Johnston Takes Razor-Thin Lead At Bassmaster Elite On Upper Mississippi River

Chris Johnston owns a well-documented reputation for smallmouth savvy, but drawing on his largemouth bass roots helped the pro from Otonabee, Ontario, take over the lead on Day 2 of the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Mississippi River with a total weight of 31 pounds, 14 ounces.

Johnston caught 16-4 on Day 1 and tied fellow Canadian Jeff Gustafson for fourth place. Then, despite an hour storm delay and dim, rainy conditions, Johnston added 15-10 today. He heads into Semifinal Sunday with a 1-ounce margin over Day 1 leader Bryan Schmitt and a 2-ounce lead over Keith Combs of Huntington, Texas.

Johnston, who won the 2020 SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River, said the Upper Mississippi River’s shallow, weedy habitat presented very familiar scenarios. This week’s success has come through applying the engrained techniques of his Canadian youth.

“Believe it or not, I grew up fishing largemouth; flipping reeds and milfoil and frogging,” Johnston said. “For the first 20 years of my life, it was all largemouth fishing. The smallmouth didn’t take off in our area until I was about 17 to 18 years old.

“I love this style of fishing; putting on 65-pound Seaguar Smackdown braid and just going and having fun. I did mix in a few smallmouth. They’ve been good to me lately, so I couldn’t ignore them.”

Johnston caught his largemouth by frogging the shallow mats and fishing a ChatterBait along the edges. This produced four of the bass he weighed in.

Johnston also visited two smallmouth zones that gave up the occasional largemouth. These current-washed sand breaks completed his limit with a keeper smallmouth.

“The water’s a little dirtier than I’d like, but they’re still there,” he said. “Today, I caught eight or nine and lost a big one. I was getting 2 1/2-pounders and when I left them biting, it was almost every cast.

“I’d catch a few on a reaction bait first and then I’d have to slow down with regular smallmouth stuff. I’m looking forward to getting back there tomorrow and seeing if there’s still a few left.”

Hailing from Deale, Md., Schmitt set the early mark with a Day 1 bag of 17-10. In the second round, he played a smart game that settled his nerves and then stepped on the gas to sack up a limit of 14-3 and tally 31-13.

“I caught an early limit of smallmouth by Carolina rigging a Missile Baits Baby D Stroyer,” Schmitt said. “Those fish just calmed me down on a short day.”

Schmitt would end up culling three of those smallies and filling his limit with largemouth that he caught from a large grassbed. He caught keepers punching a Missile Baits Baby D Bomb, wacky rigging a Missile Baits Magic Worm and Texas rigging a Missile Baits Quiver Worm.

While others have struggled with muddy water brought by local rains, Schmitt’s main area has remained clean thanks to its leeward position and grass filtration. That said, Schmitt struggled with lower productivity.

“I’m happy to have 14 pounds, but tonight I have to sit down and make a strategic plan on how I’m going to do things tomorrow,” Schmitt said. “I sampled enough stuff to realize what I truly have.”

As he did on Day 1, Schmitt finished Day 2 with a big bite, a 3 1/2-pounder at 2:21 p.m.

Combs placed 16th on Day 1 with 14-5 and gained 13 spots with his second-day limit of 17-7 for a 31-12 total. Combs caught the biggest bag of Day 2 and the second-biggest of the event (behind Schmitt’s 17-10).

When he found his starting spot blown out, Combs made a move and ended up around better-quality fish.

“Yesterday, I weighed in four smallmouth and that place was totally messed up by the mud,” he said. “I went to another little area where I was catching 2 3/4-pounders yesterday and today I caught 3-pounders. I had a good bag, but then I just went fishing and caught my biggest fish of the day — almost a 4-pounder.”

Combs caught his fish on reaction baits, including a swim jig. After missing several fish on Day 1, Combs noted that a key bait adjustment helped him convert more bites into catches.

Brock Mosley of Collinsville, Miss., is in the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with his 5-8 from Day 1. Schmitt leads the race for VMC Monster Bag with his Day 1 catch of 17-10.

Jay Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., won the Falcon Rods Bassmaster Rookie of the Year standings with 632 points. Edging out Cody Huff of Ava, Mo., by 90 points, Przekurat earned a $10,000 bonus for the title.

“All season, confidence has been my No. 1 word,” Przekurat said. “If you’re not confident, why even go out there? If you don’t think you’re going to catch ’em, you probably shouldn’t be tournament fishing.

“Putting that win aside, to be consistent for nine tournaments on places I’ve never been to almost means more than (an Elite trophy). I don’t know what the future has in store for me, but I know that right now, life has been pretty good bass fishing on the road so far.”

Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho, maintained his lead in a tightening Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year race with 711 points. Johnston is second with 701, followed closely by Brandon Lester of Fayetteville, Tenn., with 700, Drew Benton of Blakely, Ga., with 677 and Patrick Walters of Summerville, S.C., with 662.

The Top 47 remaining anglers will take off Sunday at 7 a.m. CT from Copeland Park. The weigh-in will be held back at the park at 3 p.m., with the Top 10 anglers advancing to Championship Monday with a chance at the $100,000 first-place prize and a berth into the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic.

FS1 will broadcast live with the leaders beginning at 7 a.m. before coverage resumes on

The tournament is being hosted by Explore La Crosse.