By BassFan Staff
When it comes to smallmouth fishing up north, few are better than Chris Johnston. He's getting pretty good at catching largemouth down south, too.
After seeing his lead shrink to less than a pound on Saturday, Johnston bounced back with a 17-06 stringer today to clinch the first FLW Tour win of his career at the Harris Chain of Lakes in central Florida. He's the second Canadian angler to win a Tour event and he edged fellow Ontario native and close friend Jeff Gustafson by just over 2 pounds for the title - using a bait Gustafson gave him Saturday night.
Johnston targeted offshore hydrilla in Lake Harris and finished with 79-06 while Gustafson tallied 77-00, including a stout 21-03 on the final day.
Johnston had 19 top-10 finishes in FLW events prior to this week, including five in Tour competition. The 2016 Tour Rookie of the Year kicked off the year with a 10th-place finish at Lake Okeechobee and finished off the Florida swing in style. He'll carry a two-point in the Angler of the Year standings into the next event at Lake Lanier in two weeks.
"I've been close to winning Costas and Tour events, but the final day has been a curse for me," Johnston said. "I'm so glad to finally break this curse."
And to finish 1-2 with a good friend made it even sweeter.
"You couldn't ask for anything better," he added. "We're buddies and we're going to go home happy to the snow and ice. It's a vacation for us to come to Florida so to finish 1-2, what more could we ask for."
John Hunter made a final-day push up from 10th to 3rd behind a 21-11 stringer that gave him 75-13, punctuating his best finish as a Tour or Elite Series competitor. Glenn Browne slipped a spot to 4th after bagging 15-00 to close with 73-15.
Buddy Gross moved up one spot to snag 5th, thanks to a 14-09 limit that pushed his total to 69-15.
Here's a look at how the balance of the top 10 finished up:
6. Matt Greenblatt: 69-01
7. Tony Dumitras: 68-08
8. Kurt Dove: 67-00
9. Jared McMillan: 66-05
10. Anthony Gagliardi: 65-01
The competitors had near-perfect conditions again today and the lakes around the chain didn't disappoint. There were 29 bags over 20 pounds caught during the event and the consensus was the fishing was eons better than it was last year, largely due to the amount of offshore hydrilla that's now available on Lake Harris. In addition, bed-fishing opportunities were available, but it was the deep hydrilla that ultimately held the winning fish this week.
The Tour takes a week off before heading to Lake Lanier in Georgia for its third event of the season March 8-11.
Johnston lifts a keeper into the boat on Sunday.
Johnston Put Gustafson's Bait To Work
> Day 4: 5, 17-06 (20, 79-06)
Johnston had a good supply of vibrating jigs heading into the final day, but the reason he asked Gustafson for the white one he had was the heavy-duty components it had. Johnston didn't want to risk a fish getting away if it got hung up in the thick and heavy hydrilla. Gustafson, a trusted confidant, didn't hesitate to hand it over.
"I had some other ones, but I was worried about the swivel opening up on what I was using," Johnston said. "I also went from 16- to 20-pound line because of the hydrilla. When you had a 3- or 3 1/2-pounder in the hydrilla with the all that grass, you're leaning on them pretty good."
As it happened, the white Z-Man/Evergreen Jackhammer vibrating jig wound up catching the upgrades Johnston needed today to fend off a rally from Gustafson. For much of the tournament, the flow of information (and tackle) was a two-way street between Johnston and Gustafson.
"After day 2, when I weighed that big bag, I told him he might want to try a jerkbait on some of his spots," Johnston said, cluing his friend into what helped him catch a tournament-best 25-07 on Friday. "It's not like we tell each other 'Go to this spot.' If he's struggling, I'll tell him what to try or vice versa. There aren't too many people I'd do that with, but he's one of them."
Johnston's day started with a 3-pounder and a couple small keepers caught on a jerkbait and a lipless crankbait on a spot that had been a reliable spot all week. He added a couple 3-pounders off his second spot and had 13 pounds by about 9:30. He tried some other areas with no luck before returning to his second spot around noon.
"I stopped about 500 yards short of where I'd been fishing and I looked over and saw a swirl and saw it was good-sized bass," he said. "I fired a long cast out there with a ChatterBait and a 4-pounder knocked about 2 feet of slack in my line."
