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Big-Water Expertise Carries Johnston to Win at Bassmaster Elite on the St. Lawrence River

There was never any question in Chris Johnston’s mind about what he needed to do.

Sur l’eau
Big-Water Expertise Carries Johnston to Win at Bassmaster Elite on the St. Lawrence River

Sitting a little more than 2 pounds off the lead on the final day of the Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence River, on a morning when a steady southwest wind was stacking up 6- to 8-foot waves on Lake Ontario, Chris Johnston never debated whether he should stay in the calm waters of the river or make the run into the big lake. To debate between staying and going would be to debate between winning and not.

So when Johnston’s boat number was called, he pointed his Ranger Z520L to the west, pressed the throttle down on his 250hp Mercury Pro XS and set a course toward Lake Ontario and his moment in history.

Johnston eventually weighed in 22 pounds, 12 ounces – the biggest limit of the day by nearly 4 pounds – for a tournament total of 97-8. He moved ahead of fellow Mercury Pro Team angler Paul Mueller by 1-10 to earn his first Bassmaster Elite Series victory and the first ever by a Canadian angler.

“I’ve watched Bassmaster my whole life, and even if you’d asked me three or four years ago, I didn’t think I’d be here in this position,” Johnston said. “It’s been surreal. I can’t even describe how cool it feels.”

Chris Johnston Mercury MarineJohnston was the only pro to break 20 pounds each day. He placed second on day one with 27-0 and held that position for two more days with weights of 24-12 and 23-0, trailing Mueller each day.

The difference-maker came on Sunday, when the relatively calm lake conditions of the first three days gave way to much rougher water. Many of the top 10 anglers who qualified for the championship round elected to stay in the St. Lawrence River.

Not Johnston. Tackling big waves and big challenges isn’t new for the Peterborough, Ontario, pro. As chronicled in the Dockline blog earlier this year, Chris and his brother, Cory, began preparing themselves for a monumental win like this from an early age.

Over the years, they developed a knack for big-water smallmouth fishing and extreme confidence in their abilities to navigate on the Great Lakes and manage their equipment in rough water. Backed with this confidence and knowing that Lake Ontario held his best opportunity to catch a winning bag on the final day, Chris committed to one key area with several rock piles in 20 to 50 feet of water along a 500-yard stretch.

“The biggest thing with the weather is just getting to your spot,” Johnston said of his safety-conscious navigation. “Once I got there, I just went upwind and drifted into the spot and then held on the spot as long as I could. Then I’d blow off the spot and do another drift."

Throughout the week, Johnston used several baits, including a tube, a Ned rig and a black hair jig. On Sunday, he caught his fish on a drop-shot with an upsized 3/8-ounce tungsten weight to help maintain the proper presentation in the waves.

The first two days saw Johnston plucking early keepers from a rocky point inside the river and then moving out to fish Lake Ontario rock piles in 20 to 40 feet of water. On Saturday and Sunday, he did most of his work in the big lake.

Johnston earned $102,000 for his victory. He also set a record for the heaviest four-day weight on the St. Lawrence River in the history of B.A.S.S. competition on the famed waterway. More importantly, he earned some redemption for the 2019 event on the St. Lawrence, which he led for three days before settling for the runner-up position.

“Finishing second last year makes this win all that much sweeter,” Johnston said. “I can’t wait to get home and celebrate with family and friends.”

Mueller finished in second place with 95-14. After leading the event for three days, he found the rough waters of Lake Ontario less generous on Sunday. In the championship round, he added 18-15 to his previous weights of 27-1, 25-1, and 24-13.

Nonetheless, it was an unforgettable week for the Naugatuck, Connecticut, resident. Mueller started the event by catching the week's biggest bass – a 7-13 smallmouth caught on day one. The bass was just 7 ounces shy of the New York state record and is the heaviest smallmouth ever caught in B.A.S.S. competition. That is a total of 746 tournaments and 54 years of competition.

Mueller’s giant bit at around 9 a.m. and gave him every inch of the heart-racing battle for which giant smallies are known.

“That fish fought as big as it was; it didn’t give up,” Mueller said. “I saw it and immediately knew it (would be) the biggest smallmouth I’ve ever caught in my life. When it’s your personal best, there’s more on the line than a fishing tournament. I wanted to land that fish because I’d never caught a 7 before.

“I said, ‘Just take your time with this fish.’ It bulldogged me. It gave me a run for my money, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on it. When I caught that fish, I was so nervous; I didn’t care about the tournament. When I saw it by the boat, I just thought I have to catch this fish; it’s the biggest smallmouth I’ve ever seen in my life. After I landed it, I said, 'My week is done. I’m good. Whatever happens, we are good.’”

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