Trio of Canadian anglers hits the road to compete on the 2021 Elite Series campaign

·5 min read

Canadians Jeff Gustafson and Cory and Chris Johnston are back to being road warriors.

The three have all left the cold of Ontario for Florida and the start of the '21 Bassmaster Elite Series. The season-opening event begins Thursday on the St. John's River in Palatka, Fla., and starts roughly a month-long stretch south of the border for the veteran anglers.

"I'm excited to get fishing again, I've got the itch," said Chris Johnston, a resident of Peterborough, Ont. "I had a little break and now I want to go and catch some bass and try to win some money.

"It's nice to get out of that -15 C and be somewhere sunny."

Johnston's older brother, Cory, agrees. But the Cavan, Ont., resident also admits it's tough being away after his wife, Kerrilee, delivered the couple's second son, Luke, in October.

"The hard part now is leaving your wife with two young kids at home," he said. "It (being home for birth of second child) was definitely something you don't want to miss.

"But this is how we make a living, it's how we earn money so I'm ready to get going."

Gustafson, of Kenora, Ont., is also looking forward to the season but would've liked a bit more time off.

"Normally we're done in summer and by January I'm itching to go but it was a short off-season (the final event ended Nov. 8 in Texas)," Gustafson said. "Now, we provide sponsors with pretty detailed activity reports so there was getting that done, then I got a new boat and I usually rig it myself putting on all the electronics, trolling motor and other accessories.

"I got that done and then it was time to get back on the road. I feel like another week home would've been nice . . . but it feels so nice to be in the boat."

The 101-angler field, up from 86 last year, will be reduced to 50 after Friday’s round. The top 10 on Saturday reach the final day of competition.

The Canadians begin their third Elite Series season, pro bass fishing's highest level. For a second straight year, they all qualified for the Bassmaster Classic, the circuit's premier event with a US$300,000 winner's share.

Cory Johnston was 16th overall (625 points) last year. Gustafson was 30th (581 points), three spots ahead of Chris Johnston (569 points) as the first-place finisher claims the angler of the year title and US$100,000 bonus.

Last July, Chris Johnston became the first Canadian Elite Series champion, winning the event on the St. Lawrence River in Clayton, N.Y. But a more consistent '21 remains his top goal.

"It's not like you win one and relax, you want to win another just as badly," he said. "Everyone is chasing angler of the year and if you have two bad tournaments you're probably taking yourself out of contention.

"Our season is nine events and at the end of the year it comes down to points to make the Classic. You don't want to start the season off on the wrong foot."

Cory Johnston's goals remain unchanged.

"Win tournaments, try to win angler of the year, win the Classic," he said. "Same as every year.

"I had some bad tournaments last year and I had some good tournaments . . . it is what it is. All I have to do this year and is do better."

Consistency moved Johnston into second in the overall standings — just 37 points behind leader Clark Wendlandt — after cracking the top-10 in four-of-five tournaments, including second- and third-place finishes. But he fell to 16th after being 67th and 60th in the season's final two events.

Gustafson's goal remains qualifying for the Classic.

"It's going to be more and more competitive this year," he said. "You just try to get a little bit better every year, learn from some of your mistakes.

"This year there's a few lakes on the schedule that I've been to and had success at, a few new ones and a couple I've fished and haven't done well at so it's just a real mixture. I'm excited to get it going. My love and passion are competing and getting to do it against some of the world's best anglers is pretty awesome."

Once again, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Elite Series schedule changes. The biggest involves moving the Classic from late March to June 11-13 at Lake Ray Roberts in Fort Worth, Teas

"I would've preferred it be in March," Cory Johnston said. "You're going from fishing them during pre-spawn to fishing them during the summer patterns, it will definitely change things.

"In spring, the fish are shallow, they set up better and they're ready to eat. It's been cold and those pre-spawn fish are fun to catch."

Chris Johnston agrees.

"The fish would've been pre-spawn and shallow, which is one of my strengths fishing," he said. "We're going to go in June and there will still be some big fish but they're going to be very deep, probably 20-to-30 feet.

"It's a lot of graphing and hard to get an advantage."

But Gustafson feels the shift suits him.

"It's going to set the fish up more offshore in deeper water," he said. "That's more to my strength using my electronics and fishing that way.

"It's going to be hot in June but that's the Super Bowl of our sport. They could have it on a little pond or anywhere and I'd be happy to fish in it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press