Elite Analysis – Day 4 at St. Johns River

Cory Johnston

Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the New York Yankees in the 1920s, once described a great day at the ballpark as follows: “It’s when the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning and then slowly pull away.”

This week, Cory Johnston was a one-man Murderers’ Row. After claiming the lead on Day 2, he extended it from 11-9 to 14-0 and finally settled on a margin of 21-2. You can call it pulling away slowly only because he had to come back and weigh them in each day.

When you can sleep in on Sunday and still take home the Elite Series trophy, you’ve done something meaningful. Johnston, mostly wielding a spinning rod like the Great Bambino employed his lumber, wrecked ‘em this week – the fish and the rest of the field – ultimately winning by over 20 pounds.

In full analyst mode, I’m trying to think of something, anything, that will diminish its significance. Might it be that he didn’t top 20 pounds on Day 4? Or that he didn’t lead wire-to-wire? Or that he didn’t top 100 pounds in total? Maybe it’s that they’ve yet to name a candy bar after him. Yeah, that’s about it.

Every win is special, but when the Johnstons finally decide to hang it up, each having earned several more blue trophies and placed them on their joint resume, this one feels like it will stand out.

Here’s what I think about what went down in Palatka and thereabouts today and this week:

Salt Refill – Even Johnston seemed to be amazed that his fish in the salt springs lasted for more than a day or two. He shared the area with several other top competitors much of the time, including his brother (fifth, 70-0), Matt Arey (ninth, 64-13)  and Day 1 leader Caleb Sumrall (26th, 42-11). While forward-facing sonar may be derided by some fans and competitors, and might not have been essential to his game plan, it may have been a deciding factor in Johnston’s win – with many other competitors now primarily looking offshore and flinging a “minnow,” it takes pressure off of key areas. If he’d had to share those fish with three or four others, and had gotten off of his rotation, it could have been a very different tournament.

Shallow Canadian – While Cory Johnston wasn’t the first Canadian to win a B.A.S.S. tournament, the first Canadian to win an Elite, or even the first member of his own family to win one, by my reckoning he’s the first one to win primarily on a shallow bite. Gussy, of course, twice won on the Tennessee River by “moping.” When Cooper Gallant won an Open on Tennessee’s Cherokee Lake in 2022, he used a drop shot and Damiki Rig in over 20 feet of water. When Chris Johnson won an Elite at the St. Lawrence in 2020, he caught the winning fish on rockpiles in 20 to 50 feet of water. When Cory himself won an Open on the St. Lawrence in 2021, he caught them drop shotting out on Lake Ontario in 20 to 30 feet. This week, he was mostly looking at them, with a dose of flipping mixed in, which differentiates it from the others.

Brotherly Love – The Johnstons are very open about sharing info and sharing winnings. While there have been other high-level tournament anglers who’ve had similar arrangements in the past, none of them have enjoyed this level of success on Tour. Even amongst the pairs who’ve shared info but not dollars (Canadian or U.S.), the partnerships never seem to last. Someone always ends up feeling that they get the short end of the stick. Because they’re brothers, this one seems (at least on the surface) to have a better chance of surviving for the long haul.

What Happened in 2020? – The Johnstons have now made five Elite Series trips to the St. Johns, and between them they have made eight cuts and four Top 10s. The one year they were “off” was 2020, when Cory finished 55th and Chris finished 71st. Including that off year, their average finish is 20th and 29th, respectively.

Sibling Rivalry – While there have been numerous pairs of brothers who’ve done well in Bassmaster competition over the years, the two most accomplished since the start of the Elite Series are Chris and Bobby Lane. They competed in a combined 339 Bassmaster events, won nine of them, including a Classic win for Chris, and made a combined 19 Classics. Together, the Johnstons have competed in fewer than half as man B.A.S.S. tournaments. They have three wins and 10 Classic appearances between them. They have a way to go before they catch up to the Lanes, but there’s a lot of runway in front of them.

Small Margins – When Cory Johnston won the Northern Open on the St. Lawrence River in 2021, he edged out Cal Climpson by 13 ounces. That’s typical of these events, where even a small culling error can be costly. In his three second-place finishes with B.A.S.S., Johnston has missed the win by 1-14, 2-4 and in one particularly painful instance by 8 ounces.

No Excuses for Foutz – Jacob Foutz (third, 71-6) went semi-viral during the offseason with his surprise, tinged with disappointment, that the sponsorship side of the industry had not come easier to him over his first two years on the Elite Series. No one has ever doubted his fishing skill, particularly after he ended last season with three straight checks, including two Top 10s. Now he’s started this season with four straight checks, including the third third-place Elite finish of his career. Now it’s time for him to make hay while the sun shines. Did he burn some bridges? Possibly, but his honesty might also have created some new admirers. With full awareness, and his career in bloom, there’s no more room for surprise.

Spinnerbait Renaissance – Watching Jason Christie (seventh, 66-9) and Greg Hackney (sixth, 67-15) fling spinnerbaits gave tackle shops everywhere hope that business will continue to boom across the board.

Every Point Matters – Greg Hackney said it best today: “When you can get some points on ‘em, you need to get ‘em,” referring to the ultra-competitive Elite Series field. Ultimately, he held ground today, remaining in sixth. Cory Johnston and Brad Whatley likewise held on to their Day 3 spots. The four anglers who gained valuable points today were Jacob Foutz, Jason Christie, Drew Benton and Matt Arey. Benton was the big mover, rising from ninth to fourth, while the others moved up a single spot.

Best in Class – This tournament marked the best Elite Series finish in the young careers of winner Cory Johnston and runner-up Brad Whatley. Johnston previously had two runner-up finishes. Whatley’s previous best was fifth at Lake Fork in 2020. Jacob Foutz tied his previous best third-place finish, which he had achieved twice.

Old Guys Get it Done – There were no rookies in the Top 10, but several members of my generation, including Greg Hackney, Jason Christie and Ray Hanselman, all of whom are 50 years old. The class of 1973 still mostly still look spry and energetic, but Christie threw a bit of water on that notion when he stepped onto the stage: “I used to be able to run 10 miles a day and now I can’t go 50 yards,” he said.

Young and From Elsewhere – Counting Classics and regular season Elite Series events, nine of the last 14 tournaments have been won by either rookies or anglers from countries other than America. Kyoya Fujita was the only one who won in that stretch as a rookie from abroad.

If You’re Not Using It – Perspective Mode is a very valuable tool.

Gratuitous Bait Mention of the Day – Woopah Craw.

40 is the new 30 – Three of four events this year have produced bags of 30 pounds or more, altogether a total of nearly 50 of them. Have we become desensitized to the idea that 30 pounds amounts to a massive achievement any time, anywhere? When will we next see another 40 pound bag?

Brad Whatley – “If I ever move, it’ll be right here, I promise you.”

Logan Latuso – “It fishes like back home.”

Jacob Foutz – “I had water all to myself, which is surprising.”

Mark Zona – “We’ve had us a good old fashioned bass tournament this time around.”

Matt Arey on his Top Ten – “The fortunate ones are actually the turkeys back in North Carolina.”

For Sale – One lightly-used Yeti Hot Seat.