WADDINGTON, N.Y. — For the past three days, Cory Johnston has mentioned saving certain fish he’d previously located for when he needed a big bite. On Saturday, he started with a trio of those difference-makers and took over the Day 3 lead of the Farmers Insurance Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River with a three-day total of 68 pounds, 10 ounces.
Hailing from Cavan, Canada, Johnston tied his younger brother Chris for second place on Day 1 with 23-7. He added 22-2 on Friday and slipped to third before moving into the top spot with Saturday’s limit of 23-1. Heading into Championship Sunday, Johnston leads Alabama pro Justin Atkins by 12 ounces.
Johnston said the smallmouth he targeted first were bed fish in about 8 feet. Picking off three solid keepers in short order gave him an early cushion and allowed him to “go fishing.”
“I fished a lot of shallow stuff today — 15 feet or less,” Johnston said. “Every spot was different; some were rock, some were sand, some were weed. It was a mix of everything.
“The strategy was: hit as many spots as you can and hope you get the right ones to bite.”
As he’s done the first two days, Johnston said he fished multiple spots throughout a 90-mile stretch from the take-off area to Chaumont Bay outside the mouth of the St. Lawrence. He caught his fish on a drop shot with an 8- to 10-inch leader.
“I had a limit by the noon hour,” Johnston said. “I upgraded a little bit, but not much. I didn’t want to burn too many fish.”
Essential to his execution was Johnston’s use of a Flogger — a cone-shaped device with a clear, flat screen that sits at the water’s surface and allows him to view details below. Similar to looking through a dive mask, without the submersion, the Flogger provides key perspective that aids in presentation.
“It shows you your bait, it shows you where the fish is and it shows you the sweet spot,” Johnston said. “You’re seeing how the fish reacts to your bait. I can catch them eventually, but it just speeds up the process.”
Looking ahead, Johnston said he’ll follow a game plan similar to the one he employed Saturday.
“I’m excited to get back out there tomorrow; I left a few out there,” Johnston said. “I probably could have culled a few more times, but I’m trying to play the game and save as many fish as I can.
“I should have three good ones saved for tomorrow and then I’m going to have to go fishing. I’m hoping for 23 pounds tomorrow; that’s my goal. I think if I got 23 I’d be hard to beat.”
Hailing from Florence, Ala., Atkins is in second place with 67-14. After tying Gerald Swindle for eighth place on Day 1 with 21-6, Atkins added 22-14 and rose to fifth. On Saturday, he weighed 23-10 and gained three more spots.
Spending his day in Lake Ontario, Atkins targeted a range of spots he’d previously fished along with a few new areas. One of his new spots yielded a 5-pounder.
Atkins caught his fish on a drop shot with a Berkley MaxScent Flat Worm and a 1/16-ounce brown Marabou jig. The latter also benefitted from the MaxScent appeal.
“I’m cutting a piece of a MaxScent The General (stick worm) and threading it onto the hook of the jig,” Atkins said. “That adds bulk to the Marabou, but I’m using a piece that’s even with the bottom of the feathers, so the fish can smell it and taste it when they bite.
“Those fish are really bad about just nipping at the Marabou jig and not getting it. I use a really limber rod, so you can tell when they get it. I think with a little bit of MaxScent on that jig, it helps them get it.”
Chris Johnston, of Peterborough, Canada, is in third place with 65-11. The first Canadian to win an Elite title at last year’s St. Lawrence River event, Johnston added 19-6 to his first two days’ weights of 23-7 and 22-14.
“I caught four of my five in the river today,” Johnston said. “I lost a big one in the lake and I lost a big one in the river — that hurt.
“I was targeting the transitions of sand patches and grass in 15 feet or less. Sometimes, you’d pull up to a spot and there’d be five or six fish there and sometimes, it would be a ghost town. They move a lot, so you’re just hoping to run into them on that stuff.”
Johnston caught his fish on a drop shot, a wacky-rigged 4-inch Senko and a 1/8-ounce black Marabou jig.
Patrick Walters of Summerville, S.C., leads the Phoenix Boats Big Bass standings with a 6-5 caught on Day 2.
Josh Stracner of Vandiver, Ala., won the Rookie of the Year title with 547 points. Edging fellow Alabama pro Justin Hamner (536), Stracner said he focused on maintaining a strong mental game, even when his chances of winning the ROY title appeared bleak.
“Just keeping my head screwed on right was probably the biggest key,” Stracner said. “I held my own the first part of the season, but at the halfway point, I kind of got behind. Going into (Lake Champlain) last week, I was in fifth place and all I was worried about was making the Classic.
“Today, I did both; I made the Classic and got Rookie of the Year. It’s pretty hard to believe.”
Sunday’s takeoff is scheduled for 7 a.m. ET from Whittaker Park. The weigh-in will be held at the park at 3:15 p.m. The Top 10 remaining anglers will be vying for a $100,000 first-place prize.
Live coverage can be streamed on Bassmaster.com and the FOX Sports digital platforms. FS1 will also broadcast live with the tournament leaders beginning at 8 a.m. ET.
The Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River is being hosted by the Village of Waddington and St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. This tournament is supported by a Market New York grant from I LOVE NY/New York State’s Division of Tourism awarded as part of the Regional Economic Development Council initiative. The tournament and all associated festivities are being planned to ensure the safety of anglers, marshals, staff and fans.