It's been steadily upward at the US$1-million Bassmaster Classic for Chris Johnston.
The Peterborough, Ont., native has cracked the top-10 of pro bass fishing's premier event the last two years. After finishing eighth in 2021, Johnston led on the final day last year before taking fifth spot.
Both efforts were the best ever for a Canadian in the event. This year's competition begins Friday on the Tennessee River in Knoxville, and Johnston has a bigger goal than just improving upon last year's finish.
"I'm just looking at winning it," he said. "If I finish 15th, it's the same as finishing third because you're going for the win.
"I might gamble and run an hour and 15 minutes and only get five bites that day but they'll be bigger fish, better quality. Or I'm getting away from the crowd and think I have a better chance at winning, but it's riskier . . . I might finish 35th, but it's probably because I gambled and went for the win."
Johnston can afford to take risks as the Classic doesn't count toward the Elite Series standings. In those events, competitors earn points based on where they stand in each tournament that go toward the Angler of The Year crown.
But there are no points to earn in Knoxville, just enough weight to claim the $300,000 winner's prize and iconic Classic trophy. Japan’s Takahiro Omori (2004) is the only non-American to win the title.
"That trophy is the hardest one to win," said Johnston, "The Classic is kind of like the Masters.
"Even if you're not that into golf, you probably watch that tournament or know what the Masters is. If you've fished, you probably know what the Bassmaster Classic is."
Johnston is one of four Canadians in this year's 55-angler field.
Also competing are Johnston's brother, Cory, Jeff Gustafson of Kenora, Ont., and Cooper Gallant of Bowmanville, Ont. The event MC is Dave Mercer, of Port Perry, Ont.
This marks the fourth straight Classic appearance for the Johnstons and Gustafson. Cooper, an Elite Series rookie, is in it for the first time.
In '21, the Johnstons and Gustafson all qualified for the final day of competition. Cory Johnston finished 11th while Gustafson was 21st.
Last year, Cory Johnston was tied for 26th while Gustafson was 41st. In 2020, Gustafson was the top Canadian at No. 31 while Chris Johnston was 34th and Cory Johnston was 47th.
Chris Johnston led early on the final day last year. That left him on the proverbial hot seat — sitting onstage anxiously awaiting six other competitors to weigh in.
"It's petty cool sitting on the hot seat," Johnston said. "But it wasn't too nerve-racking because I knew I didn't have a chance to win so that took some of the stress away.
"But if you're on that hot seat and know it's going to come down to ounces, that's where it really gets to you because you don't know if you're going to have a chance of hoisting that trophy or not."
Johnston and Gustafson are the only Canadians to win Elite Series events. Johnston's '20 victory came on the St. Lawrence River at Clayton, N.Y. Gustafson registered his the following year on the Tennessee River, concentrating solely on smallmouth bass for the wire-to-wire win by over seven pounds.
The Canadians traditionally shine in smallmouth waters. But Johnston anticipates a combination of largemouths and smallmouths being needed to win the Classic.
"It's tough to catch strictly smallmouth," Johnston said. "Gussy did it but it's a tough pattern and it's better when it's colder.
"Knoxville is a great venue, it will be awesome for fans and there'll probably be record-setting attendance . . . but fishing will be tough (considering water is lower than expected and clear). If you weigh 15 pounds for five fish, I think that's a great day whereas on other lakes, 15 pounds might leave you in the middle of the pack."
Johnston could see changing his tactics somewhat to boost his chances of getting on a winning bite.
"I don't need numbers of fish, I need big ones so I might use a larger bait," he said. "There are baits I could throw to get more fish and have a decent day but if I have five bites on a six-inch bait, I know they're going to be bigger ones."
While this year's Classic could be a grind, Johnston never tires of competing in the event.
"It's the Super Bowl of our sport," he said. "Everything about it is bigger . . . you have an arena packed with people, music is blaring. There are lights, a stage in the arena and it's really noisy.
"It doesn't matter where you fish, whether you grew up in Canada, the U.S. or anywhere in the world, it's the Bassmaster Classic. I want to go into Day 3 knowing I have a legitimate chance at winning, that's what I want."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press