Daily Limit: Cory Johnston recovers from pneumonia with St. Lawrence in sights

Cory Johnston is seeking more redemption on the St. Lawrence River.

After a pretty serious health bump, Cory Johnston is back on the trail chasing his first blue trophy along with some redemption on his home water.

Johnston left the Pickwick Lake Elite tournament in June not feeling great, especially after missing the cut, but once home in Cavan, Ontario, he began feeling worse. About midway through a round of golf, he had a coughing fit and “couldn’t catch his breath.”

A doctor’s visit sent him home with pills “that didn’t work, and three days later I couldn’t get out of bed,” he said.

Avoiding an ambulance ride, Johnston managed to inch into the truck for a ride to the hospital. There he was diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, or inflammation of the lungs, an illness that hospitalizes almost half who contract it.

“I had five days of hell. Just couldn’t breathe, no energy, couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything,” said Johnston, who lamented missing the Ontario bass opener for the first time in his life.

During his two-day hospital stay, however, Johnston never lost his sense of humor, posting his arms looked like his brother, Chris, hooked him with about “10 Gamakatsu trebles.”

“There were needles everywhere,” he said. “They were pumping steroids into me, all kinds of stuff. Once I got the meds going, I felt better.”

With his oxygen levels improving, he went home but couldn’t walk too far without struggling to breath. On the Saturday he was released, Chris and their father, Lynn, won a local bass tournament. Improving by the hour but still not feeling great, Cory wouldn’t miss the opening weekend, teaming with his dad to fish a Father’s Day event the next day on Rice Lake.

Jack Johnston helps dad, Cory, and grandpa, Lynn, bag their fish on Father’s Day.

Johnston plans to do plenty more fishing in preparation for the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River, although his home fishery is now off limits for that July 14-17 derby.

The Johnston brothers, who both live in Ontario, are prohibitive favorites any time they launch on the fishery. In the 2020 Elite there, Chris became the first Canadian to win a Bassmaster event, although that might have been Cory the year before if not for some misfortunes.

Both Johnstons were contending in the 2019 St. Lawrence Elite won by Micah Frazier, but mechanical issues forced Cory to borrow a boat during Day 1. He had a mentally trying day yet caught 22 pounds, 5 ounces. Problem was he didn’t realize the electronics weren’t reset for Daylight Savings Time until it was too late. His race to check-in put him 7 minutes late, resulting in a 7-pound penalty and an uphill climb from 60th.

With 21-7 on Day 2, Cory rallied but missed the Top 35 cut by 2 ounces, finishing 36th. It cost him more than a $10,000 cut check — he was on the fish to win the event and possibly the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. Cory finished the season third in the standings, eight points behind Scott Canterbury. The snafu continues to serve as incentive.

“I think about it every time I’m going to that place,” he said. “It just pisses me off and makes me want to win that much more.”

Cory’s 2019 finish was the only time the brothers haven’t posted Top 10s at St. Lawrence with B.A.S.S. Cory said he expects he and Chris will battle it out once again this year, when he’ll be defending champ of sorts.

Last September, Cory won the St. Croix Northern Open on the St. Lawrence, his first victory with B.A.S.S. That came six weeks after Japan’s Taku Ito found the winning school in the lake to take the 2021 Elite, with Cory finishing fourth and Chris fifth.

Cory led that event heading into Championship Sunday before Ito “got fortunate a school moved out” and brought in 26 pounds to rally from seventh. The Johnstons were sharing bedding fish, trying to pick off a plethora of 5-plus pounders they had marked.

Since Chris had already won an Elite and it was before Cory’s Opens victory, it seemed Chris was backing off fish to give Cory every chance to win. Cory was asked, whose turn is it this year?

“Mine,” he quickly said, stating his hope before clarifying. “There’s not really a turn, per se. Last year, he kind of laid off a bit because I had so many bedded fish left. It was in my favor to be able to catch them.

“It almost worked — if I had just been able to catch two of those fish or if I had caught that one fish I shook off the day before and couldn’t get to bite again.”

Cory came in with 19-6 on Sunday, his only day under 22 pounds, to total 88-0 and fall to fourth, 2-1 from winning.

The plan of attack this time is the same — defend the home water and keep dominating. The Johnstons will split up in practice and check out as many of their known areas as possible, then put all that intel on the table to develop a game plan. As the brothers share most everything, including their winnings, it’s yet to be determined who will end up getting the best spots come crunch time.

“Whoever is leading after two days will get to the fish to win,” Cory said. “I don’t know that they’ll be many on beds come tournament time.”

Cory, wife Kerrilee and Luke help Jack celebrate his fourth birthday on June 26.

This Elite tournament will be competed when the smallmouth are most likely at their lightest, after spawning and before feeding back up, Cory said. He is still optimistic for hefty weights, as smallmouth in the region continue to get larger with the food source goby everywhere.

The potential New York state record smallmouth was caught June 15 on Cayuga Lake, which connects to Ontario Lake. Thomas Russell landed an 8-5 smallmouth with teammate Eric Sullivan as they won the Finger Lakes Open event with 30-15.

“It was a really big fish. I’m kind of surprised we haven’t seen one that big come out of the Lake Ontario yet,” Cory said. “I’m sure there’s hundreds of 8-pound smallmouth, but they’re just so smart and so hard to catch.”

The numbers and size of smallmouth is why Cory thinks a 100 pounds can be broken in a four-day event, which would be a first for all smallmouth. Chris Johnston came close, totaling 97-8 in his 2020 win in late July, and Cory had 78-0 in his three-day Open win last September.

“One-hundred pounds is 100% doable,” Cory said. “So many times Chris and I have fished three-day tournaments and had 77, 78 pounds or more after the third day, but just not a chance to fish a fourth day and break that 100-pound mark.

“I think the odds are very good, but for that to come around, the conditions have to be right.”

The conditions Cory would like are certainly self-serving. The Elites practice July 10-12 then have Wednesday off before takeoff Thursday morning from the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, N.Y., a good hour closer to the lake from previous launches in Waddington.

“The right condition is blowing like crazy for three days of practice so no one can go out and find them,” Cory said, “then slick-calm conditions for the tournament so Chris and I can run all our stuff that other guys can’t find.

“I would actually prefer Waddington. It would just eliminate so many more guys. Going out of Clayton, it just makes my decision that much easier to fish from the mouth and into Ontario. But I have so much good stuff down the river, I just can’t go look at it.”

Big winds make it treacherous to venture into the lake, where the bass are larger than in the river. In years past the Johnstons have roughed it, as Bassmaster LIVE’s seasick cameramen can attest. Much of the Top 10 in last year’s fished the lake, and Cory expects it to be the major player again.

“It always comes down to making the right decisions,” he said. “It’s going to be so tight. It might be a dogfight until the last day between Chris and me.”