at a big bass suspending beneath the cover.
He also caught fish on a 1/2-ounce green pumpkin Strike King Hack Attack swim jig with a junebug color Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw trailer.
Mueller, who finished 62nd at last year’s St. Johns Elite tournament, said he was pleased to fare better this time — particularly considering the significant difference between the mostly shallow Florida fishery and the deep, clear waters he considers his specialty.
“I don’t feel like this is a place that sets up to fish my strength,” Mueller said. “When I looked at this year’s schedule, there were tournaments where I said ‘I may have a chance to win that,’ and then there were tournaments where I thought: ‘Man, I just hope I have a good finish.’ This was one of them.
“This is not my style of fishing, so it’s amazing that I caught enough weight to win here.”
John Crews of Salem, Va., rose four spots to finish second with 44-4. Crews caught 16-13 on Day 1, 15-5 on Day 2 and finished with 12-2 on Monday. He earned $25,000.
Crews, who placed fifth at last year’s St. Johns event, caught his fish on a 1/2-ounce Z-Man Jackhammer ChatterBait trailed with a 3.5-inch Missile Baits Shockwave swimbait and a new Missile Baits Quiver worm, which he used on a drop-shot rig and wacky style. He anchored his day with a 4-13.
“Today, I could hardly get bit on anything slow; everything was on the reaction bait,” Crews said. “I used a bluegill-colored ChatterBait when it was cloudy, and then I switched over to a black and blue. I used a shrapnel-colored trailer — it’s kind of a bluegill color — with both.”
Day 1 leader Kelley Jaye of Dadeville, Ala., slipped a couple of spots to finish third with 41-10. With daily weights of 21-7, 14-3 and 6-0, Jaye earned $21,000.
The jerkbait guru mostly stuck with his signature technique, catching the majority of his fish on a Berkley Skinny Cutter. He also caught a Day 3 keeper on a Texas-rigged Berkley MaxScent General stickworm.
“Where I was fishing was like 6 to 7 feet when the water was up during practice, but it dropped down to 4 feet during the tournament,” Jaye said. “That Skinny Cutter doesn’t go very deep so it allowed me to keep off the bottom."
Kyle Welcher of Opelika, Ala., earned $1,000 for Phoenix Big Bass of the week with his 10-1 largemouth.
Mueller also took home $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program, and John Crews took home $2.000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
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