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Canadian Chris Johnston vying for US$100,000 Bassmaster Elite top prize


It was a productive opening day for Canadian Chris Johnston at the SiteOne Bassmaster Elite tournament.

The 31-year-old native of Peterborough, Ont., boated a five-fish limit of 27 pounds at Clayton, N.Y., on Thursday. That left him second overall just behind Paul Mueller (27 pounds, one ounce), who also the day's big fish (seven pounds, 13 ounces).

But it was Johnston who provided broadcaster ESPN2 with the day's top highlight. Roughly three seconds after Johnston set the hook, a chunky smallmouth bass — which tipped the scales at five pounds — literally jumped into his boat, to the amazement of the commentators.

Johnston's older brother, Cory, of Cavan, Ont., was 19th (19 pounds seven ounces) in the 86-angler field while Jeff Gustafson of Keewatin, Ont., stood 47th (16 pounds, six ounces). The top 40 competitors after Friday's session qualify for the second round Saturday.

The top-10 finishers Saturday will compete for the US$100,000 top prize Sunday.

Chris Johnston's productive start followed three practice days of scouting potential hotspots.

"Now is the fun part," Johnston said during a telephone interview. "I put in the work during the week trying to find them.

"What people see on TV is how much fun we're having catching fish but they don't see the three 14-hour days you put in trying to find them."

During the practice rounds, Johnston concentrated more on finding productive water than hooking bass. He opened the competition having pinpointed 10-to-15 potential fishing spots and expected to hit half on opening day.

"I'd like to try and save some (for Friday)," said Johnston, a full-time angler. "During practice, you're really looking for new water.

"If I'm getting multiple bites I'll even put a hook cover on so I don't sting them. No, I'm not catching a lot in practice."

Johnston is in his second season on the Bassmaster Elite circuit, which is the top level of pro bass fishing. He has finished in the money in 16-of-17 career events and last year qualified for the Bassmaster Classic, the loop's premier competition.

Johnston also competed in the Fishing League Worldwide (2016-18), registering 21 top-10 finishes in 65 career tournaments, including his first win in 2018. Johnston amassed nearly US$500,000 in overall purse money.

Johnston is still seeking his first Bassmaster victory but has two second-place finishes and earned over $170,000.

This tournament was originally scheduled for Waddington, N.Y., but was relocated to Clayton, N.Y., (about 105 kilometres southwest) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the event was held in Waddington, competitors were relegated to fishing the St. Lawrence River — a noted trophy smallmouth bass fishery — but with Clayton being located at the river mouth, anglers will also have the option of fishing the American side of Lake Ontario (Canadian waters are off-limits).

Johnston was open to fishing both bodies of water, but wished the Canadian side of Lake Ontario was open.

"Oh, if I could fish the Canadian side these guys would be in a lot of trouble, that's for sure," Johnston said with a chuckle. "I have a lot of water that I wish I could go over to and fish.

"From what I’ve experienced the last couple of years, there are giant fish in the river. The biggest pattern for me is I'm be fishing fairly deep, 20 to 40 feet, and using my electronics a lot to look for them then drop my bait near them."

Weather will also be a factor, and not just for its potential impact on the fish. Tournament fishermen often cover vast distances to hit as many productive areas as possible.

Johnston's 20-foot (6.09-metre) bass boat, equipped with a 250 horsepower engine, can not only cover water but also handle whatever Mother Nature throws at it. But Johnston must also take weather into consideration when figuring how much time he needs to reach the weigh station on time.

Johnston comes by his fishing passion honestly. There's are numerous lakes around Peterborough that offer top-notch fishing for a variety of species. Not surprisingly, many host tournaments.

"My dad was into competitive tournaments and I've been in a boat since I could walk," Johnston said. "I fished my first tournament when I was 11 years old and ended up winning it with my dad and I've been hooked on it ever since.

"When you're paying US$4,500 to get into a tournament, there's a lot on the line . . . a lot of stress but I wouldn't have it any other way when it comes to fishing."

When on the water, Johnston and his brother are competitors and rivals. But afterwards, they'll get together to talk about the day that was and what might lie ahead.

"We try to keep separate spots but we compare notes," Johnson said. "If I'm catching them in 35 feet of water I'll tell him to look at that.

"I want to beat him, for sure, for money and bragging rights. But if I don't win I'd like to see him win."

The Johnstons are also close with Gustafson, with the three sometimes travelling together.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly impacted the Bassmaster Elite series. Competitors are tested prior to each event and must complete daily health screenings.

In past years, anglers would share their boats with a tournament marshall but now ride alone, unless with a cameraman. And when catches are weighed, only one competitor waits at each water tank with his fish while others remain in their boats.

Everyone at the weigh-station must wear a mash and exercise proper social distancing. Fans are no longer permitted to watch.

But those measures haven't negatively impacted the goodwill and comradery among competitors.

"We keep our distance," Johnston said. "But we're all here and hanging out.

"It (pandemic) has thrown a curve into things but we're back fishing, all is good and everyone is happy."


This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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