Despite having a reputation for being a smallmouth-catching machine and living only five hours from Lake St. Clair, Cory Johnston has only fished this pond a few times in his life. Both visits were for tournaments. The first was the 2012 FLW Tour Open where he finished eighth, and the second was a 2015 Bassmaster Open where he landed in fifth. Obviously, lack of experience doesn’t equate to lack of knowledge for how to catch bass on St. Clair.
After starting the season off great with a top 10 on Lake Okeechobee, the older Johnston brother has hit a bit of a lull, but he still sits 40th in the Pennzoil Marine Angler of the Year standings.
This week, in the final event of the FLW Tour season, which is presented by Mercury, Johnston not only has a shot at earning a pretty solid payday, but also punching his ticket to the Forrest Wood Cup.
With so much on the line, we decided to jump in the Ranger with Johnston to see how he breaks down this massive fishery.
The day doesn’t get off to the quickest start for Johnston, who tried launching on the southern portion of the lake this morning, but had to switch his game plan due to some rough water and the fact his trolling motor wasn’t working.
He stopped by the service yard to get some work done and have his Power-Pole Drift Paddles installed, and he’s ready for action right around noon.
As we idle out from Lake St. Clair Metropark, Johnston calls his brother, Chris, to get a report on the day so far. Chris hasn’t had much action, and the two decide that Cory will cover some of the water near takeoff since he’s in the area.
“I want to keep checking some deep stuff on the lake, but if the sun stays out I might run up and look around up shallow, too,” says Cory of his plan of attack.
We make a short run to an offshore area where he immediately picks up a swimbait and begins launching it.
“I like to try to cover water pretty quick if I can, and that’s why a moving bait like a crankbait or swimbait works well,” Johnston says. “If you drifted across this whole lake you could catch bass everywhere. That’s why you need to cover water and find the sweet spots they are grouped up near.”
It doesn’t take long for Johnston to connect with some St. Clair bronze, and he makes quick work of wrestling it in the boat.
After tossing the fish back, Johnston grabs a drop-shot and fires out a cast.
“When I get bit on a moving bait I like to work around the area with a tube or drop-shot.”
He definitely keeps his rod choices simple. Two swimbaits, a tube and drop-shot are all that he has on the deck. Most of his tackle is still tied on from his top 10 in the Costa FLW Series Northern Division event on Lake Champlain just a few days ago.
He drifts quite a ways without another bite before coming across a massive slick of mayflies on the water. Johnston looks around and listens for fish busting the surface, but after a few minutes decides it’s time to head shallow while the sun is beating down.
We stop outside of the St. Clair River channel where Johnston busts out a topwater and begins covering water.
“I’m not looking for any on beds,” he says. “I just want to see if there are any up here cruising.”
Other than a few perch, nothing else is mesmerized by his topwater.
As he gets closer to the river channel, Johnston checks out a large ship that is heading downstream. This isn’t an uncommon sight around the Great Lakes at all, and, in fact, this is one of the smaller ships you’ll see, which is pretty wild.
Once the ship rolls by, it’s time to keep running up the river.
The next stop is a shallow flat with some pencil reeds, and Johnston digs out a jig to pitch around in them.
“I’ve actually seen some big largemouths in these reeds before,” he points out. “I don’t know if they’ll still be here because it’s been a while since I’ve been up here, but it’s worth a look.”
He starts flipping reeds and nearly instantly hooks up. As he battles the fish out of the cover Johnston notices that it’s a smallmouth – and a nice one at that.
“That’s like a 4-pounder,” he yells. “I didn’t really expect that, but there are so many smallmouths in this lake that you can catch them anywhere.”
He tosses the fish back and continues working around the flat with no nibbles, other than a few encounters with some northern pike.
“I don’t like how the water up here has a chalky tint to it. I think we need to head back out to the lake.”
Almost as soon as he runs back out to the lake and the trolling motor hits the water, Johnston marks a fish on his front graph. He grabs his drop-shot and immediately hooks a smallmouth.
“There’s some pretty good grass here. I bet there are more swimming around down there.”
Johnston grabs his tube rod and fires it downwind. About as soon as the bait hits the bottom he’s hooked up with a giant … catfish.
“That had me excited for a minute,” he laughs.
There is a brief wrestling match alongside the boat to get his bait back, and in no time the catfish is back free to do catfish stuff.
It’s time for a new tube thanks to Mr. Whiskers. There probably isn’t a better bait for smallmouths than the tube since it imitates everything a smallmouth loves to eat, from perch to gobies to crawfish.
Johnston has a stout selection of tubes and tube jigs, which you need not only because of the amount of fish you can catch, but also because of how many toothy critters also love to eat them.
While retying, Johnston decides he needs to make a move, and once the knot is tight he’s rolling.
The next stop is just a few hundred yards from the previous one. It’s an area that has had good grass in it before, and Johnston grabs a swimbait and goes to work. He drifts about 100 yards without a bite or any indication of good grass on his electronics, so it’s time to keep moving.
The wind is really starting to pick up as the afternoon wears on, and once he stops in a new area Johnston readies his Power-Pole Drift Paddles for action. After pulling a few pins and locking them in place, the Power-Poles are lowered into the water and it’s time to fish.
It doesn’t take long to tie into a fish, and it looks like a good one. Johnston knows pretty early on that it isn’t a bass, and as the fish races toward the boat we quickly learn it’s a drum.
St. Clair is loaded with all kinds of fish, and Johnston is on his way to being a multi-species master of the fishery.
Chris calls Cory, and the two chat about their day. So far neither has much to report, until Cory sets the hook mid-conversation.
No doubt this is a smallmouth as it comes flying out of the water next to the boat. Cory takes a seat on the passenger side and makes quick work of getting the chunky fish in the boat.
“That’s more of what we are looking for,” he says. “That’s got to be 4 1/2, maybe more.”
Johnston keeps drifting along, and after a few hundred yards he connects with another fat smallmouth.
Being the smallmouth guru he is, Johnston boat-flips the 4-pounder on spinning gear like it’s an everyday occurrence. It’s another piece of the puzzle, and Johnston likes what he sees.
“I want to run up and make another drift just a few hundred yards over and see if I get bit there. After that, we can head back in for the day.”
About halfway into the drift another smallmouth devours his tube. At first, Johnston thinks it’s a big drum, until the smallie tries to come up and jump in the rolling waves.
The fish puts on quite the show, jumping and wallowing around more as it gets closer to the boat. Like before, Johnston gets comfortable in the passenger seat and waits for the smallie to tire itself out.
“That’s got to be close to 5,” he says. He’s obviously excited.
Johnston lets the fish go and launches his tube out for the rest of the drift, which doesn’t yield anymore bites.
It’s closing in on 7 o’clock, and Johnston is thinking it’s time to haul me back to the ramp and call it a day, so we pack up shop and head in.
We load the boat up and strap everything down. Johnston is staying at a house an hour away, and has some driving to do. Overall, he’s pleased with the day and hopes to expand on some things for the final day of practice.
Johnston has a lot of excitement in store in his near future. Not only is he a favorite in this event and on the verge of making the Cup, but he’s expecting the birth of his first child any day now – possibly sometime during the tournament. There’s a lot on the line, but like always, he is cool-headed about it – just going with the flow where life and fishing take him.