He landed that one, then sorted through about nine more bites, including a 4-pounder and a 3 1/2 that helped him cull all but one of his fish. He didn't upgrade again after 12:30.
"I had three hours to try for a kicker, but I couldn't get another upgrade," he said. "It wasn't a great day catching them and it wasn't like I was on a pattern. I was just hoping they'd get fired up. It was a little different tournament in that sense."
When he got back to shore to prepare for weigh-in, he didn't like his chances of winning.
"I never thought I had enough," he said. "I was surprised when I got in when people came down to the beach and told me it was going to be close between me and Gussy. I was thinking I needed a kicker bite to have a chance."
Jeff Gustafson had no regrets about today.
2nd: Gustafson Glad Slump Is Over
> Day 4: 5, 21-03 (20, 77-00)
After an 87th-place showing at Okeechobee, Gustafson said it felt good to be in the mix for the win.
"I had a really good derby," he said. "I missed a few bites, but never lost any I had hooked. The last two days went as good as they could go without getting lucky on a big fish. It's super hard to win one of these and you don't get these opportunities that often. I'm glad my buddy won.
"I'd been riding such a slump that I'd have been glad with a 60th. I'm hoping this gets me back on track."
It's his first money finish since Lake Travis last February.
He had a flurry early on today to break the ice, but encountered a few lulls while targeting edges and holes in hydrilla in Harris with a Z-Man/Evergreen Jackhammer vibrating jig.
"My plan worked pretty good the last couple days," he said. "It was a grind out there and I was prepared for that. There were a couple lulls and, honestly, I think that deterred people from committing to fishing offshore in Harris.
"I've gotten beat down here so many times and I knew I could go to the bank and catch fish, but I'd only catch 9 to 11 pounds. That's what I did last year and I knew coming back that's not what I wanted to do."
His only regret was not spending a little more time on a spot today that had produced a few big fish for him during the tournament.
"I had one stretch where I'd caught three big ones, but it's hard to fish there because it wasn't a numbers spot," he said. "You could do it for an hour and maybe catch one. Deep down, I knew one more big one would've given me a shot at it. Maybe I should've spent my last couple hours on that spot. That's where I had the most confidence to catch a 6-plus, but you can't expect those bites. I could've caught it anywhere."
3rd: Hunter Rallies From 10th
> Day 4: 5, 21-11 (20, 75-13)
In two years on the Elite Series, Hunter collected two paychecks. He's 2-for-2 already this season on the FLW Tour.
Working a jerkbait and vibrating jig above and along the edges of offshore hydrilla in Little Lake Harris, the Kentucky native roared up the leaderboard today, falling 3 1/2 pounds shy of completing a 10th-to-1st comeback.
John Hunter rode a 21-11 bag today to his best career finish.
"It feels good to get this one under my belt," he said. "I've never done well in Florida. I had the mindset to just survive. I got a check at Okeechobee (54th) and I just wanted to get through this one and be in good shape. I far exceeded my expectations."
He went out today with the notion that a 25-pound stringer could get win the win and ultimately that's what it would've taken.
"I'd gotten 25 pounds worth of bites on days 2 and 3 so going into today, I figured I'd get the bites. I just needed to execute," he said. "That's hard to do when you're playing in hydrilla with treble hooks. It has to be meant to be."
After a slow start, he caught a 4 1/2-pounder off a bed with a prop bait, then moved to deeper offshore grass with no success. He moved to some shallow grass and picked off a few small keepers with a jerkbait. He tallied a 3, a 3 3/4 and a 7-pounder with a vibrating jig.
"That when I realized I was one big bite maybe from winning," he said. "I fished hard all day and never did get another bite. I went back to the same area around the beds I fished earlier and had a 4-pounder do a cartwheel over it with three minutes left. All in all, I had an opportunity at it so I can't complain when I'm fishing on the final day and I'm within striking distance. When you're in Florida at a place like this that's in great shape right now, it's a great place to be 8 pounds back."
4th: Browne Caught What He Could
> Day 4: 5, 15-00 (20, 73-15)
There was a hint of disappointment in Browne's voice Sunday afternoon. He was confident he was around the kind of fish he needed to make up his deficit and then some on the final day. The big ones just never showed up, he said.
