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Canadian Cory Johnston challenging for Bassmaster Elite angler-of-the-year honours


Consistency is really paying off for Canadian Cory Johnston.

The Cavan, Ont., resident has qualified for the final day of competition in four of the last five Bassmaster Elite tournaments, including a third-place effort Saturday at Santee Cooper Lakes in South Carolina. 

That result moved Johnston, 35, into second in the overall standings with 550 points, just 37 behind leader Clark Wendlandt with two events remaining.

A first-place finish will not only secure Johnston a second straight berth in the Bassmaster Classic — pro bass fishing's Super Bowl event — but also give him the coveted angler-of-the-year title and US$100,000 bonus.

"I practise every tournament to win it but at the same time in the back of my mind I'm thinking about the angler of the year and I have to catch a limit each day and just be consistent," Johnston said in a telephone interview. "There's the Classic, there's winning a tournament but the angler of the year is definitely one for the books.

"The money is great but it will get spent. That trophy, though, will last forever."

Bassmaster Elite events begin with over 80 anglers, with the top 40 through the first two days advancing to the second round. After a third day of fishing, the top 10 anglers qualify for the final.

Tournament winners receive $100,000, with the second-place finisher securing $25,000. Third place is worth $20,000 with fourth through 10th earning $15,000.

Anglers also receive points based upon their finish. At season's end, the top-40 competitors qualify for the Classic, which will be held March 19-21, 2021 at Lake Ray Roberts, which is located about 16 kilometres north of Denton, Texas.

Johnston doesn't expect a fifth tournament final berth in six events to come easily. The next Elite Series competition begins Friday on Chickamauga Lake, a reservoir in Dayton, Tenn., that in 2019 reportedly recorded over 100 10-pound largemouth bass.

Trouble is, it's early fall and that means tough fishing conditions as the bass are in transition and generally scattered.

"It's the fall and it sucks," Johnston said. "There are big ones here but they're extremely hard to catch right now.

"The guy who can figure out something a little different in how he can catch 13-to-15 pounds a day will walk away with it."

Brandon Palaniuk claimed last weekend's Santee Cooper event with a four-day total of 72 pounds two ounces.

"You're still fishing areas where big fish are, they're just not eating," Johnston said. "You could get lucky and catch one, there's no doubt, but you've just got to get out there and find something different.

"I definitely need two top-20s, for sure, to have a shot at (overall title) if not two top-10s. But I like pressure and hate losing so I'm going to swing for the fences."

When the tournament ends for Johnston, he'll return home immediately as his wife, Kerrilee, is expecting their second child later this month. But he'll be back on the road shortly afterwards as the season finale is set for Lake Fork in Quitlam, Texas, on Nov. 5-8.

"It's always tough being away from home, especially when the little guy (son Jack) is almost three years old and he knows when you're away now," Johnston said. "My wife is home nine months pregnant and looking after everything so yeah, it definitely makes it tough.

"The nice thing about my family is they understand it's a job and it's what we have to do and so they're good with it."

Johnston is one of three Canucks on the Bassmaster Elite circuit. His younger brother, Chris, became the first-ever Canadian winner when he captured the tournament stop at the St. Lawrence River on July 26. Jeff Gustafson, of Kenora, Ont., finished ninth at Santee Cooper last weekend after landing a tournament-best 9.7-pound largemouth.

Gustafson stands 21st overall (483 points) while Chris Johnston is 35th (449) points. All three Canadians qualified for last year's Classic.

Cory Johnston's consistent stretch comes after opening the season finishing 55th and 68th in the opening two tournaments. Since then, his worst effort was 13th at Lake Guntersville in Scottsboro, Ala., on Sept. 30-Oct. 3.

"It's just fishing," Johnston said. "The first two tournaments of the year I just didn't get on them very well.

"The second tournament (at Alabama's Lake Eufaula), I found fish on the graph and just assumed them were all good fish. But when I went there during the tournament, they were all 2 1/2 pounders, there were no big ones. 

"Lesson learned and you move on. It's been good after that, I've been consistent and let's see if we can keep it rolling."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2020

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press