Taking a tour of the St. Johns River with a professional guide

  • River guide Scooter Goodson of San Mateo heads out on the St. Johns River as part of a media boat tour during the final round of the Bassmaster Elite Series in Palatka.
    River guide Scooter Goodson of San Mateo heads out on the St. Johns River as part of a media boat tour during the final round of the Bassmaster Elite Series in Palatka.

The third time proved to be the charm.

An invite from B.A.S.S. for me to take part in a media boat trip during the recent Bassmaster Elite Series tournament turned into a quest.

It started as an idea to explore the St. Johns River with a guide who knew every bend and turn of the waterway, while also getting an opportunity to see some pro anglers in action.

Maybe I could get a photo of Rick Clunn hauling in another 9-pound bass as he did twice on the final day of last year’s tournament to claim a championship. Or maybe I could get some candid shots of local favorite Cliff Prince casting his way en route to what could be a storybook finish on his home waters.

But it didn’t work out that way. I was scheduled to go out with my guide, Scooter Goodson of San Mateo, on Feb. 6, the first morning of the event. Instead, I got a call from Scooter just before 7 a.m. to learn a wind advisory had postponed the first round.

Strike one.

We’d try again the next day, he said. We planned to meet at the boat ramp in Welaka last Friday morning. Again, the anticipation built for a morning on the river. Again, my phone rang just before 7 a.m. with news that winds had postponed the tournament for a second straight day.

Strike two. It was starting to sound like this was the one that got away.

I figured it wasn’t meant to be for me to be on the river for this tournament, or maybe at all. As regular readers of this column will recall, my first experience on the St. Johns was last fall in a canoe. I wound up in the river.

Come to think of it, I’ve never had a lot of luck on any river. When fishing, more often than not my casts seemed to land with the hook snagging a tree branch instead of a bass. Or there was a time or two when I thought I was reeling in a monster catfish that instead turned out to be an old boot.

Still, when B.A.S.S. communications manager Emily Harley said she had an open spot on Scooter’s boat Monday morning, I figured it would be worth another shot.

Third time’s the charm, right?

Finally, I met up with Scooter, this time at Palatka’s riverfront. Settled in the boat, he gave me an insider’s tour of the St. Johns. We cruised past Palm Port heading for Rice Creek. There was still a quest, which was to find Prince as one the 20 pros competing on the tournament’s final day.

It also turned into an educational experience, thanks to Scooter. He serves as a river guide for Norfolk Southern guests while also having his own guide service. The man knows the river.

As we looked for pros in Rice Creek, Scooter pointed to vegetation emerging from the water along the banks. “We don’t have a lot of vegetation left in the river,” he said. “Herbicides killed a lot of it and hurricanes took the rest.

“We still have some pennywort and lily pads, but no more eelgrass. They say it will come back. I don’t know.”

We continued our river journey heading next for Etoniah Creek. There was some more submerged vegetation, seemingly the perfect bed for a trophy bass. But still no pro anglers.

Then, Scooter got a call. Prince was on Crescent Lake.

“We’ll cruise up Dunns Creek to get there,” Scooter said.

We made our way back past Palatka’s riverfront and toward Crescent Lake. The quest continued for Prince while we passed a few anglers on the river.

As we slowed near the construction work at Dunns Creek, I had some questions for my guide. How much do the pros rely on technology to find the fish to put in their boat?

“They’ll have two or three big screens,” Scooter said. “If they don’t have it, they have no chance.

“But these guys are the best in the world at figuring out where to catch fish. They can come here and catch them when there are locals who still can’t figure it out.”

Moving past Dunns Creek State Park, Scooter pointed out Bear Island, where a shack and a small portion of a runway for small planes were visible.

Then we came to Crescent Lake, an enormous stretch of water glimmering on a sunny February morning. I learned more about the pro tournament, about anglers having to take polygraph tests to prove there was no cheating on their part. They weren’t allowed to use nets or do sight-fishing. Marshals accompany pros on their boats to monitor their catches.

I learned while they could use technology to find fishing holes, they couldn’t use any local information. If a Putnam angler offered a tip on where fish were biting and what they were biting, the pros couldn’t use that information. Thus, the polygraph test.

As we soaked in the sun looking for Prince, Scooter talked about fishing in some local tournaments with success. I asked him if he ever thought about turning pro.

“I’ve thought about it, but when you get to this level, it’s pretty much a year-round thing,” Scooter said. “I like to do more than fish. I’ve got an 11-year-old and a 3-year-old at home. It’d be tough to be gone all the time.”

Our time almost up, Scooter apologized for not being able to find Prince for me to have a photo opportunity.

I assured him that was no problem. And Prince did just fine without me watching him, catching 16 pounds to finish fourth in the tournament and string up $15,000 in prize money.

As we headed back, I soaked in the sun and enjoyed the view along the majestic St. Johns with my new friend. We arrived back at the riverfront dock and I thanked Scooter for his time and the river education.

He said I needed a boat of my own. “If you live here, you’ve got to be on the water,” Scooter said. I agreed. 

Turns out, the third time was the charm.


Wayne Smith is the editor of the Palatka Daily News. He can be reached at wsmith@palatkadailynews.com.