By Todd Ceisner
It’s been a pretty good season for Cory Johnston so far. It could get really good over the next three weeks.
That’s his hope, at least, as the Ontario angler prepares to embark on a three-week tournament bender that will take him to the heart of Arkansas for a $300,000-to-win championship event next week, then to New York for the resumption of the Elite Series schedule with back-to-back events at the St. Lawrence River and Cayuga Lake as he continues to pursue an Angler of the Year title in his first year on the circuit.
“The next three weeks are probably the three biggest weeks of fishing in my career,” Johnston said.
It’s hard to detect any hyperbole in Johnston’s voice as he expressed how important the upcoming stretch is to him. On one hand, he has a chance to win the Forrest Wood Cup, the marquee event for FLW, which saw a number of Tour anglers jump to the Elite Series following the 2018 season as part of a wholesale reshuffling of the angler ranks triggered by the launch of the Bass Pro Tour. Johnston and his brother, Chris, were among those who opted to align with the Elite Series after three years on the Tour.
On the other hand, Johnston has the rare opportunity to fortify his place in the chase for the Elite Series AOY title with two tournaments as close to his wheelhouse as they can get. He currently sits third in the standings, trailing leader Drew Cook by 12 points.
“I want three top-10s. That’s my goal, especially the St. Lawrence and Cayuga,” Johnston said. “Then let the rest of the season fall where it falls. If I can get a top-35 at Fort Gibson (in September), then I’ll take my chances at St. Clair (in the AOY event).
“I’ve been really concentrating on St. Lawrence and Cayuga. I want to win one or both since they’re the two closest lakes we’ll probably get to fish this close to the border.”
The Johnston brothers have recorded numerous victories across various circuits on the St. Lawrence River and in the 1000 Islands area, including the two-day B1 Open in mid-July when they caught 52.94 pounds in the river. Sandwiched around that triumph were two victories at Lake Simcoe, giving them three wins in the six weeks since the last Elite Series event at Lake Guntersville.
“We fish Simcoe how we fish the St. Lawrence,” Johnston added. “It’s how we cut our teeth smallmouth fishing. It’s the same kind of water without the current, so that helps with techniques and stuff like that.”
After the St. Lawrence, it’s on to Cayuga, which has hosted two previous Elite Series events. Johnston has not made a cast there before, but he visited it briefly and got the sense it lays out much like some of the Kawartha Lakes near his home outside of Peterborough, Ont. Those lakes aren’t near as deep as Cayuga, but the vast grass flat at the north end should put Johnston in his element.
“Our lakes are roughly 20 feet in the middle, but they’re all grass and milfoil and rock,” he said.
Cup Was Question Mark
Johnston departs today for Hot Springs, Ark., which is hosting the Forrest Wood Cup for the second straight year and the fifth time overall. He admitted the Cup has not been first and foremost in his mind lately. It will be, however, once he arrives in Hot Springs and the four-day practice session gets started on Sunday at Lake Hamilton. The three-day tournament begins next Friday.
“I’ll get there Saturday and that’s when I’m going to start to get my head with the program and try to figure out Hamilton,” he said.
Johnston, who qualified via the FLW Series Championship last fall (he was the highest-finishing representative from the Northern Division), revealed that he considered skipping the Cup altogether in an effort to focus more on preparation for the St. Lawrence River and Cayuga Lake Elite events. Practice for the St. Lawrence River event begins Monday, Aug. 12, the day after the final day of competition at the Cup.
“My plan is if I botch day 1 (at the Cup), I’m packing up and heading out at 4 a.m. Saturday morning,” he said. “Practice at the St. Lawrence is so important to me. You have to practice there. If you want to win, you have to know all the areas that have fish on them. We’ll see how the Cup goes. I’m still going to put my time in and try to figure it out, but if it doesn’t work out, I’m hitting the road.”
Ready To Be Busy
During his three-year stint on the FLW Tour, Johnston had more triple-digit results (four) than top-15 finishes (three). This year, however, he’s been able to avoid those bombs. Granted, the FLW Tour field size is roughly twice that of the Elite Series, but in six Elite Series events, he has made five top-35 cuts and three top-10s. Two of his top-10s came at tidal fisheries – the season opener at the St. Johns River and later at Winyah Bay – that he seemed to solve with relative ease.
“At the St. Johns, there wasn’t a lot going in practice because they were pre-spawn, but we knew they were coming because we were having a warm front,” he said. “We looked for where they were going to go in hopes that what we thought would happen would happen. Sure enough it did. We read the water right at that one.
“At Winyah, I was worried because there were not a lot of fish there. I chose to stay way up the Cooper River and put all of my eggs in one basket. Luckily, it worked out.”
After a lengthy layoff since the last Elite Series tournament, Johnston is revved up to get back into the swing of things.
“People don’t realize we’re fishing every weekend. We’re almost on the water every day,” he said. “I kind of like the back-to-backers, especially on the northern lakes, because you can get in a groove and carry one technique on to the next lake if they’re not too far away. Obviously, the St. Lawrence and Cayuga are not like that, but I’m looking forward to the back-to-back.”
Based on their history of success there and its proximity to home, Johnston and his brother will be overwhelming favorites to prevail at the St. Lawrence. He’s well aware of the expectations others might place of them, but it’s not something he or Chris worry about too much.
“You can’t really think about it,” Cory said. “You just do what you can do. That’s my biggest thing – just go fish your strengths. You can’t worry about people following you and all that. Just try to catch the five biggest ones you can every day.”