Johnston widens lead on Day 3 of Bassmaster Elite Series event at St. Johns River

PALATKA, Fla. — With less competition, but more company, Cory Johnston leveraged late-day heroics to extend his lead on Day 3 of the MAXAM Tire Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River.

Bolstering his first two days’ weights of 23-3 and 27-8, the seasoned pro from Otonabee, Canada, added a Semifinal Saturday limit of 23-2 to tally 73-13 and hold on to the lead he set on Day 2.

“It’s been an incredible week, but it’s one of those things — if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen,” Johnston said. “The past two days, I caught a big one on the last cast. We’re just going to go out tomorrow, go fishing and see what happens.”

Leading Texan Brad Whatley by 14 pounds, Johnston spent his day looking for bed fish in Salt Springs, which runs off the northwest side of Lake George. He had far fewer competitors in the area, but with weekend pleasure boaters packing into this popular area, he had to account for more noise and habitat disturbance.

“They stir the water up a little bit, but you just keep looking and looking and looking and eventually you come across them,” Johnston said.

While he was fortunate enough to find a “one-flipper” — a fish that bit on the first presentation — Johnston said others were less cooperative. This was not necessarily due to the recreational boat traffic, as the area he’s fishing has sustained three days of heavy fishing pressure.

“I had a few that were not being nice to me, to say the least,” Johnston said.

Same as the past two days, Johnston flipped a variety of Texas-rigged plastics to his bed fish. Watching the fish on live sonar allowed him to monitor locations and reactions.

Johnston owns a stellar smallmouth fishing resume, with a St. Croix Bassmaster Opens win at the St. Lawrence River and a Bassmaster Century Club belt for catching over 100 pounds of smallies in a four-day Bassmaster Elite Series event (2022) at the same fishery. Despite his brown fish bona fides, he’s very familiar with largemouth.

“Where we grew up, it was all largemouth fishing; the smallmouth weren’t as relevant,” Johnston said. “We grew up punching mats, flipping reeds, and that kinda stuff.”

Late in the day, Johnston watched his younger brother Chris Johnston catch a 6-pounder, but the elder sibling soon struck back with a double shot of St. Johns difference-makers. Catching a 5-pounder at 1:41 p.m., he added a 7-pound day-ender a few minutes later.

With three second-place Elite finishes (Lake St. Clair 2020, St. Lawrence River 2022 and 2023), Johnston said he’s focused on closing the deal at the St. Johns River. After weighing in his third-round bag, Johnston said he wasn’t sure exactly how he’ll do that.

“I do have a backup plan that I haven’t had to use this week, but I feel like tomorrow’s probably going to be the day,” he said. “I really don’t know what I’m going to do yet. I don’t know if I’m going to go into (Salt Springs) at all; I don’t know if I’m going to go in there and not leave it. We’ll see what happens in the morning.”

Hailing from Bivins, Texas, Whatley electrified the weigh-in crowd with an astounding limit of 31-4 — the event’s biggest bag and the seventh-heaviest in St. Johns River Elite events. The only competitor to reach the 30-pound mark, Whatley has a three-day total of 59-13.

Coming off a Top 10 finish at last week’s Elite event at the Harris Chain, Whatley turned in the week’s greatest comeback. Placing 95th on Day 1 with 8-9, he added a Day 2 limit of 20 pounds and rose to 36th.

Anchoring his bag with an 8-7, Whatley said he endured a painfully slow Saturday morning that nearly drove him to abandon his area. Thankfully, his bite ignited and he sacked up all of his weight in about a two-hour period.

“I went to my main area and I wasn't getting bit and I only had one little one (around 11:30 a.m.),” Whatley said. “I said, ‘I’m going to need a bite pretty quick or I’m going to have to burn out of here.’

“Probably 30 seconds later, I caught one that was close to 6 pounds and then, probably 30 minutes later, I caught that (8-7).”

Whatley spent his day flipping vegetation and fishing a swim jig. He’s optimistic that Championship Sunday holds the potential for him to repeat his Day 3 performance.

“This is Florida, they live here — we all know that,” Whatley said. “I’m seeing a lot of big fish. I’m definitely around some big fish. If they bite (tomorrow), I’ll have a chance to catch another 30-pound bag.”

Also making his home in Otonabee, Canada, Chris Johnston is in third place with 56-14. His daily weights were 16-9, 21-7 and 18-14.

Johnston started his day Saturday flipping main-river pads and then transitioned to Salt Springs bed fishing. He followed the same plan on Friday, but the third morning treated him better.

“I got a 4 1/2-pounder, a 2 1/4- and a 2-pounder, so that took some of the pressure off this morning,” Johnston said. “I knew if I went to the Springs and got two good bites, I’d have a decent day.

“I fished pads until about 10:30 and I didn’t get very many bites. That was discouraging, but I had one stretch that continued to produce bigger bites. That’s where I got a 4 1/2 on my way back in yesterday.”

Johnston caught his pad fish on stickbaits with a 5/16-ounce tungsten weight on 25-pound fluorocarbon. In Salt Springs, he caught his fish on a drop shot, a wacky rig and a Texas rig.

Whatley is in the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with his 8-7.

Rookie Trey McKinney of Carbondale, Ill., leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year race with 380 points. Jordan Lee of Cullman, Ala., is in second with 375, followed by Chris Johnston with 344, Tyler Williams of Belgrade, Maine, with 338, and Cory Johnston with 335.

McKinney also leads the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year standings.

The Top 10 remaining pros will take off at 7 a.m. Sunday from Palatka City Dock & Boat Ramp. The weigh-in will be held at the ramp at 3 p.m., with the winning pro earning $100,000.

Follow all of the Championship Sunday action with live coverage on FS1from 8 a.m. – 1:30- p.m. ET and on Bassmaster.com from 1:30 p.m.-3 p.m.

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