WADDINGTON, N.Y. — A patient approach to what Bernie Schultz described as a slow area rewarded the Gainesville, Fla., pro with a five-bass limit that weighed 25 pounds, 5 ounces to lead Day 1 of the Farmers Insurance Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River.
“I found a spot near where I fished last year,” Schultz said of his upriver area, near Chippewa Bay. “I haven’t seen another tournament boat in two years and I hope I don’t — unless it’s a camera boat.”
Schultz, whose best finish on the St. Lawrence was sixth place in 2013, described his spot as a flat approximately 200 yards long with depths of 3 to 8 feet. Starting on one end of the flat in practice, he quickly caught a 4-pounder, and by the time he’d completed his drift, he had another 4- and two 3-pounders.
“It’s a really good area and it’s protected,” Schultz said. “That’s what I like about it — it has everything the fish want and it has everything I need to fish, no matter what the weather does.
“There are numerous islands and I’m cradled right in the middle of them. I decided to start there today and it was a good call. It started quickly and I left them biting.”
Despite an impressive performance, which included the day’s Phoenix Boats Big Bass — a 6-2 — Schultz said the spot he fished required such a laborious effort that he believes most anglers would have abandoned it.
“It’s a precise drift that I’m making,” he said. “It’s slow enough that if anyone practiced there, they probably would have gotten discouraged.
“The fish are in certain sections of the flat and I had to locate them today because they moved a little bit. I had a 5, that 6-2 and a 3-pounder pretty quickly, but after that I had to move around on the flat to find them.”
Schultz fished a diverse arsenal of baits including a 1/2-ounce Hildebrandt Drum Roller swimbait, a Shimano jerkbait (debuting next week at ICAST), a 1/8-ounce black Marabou jig, a drop shot with a green pumpkin Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm and a Ned rig with a 3-inch green pumpkin watermelon laminate Yamamoto Senko.
It is a well-known truth that two of the biggest obstacles to winning on the St. Lawrence share the same last name. Today, brothers Chris and Cory Johnston, of Peterborough and Cavan, Canada, respectfully, strengthened that lore by catching identical 23-pound, 7-ounce limits and sharing second place.
Adding to the statistical oddity, the Johnstons nearly matched one another’s top fish. Chris caught a 5-5, while his older brother had a 5-4.
Chris Johnston, who won last year’s St. Lawrence River Elite, started his day by running upriver to the Clayton, N.Y., area and targeting fry guarders — male bass that hover near the spawning bed to protect recent hatchlings — on flats in 8 to 10 feet. He found a handful of these fish early in practice but noticed Wednesday that a couple of them had left.
“I was a little disappointed yesterday, so today I thought I’d better go catch the ones that are left in that area,” he said. “That gave me a good start to the day, so I could relax a little bit.”
Around midmorning, Johnston left this area and added a few keepers, including a 5-8, in Lake Ontario’s Cape Vincent area. Contrasting his 2020 victory, he said the fish are significantly less concentrated this week.
“They’re not set up good like they were last year,” he said. “They’re scattered anywhere from 5 feet to 25 feet. I don’t have a spot that has a big group of them so I’m looking and trying to find random fish.
“The reason is that there are still fish spawning. There are fish that are guarding fry and fish that finished spawning a month ago and they’re already making their way out. There are fish up shallow trying to do their thing, and they’re everywhere in between.”
Cory Johnston devoted his day to the river and fished a hodgepodge of locations. Covering a 90-mile stretch from Waddington to Lake Ontario, he fished traditional rock reefs and shoals from 5 to 35 feet.
“I just kind of ran all over the place, wherever the wind allowed me to go,” he said. “I caught all of my fish in the river; I didn’t weigh a fish out of the lake.
“I didn’t have any specific area, I just hit 30 spots. I have a game plan and I have something in my back pocket where if I need a fish I can grab one quick in a couple of little areas. I needed a couple today and that’s what I did.”
Seth Feider of New Market, Minn., maintained his lead in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 795 points. With a 66-point margin over Chris Johnston (729), Feider just needs a decent showing Friday to conclude his best professional season with an AOY title.
Former AOY (2017) Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho, is in third place with 702 points, followed by Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., with 676 and Caleb Sumrall of New Iberia, La., with 669.
Friday’s takeoff is scheduled for 7 a.m. ET at Whittaker Park. The weigh-in will be held back at the park at 3:15 p.m. After Friday’s weigh-in, only the Top 45 anglers will advance to Saturday’s semifinal round.
Live coverage for each day of the event 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 on Saturday and Sunday.
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.