By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
The Johnston name is synonymous with tournament bass fishing success in Ontario, Canada. It didn’t just start with brothers Chris and Cory, who've hit the ground running since joining the FLW Tour in 2016. Their father, Lynn, is well known for his tournament exploits around the Peterborough area.
The Johnstons’ success in various Canadian tournament circuits is more impressive when you consider the range of venues the events are held on – from heavily-pressured inland lakes to jumbo-water fisheries like lakes Erie and Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Having the ability to break down how fish are positioned is a critical component to Chris Johnston’s success.
He embraces the challenge by trusting in his ability to navigate rough water while at the same time knowing how bass will react, move and position.
Embracing Rough Water
At times, one of the most challenge elements of tournament fishing is navigating rough water. Johnston has learned to take his time and arrive safely instead of busting his boat and gear up by rough-housing bumpy water.
Johnston prefers rough water because not only does it mentally eliminate a good percentage of the field, but the wind actually gets bass, especially smallmouth, active and makes their positioning more predictable.
“When you finally get there, the wind where we fish usually blows west or southwest,” he said. “That usually pushes more current and fish will be closer to bottom and more aggressive.”
While staying to top them can be a chore, the SpotLock feature on his Minn Kota Ultrex trolling motor makes it a cinch to hold on key structure. Should the wind switch directions, the rules change.
“An east wind goes against the current as smallmouth will suspend and not hold as tight to structure,” he added. “They might be 20 feet off it and trickier to catch because they’ll scatter.”
In such situations, he relies on a dropshot and shortens his dropper line, knowing that smallmouth hug the bottom. If they suspend 5 or 10 feet off the bottom, he’ll drop to them in the hopes of enticing a few to bite. Johnston much prefers a west wind, noting that bass are more likely to stay where he left them and are easier to trick into biting.
On a current-oriented fishery like the St. Lawrence River or the Tennessee River, Johnston prefers a stiff current because it will position bass in predictable areas.
“When it’s a strong current you can almost call your shots,” he said
Bass will sit in current seams waiting for baitfish to flow past. He likens the approach to trout fishing in streams.
“If you can get a seam where they are sitting and there isn’t much current, but 2 feet over the current is ripping, it’s your typical trout fishing,” he said. “They’ll be sitting in that eddy.”
In the absence of an eddy, as if he were fishing a damn, he’d look for big boulders like he did when he and Cory won the 2017 Berkley B1 Tournament at Salaberry-de-Valleyfield along the St. Lawrence.
“Those fish are stuck to bottom and you couldn’t even graph them,” he started. “You just throw your bait into the boulders and the smallmouth were sitting behind them.”
Any time he’s faced with heavy current, a Carolina-rigged Jackall Cover Craw is always a good choice as the heavy sinker will bounce along bottom a bit slower than the current is moving. Not only does that help to detect the bite, but it also keeps the sinker from getting snagged up.
Sunshine and Shallow
When Johnston is sight-fishing up shallow, he prefers high skies and sunshine.
Johnston has found that the sun makes smallmouth become more structure-oriented as they will hide on the bottom in the cracks of rocks while a largemouth will take shelter under a tree, log or a mat.
He’ll target deeper smallmouth first thing in the morning, especially if the fish are being pressured because they can shut down after the first hour. Once the sun comes out, he’ll be fishing shallow water by 11 a.m.
When the clouds roll in, smallmouth are more apt to roam around.
“I’m not a fan of fishing in overcast conditions because someone can get lucky throwing a spinnerbait where I’d rather call my shots,” Johnston said.
He knows that bass will position on the edge of cover, giving those who are just covering water a better chance at colliding with a big fish. Johnston says that largemouth use shadows like overhead cover as they would a weed mat.
At a local tournament he fished last year, he and Cory targeted a rock/weed edge along a shoreline that the sun was directly shining on. They saw one fish and couldn’t get a bite. That afternoon, once the sun had shifted angles and created shadows over the same spot, they caught three kicker largemouth along the same transition edge.
“It’s almost like they’re a mat fish where you put something in their territory and they’re going to eat it,” Johnston said.