By Todd Ceisner
Everything Chris and Cory Johnston do is calculated.
From how they formulate a practice plan prior to a tournament to how they handle their finances, there’s a rhyme and reason to how the brothers go about their bass fishing business. It’s hard to find any fault with their arrangement judging by the amount of success they’ve had over the past few years.
Take, for instance, their decision to wait until this year to sign up for the FLW Tour. They probably could’ve made the jump a couple years ago, but they would’ve had to foot the majority of the entry fee and expenses tab out of their own pockets. They heeded the advice of fellow Canadian angler Jeff Gustafson, who’s fished the FLW Tour for a few years. Gustafson told them the Tour is a great circuit, but advised them to wait until they had enough sponsor support for it to make financial sense.
The wait is over.
The Johnston brothers, who hail from the Peterborough, Ontario, area will make their FLW Tour debut at Lake Okeechobee next week. After compiling impressive résumés up north, they’re ready to measure themselves against the cream of the crop. They'll join Gustafson and fellow Tour rookie and reigning All-American champion Curtis Richardson as Canadians competing this season.
“We’ve always tossed the idea around,” said Cory Johnston, who at 30 years old is 4 years Chris’ senior. “We’d looked at the schedule the last few years and this was the year to do it. There’s a tournament at Champlain. We know that very well. We fished Okeechobee last year and didn’t do overly well, but we learned a lot. Then there are the ledge lakes, which we get. It’s similar to graphing for smallmouth. The schedule sets up for us so we’ll see what happens.”
Added Chris, “Having done the (Northern FLW Series) last year, we’ve been wanting to do it the last couple years. We’ve been holding back because we want to be able to fish to win. Fortunately, we’ve accumulated some great sponsors for this year and now we can go for it. We don’t have to worry about fishing for a check or to finish 50th. We can fish to win.”
No Strangers to Success
The Johnstons won’t be the average Tour rookies. Despite being relatively young, they’re seasoned tournament anglers with plenty of experience and a long history of success.
The brothers have won the last two spring versions of the Sturgeon Bay Open, a prestigious team event which often attracts the top anglers from across the upper Midwest and Ontario. They’ve each also taken turns winning the Kingston Canadian Open with Cory capturing the 2011 and 2012 titles and Chris winning in 2013.
Last June, Cory captured the win at the James River Northern FLW Series, topping a field that included several Tour anglers and many local and regional standouts.
Last year, while Cory was busy toppling the field at the James River, Chris was going head-to-head with the Elite Series crowd at BASSFest at Kentucky Lake. He more than held his own with an impressive 13th-place finish.
At the time, he said playing the ledge-fishing game is very much like graphing structure in search of smallmouth. It was a valuable experience in that he got to measure himself against some of the best anglers in the world.
“It just showed me that they are no better at necessarily catching fish,” he said. “They may have more knowledge on that body or type of water, but it showed me I could catch them as good as those guys. It certainly helped my confidence outfishing some of those guys.”
Big Ones or Bust
Rarely do the Johnstons enter a tournament where both of them finish near the bottom of the standings. It’s a product of their preparation and expectation to contend for a win, born from their formative years when they watched their father compete in tournaments.
“Finding fish is the biggest thing,” Cory said. “We’ve had years of practice at it and we have a good grasp of what fish do at certain times of the year in Ontario. People think we only catch smallmouth being from Ontario, but we’re very versatile. We can catch them deep or shallow, largemouth or smallmouth. It doesn’t matter. We try to be good at a lot of things rather than great at one thing and not good with the others.”
The area around where the Johnstons grew up is a fisherman’s paradise. With a couple dozen lakes within a 30-minute drive of their home, they had endless options growing up, not to mention Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain nearby. Their father, Lynn, was an accomplished tournament angler and they spent a lot of time shadowing him on and off the water.
“Growing up, our (fishing) season was only four months long,” Cory said. “When it was fishing season, that’s all we did. We played sports, but we eventually gave up the summer sports so we could go fishing more. In the winters, we lived at the hockey arena pretty much.”
Cory fished his first tournament when he was 13 and Chris was 11 when he got his first taste of competition.
“We’re still young but we both have plenty of experience,” Cory added.
Neither Chris nor Cory is wired to compete for the sake of competing. They push each other to excel and that’s part of the reason why they’ve been so successful in bass tournaments.
“We’re not the kind of fishermen to fish for a check,” Cory said. “We swing for the win every time. If we don’t make a check, we don’t want it to hinder our next tournament. We’re programmed to fish to win.”
That mindset was shaped years ago as they grew up tagging along with their father.
“Dad would go out to catch five big ones,” Cory said.
Chris added, “It’s win or nothing. Back home, we’re usually fishing for $4,000 or $5,000 to win and then it drops off to maybe $1,000 for second. We’ve always went for it.”
The Johnstons operate a family automotive and industrial battery business in Ontario and they also run a snow-plowing business during the winter. Being able to comfortably leave behind their day jobs in trusted hands was a big factor in their decision to compete on the Tour this year.
“We’re real hands-on with the snow-plowing business,” Chris said. “With all the contracts and time management, that’s what was holding us back a little, but we were able to get some reliable people to help us out and they’ll look after it for us for now.”
The brothers have a joint bank account that’s devoted solely to their tournament fishing pursuits. Everything is split 50-50. The sharing doesn’t stop there.
“As far as information and waypoints and spot, we totally work together,” Cory said. “If one does well and one bombs, obviously the one’s who’s doing better will get the “A” water the next day. There’s no sense in both of us trying to do okay if one of us feels like he has a chance to win.”
“We want to try to find our own water separately,” Chris added, “and if we both have our own water and one’s in contention, then the other can say, ‘Hey, here’s some of the best stuff that I have.’”
They both feel this open sharing approach will be a big key when practicing for the Tour events.
“It’ll be a big advantage for us in practice,” Chris said. “Say there are four or five key areas on Okeechobee. On the first day, I’ll go to one and he’ll be in another. Either could be on or off. We can cover so much water that way. It’s basically like having 6 days on the water and you know you’re not getting false information.”