By Todd Ceisner
It's good to be Chris Johnston these days.
Last month, he caught the biggest stringer of the tournament at the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour, a 28-07 haul on day 2 that spurred him to a 10th-place finish, one spot behind his brother, Cory.
Last week, he rode a 25-07 bag on day 2 into the lead of the Harris Chain of Lakes Tour stop and never looked back in sewing up the first FLW victory of his career. He left the Sunshine State with a two-point lead in the Angler of the Year standings. It wasn't easy, though
"Things are going right and fishing is so much a mental game," Johnston said. "I have confidence in what I'm doing and I hope to keep this momentum going into the spot lakes because there will be some jerkbait fish there."
Ah, yes. The jerkbait. Some may think a jerkbait and hydrilla-infested Florida lakes aren't a match, but they certainly paired up nicely at Harris, where hydrilla has sprouted up like few have seen before. It was certainly part of Johnston's winning game plan along with a vibrating jig and lipless crankbait at Lake Harris, where he triggered reaction bites along hydrilla edges.
"There was nothing like this last year," Johnston said. "From what I'm told there's never been hydrilla like this in the lake. The whole basin has it in 12 feet with clumps everywhere. I think the fish are spawning and heading right back out to the hydrilla. They're not hanging out in the pads."
Here's how the Ontario native captured the win in Florida.
Despite ideal conditions with rising water temperatures, Johnston found practice largely a struggle. Never during the lead-up to the tournament did he think he had uncovered the winning spot or figured out a milk run that could lead him to be a contender.
"Not all," he said. "I had a tough practice. My biggest fish was a 3 1/2-pounder."
After three days' of practice, he figured his best bet was to start the tournament in Lake Griffin, a lengthy jaunt from the start point in Lake Harris involving locks and idle zones.
"It was the most consistent there for me," he said. "I was thinking I could catch 15 to 18 pounds there."
> Day 1: 5, 19-13
> Day 2: 5, 25-07
> Day 3: 5, 16-12
> Day 4: 5, 17-06
> Total = 20, 79-06
Johnston was in one of the later flights Thursday and opted to start in Lake Harris, rather than Griffin.
He caught a couple small keepers, then watched his co-angler land a 6-pounder as he waited for the lock to Griffin to become available.
"On the next spot, I caught a 3," he said. "I didn't work the grass edges hard, but it turned out there were so many fish there. There were a lot of boats in practice around so I didn't want to work them too hard."
Once he got into Griffin, he picked off a 4-pounder and a 5-pounder, both off beds, with a prop bait. He came back to Harris to finish the day, but lost a good one along a new edge of hydrilla he'd found. It was an "ah ha" moment for Johnston, who wound up with 19-13, good enough for 12th after day 1.
With a shorter day on Friday, he stayed in Harris all day, specifically around where he lost the big fish on day 1, and did all of his damage with a jerkbait and a lipless crankbait as he began to learn more how the fish were using the hydrilla. He pinpointed an indentation that created a horseshoe-shaped cutout where baitfish would congregate.
"That was the juice for days 2 and 3," he said. "It had a distinct edge to it and the fish were off the edge more in open water and the bait was in the pocket. You didn't have to be right on the line to catch them."
His 25-07 stringer on day 2 included an 8-06 kicker and a 6-pounder as he catapulted himself into the lead.
"The jerkbait got some good fish and that's what I started with each day because I could see all kinds of fish suspending and going under the boat," he said. "Once the jerkbait slowed down, I would throw the lipless and let it sink to the bottom and yo-yo it. I caught some good fish doing that. I feel like some of the big ones were a little closer to the bottom and didn't want to come up and chase the jerkbait."
On Saturday, he coaxed a limit early on and had the balance of the day - again in Harris - to upgrade, but nothing significant materialized. Late in the day, he happened upon a shad spawn in some hydrilla and capitalized on a small upgrade with a vibrating jig. What was nearly a 3-pound lead after day 2 had been reduced to 14 ounces entering the final day.
He knew he was relying largely on timing and the luck of being around or within eyesight of a spot when fish came up to feed on the shad. One of the spots that produced for him, especially on day 4, had grass that was 8 feet tall in 10 feet of water.
"The fish would get on top of the grass and that's where I threw the vibrating jig," he said. "It was different, though. The fish were in wolf packs on top of the grass. You might see a white bass come up and if you got to that area and made some casts, you could catch a couple. If you caught a largemouth, you could catch five or 10 of them. They were all grouped up.
"Where the hydrilla would come up to 8 feet, a little ways down it would up to 6 feet and the fish would sit in those pockets and wait for the shad to come over top of them and fire them up," he said. "I had to get lucky and see them bust or fish around and get them fired up. Anywhere I had some bites, I expanded the areas a little more."
He encountered three flurries on Sunday and he capitalized to the tune of 17-06 to close out the win.
"It wasn't a great day of fishing," he said. "I wasn't catching them all day or on a pattern. I was just hoping they'd get fired up."
Winning Gear Notes
> ChatterBait gear: 7'5" heavy-action G. Loomis NRX casting rod, Shimano Metanium MGL casting reel (7.4:1 ratio), unnamed 20-pound fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Z-Man/Evergreen Jackhammer vibrating jig (white), Jackall Rhythm Wave 4.8 (golden shad).
> With the lipless, Johnston said it was difficult to reel it through the hydrilla, so he used a yo-yo presentation to target fish holding tighter to the bottom. "It imitates a dying shad," he said. "On day 2, I caught one on my first cast with it, lost one on my second cast and caught an 8-pounder on my third cast."
> Jerkbait gear: 7'1" heavy-action G. Loomis GLX crankbait rod, same reel, same line as lipless, unnamed jerkbait (shad pattern).
> The jerkbait he used would dive 4 to 5 feet along the edges and trigger the fish that were out roaming along the edge of the grass.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success - "Being versatile. I didn't have one pattern set in stone. I did something different on three of the four days. I had to go with the flow and do what I could to get some bites."
> Performance edge - "My Garmin electronics. You couldn't find those edges without them. I was driving 45 to 50 miles per hour looking and when I'd find them, I would stop and fish them. Finding those areas was key."
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