"I caught what I could," he said. "It was a good week as a whole. A 4th-place finish is always good, but I would've liked to have won it.
"I had a couple missed opportunities on day 1, but I had nothing else in the course of the week that would've made a lot of difference."
He spent all four days along the southwestern shore of Lake Apopka, which required 90 minutes to two hours of idling and lock time each way.
"For what I did and running a long ways, I got there and back with no issues so that's always a good thing," he said. "It's a risky run with the lock and a bunch of idle zones. The Dora (Lake) canal is a zoo on weekends with the pleasure boaters."
His catch numbers fell off by more than half today and his only theory as to why was that the fish were quick to move out away from the reeds and arrowheads after spawning.
"It just seemed like they vacated where I'd been catching them overnight," he said. "It still wasn't a bad bag. I feel like where I went had the potential to win. I felt like an 80-pound tournament was possible. On day 1, I didn't connect on everything and I fell a little short the last two days."
5th: One Big One for Gross
> Day 4: 5, 14-09 (20, 69-15)
Today was a much tougher day for Gross, especially after bagging 23-09 on Saturday, but he was beyond happy with a top-5 finish on the heels on a 140th-place showing at Okeechobee.
"I'm glad to be back. Making cuts feels great," he said. "I thought I had a shot to win, but I ran out of fish. I was on the right ones."
He focused mostly on an area in Lake Harris roughly the size of a football field loaded with hydrilla clumps. This morning, it produced a 6-pounder and a 3-pounder, but after it was a grind.
"It was 10 a.m. before my next bite, then it was 12-incher, 12-incher," he said. "I left my primary spot and went to some eelgrass and finished my limit, then came back to the hydrilla and caught a solid 2 1/2-pounder. After 12:30, I didn't get another bite."
> Day 4 stats - 10 anglers, 9 limits, 1 two.
> Casey Martin was the first Canadian-born angler to win an FLW Tour event when he won at Lake Chickamauga in 2013. He was an Alabama resident at the time.
1. Chris Johnston -- Peterborough, On -- 19-13 (5) -- 25-7 (5) -- 45-4 (10) -- 16-12 (5) -- 17-6 (5) -- 79-6 (20) -- $125,200
2, Jeff Gustafson -- Keewatin, On -- 17-15 (5) -- 17-9 (5) -- 35-8 (10) -- 20-5 (5) -- 21-3 (5) -- 77-0 (20) -- $30,100
3. John Hunter -- Shelbyville, Ky -- 13-6 (5) -- 21-9 (5) -- 34-15 (10) -- 19-3 (5) -- 21-11 (5) -- 75-13 (20) -- $25,000
4. Glenn Browne -- Ocala, Fl -- 21-3 (5) -- 20-8 (5) -- 41-11 (10) -- 17-4 (5) -- 15-0 (5) -- 73-15 (20) -- $20,000
5. Buddy Gross -- Chickamauga, Ga -- 15-1 (5) -- 16-12 (5) -- 31-13 (10) -- 23-9 (5) -- 14-9 (5) -- 69-15 (20) -- $19,000
6. Matt Greenblatt -- Port St Lucie, Fl -- 19-11 (5) -- 22-1 (5) -- 41-12 (10) -- 13-4 (5) -- 14-1 (5) -- 69-1 (20) -- $18,000
7. Tony Dumitras -- Winston, Ga -- 19-11 (5) -- 22-10 (5) -- 42-5 (10) -- 18-13 (5) -- 7-6 (2) -- 68-8 (17) -- $17,000
8. Kurt Dove -- Del Rio, Tx -- 19-4 (5) -- 16-5 (5) -- 35-9 (10) -- 19-6 (5) -- 12-1 (5) -- 67-00 (20) -- $16,000
9. Jared McMillan -- Belle Glade, Fl -- 17-2 (5) -- 17-7 (5) -- 34-9 (10) -- 20-11 (5) -- 11-1 (5) -- 66-5 (20) -- $15,000
10. Anthony Gagliardi -- Prosperity, SC -- 22-7 (5) -- 10-9 (5) -- 33-0 (10) -- 24-13 (5) -- 7-4 (5) -- 65-1 (20) -- $14,000