JASPER, Texas – “When it’s your time, it’s your time.” Those were the wise words of Stephen Johnston, who finally earned the Stren Series victory he’s been hunting for so long, and he did it close to home at the Texas Division event on Sam Rayburn Reservoir with an astonishing four-day weight of 70 pounds, 2 ounces.
Johnston annihilated the competition this week, ultimately taking the victory by 11 pounds, 11 ounces after leading three of the four tournament days. His worst day was yesterday, when he brought in 14 pounds on a day that was tough for everyone, and he brought in Saturday’s heaviest limit today en route to a victory that tastes so sweet because of how long it’s been coming.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Johnston, who before today had five FLW Outdoors top-10 finishes on Sam Rayburn and another three on his home lake of Toledo Bend without a victory. “Over the years, I’ve had guys tell me that once you get that first win, they come easy. I had a terrible practice, and then everything just came together. I just felt that I was going to win this tournament.”
Johnston left this tournament considerably richer, having won $25,000 plus a fully rigged Ranger boat for the win, and he won another $3,000 in Ranger Cup money. The key to his victory, he says, was slowing down when the tough conditions demanded it.
“Right off the bat today, with that northeast wind and high pressure, I talked myself into slowing down,” he said. “I pulled up on my first place and slow-fished it with a Texas rig, and I didn’t catch a thing. In 30 minutes, I had one keeper.”
On a good day at Sam Rayburn, a solid limit can be had in 30 minutes. But Johnston didn’t let the tough bite get to him. Rather, he buckled down and fished harder.
“I just started covering water,” he said. “I knew I was able to catch 10 to 15 keepers a day, and today wasn’t a moving-bait day. With them pulling water, it pulled fish out of the bushes and into what I was doing.”
Johnston reported fishing a Sebile crankbait early and then moving on to a Texas-rigged lizard.
“I was fishing a Sebile Flat Shad, and with the water falling, the fish quit chasing,” he said. “I took a Texas-rigged lizard and slow-fished the bushes and was able to catch them.”
Johnston caught one of three pro limits today, and with his recent top-10 performance at the Wal-Mart Texas Tournament Trail event on Lake Amistad, he has kicked his career back into high gear. Johnston fished the Stren Series and the TTT in the past, but about three years ago, he decided to back off and spend more time on local circuits with his sons, now 16 and 17. After discussing it with his family, Johnston decided this year to re-enter Stren and TTT events, and without a doubt, he is off to a phenomenal start.
Gibson moves up to finish second
Jumping from 10th place to second is Kilgore, Texas, pro Shane Gibson, who caught a limit weighing 16 pounds, 8 ounces today to bring his four-day total to 58 pounds, 7 ounces. For Gibson, the trick was staying consistent throughout a myriad of changing conditions.
“I was dragging a Big Bite Bait lizard, fishing inside grass lines,” he said. “I stayed with it from the time I got here until today, and I caught at least two limits a day.”
These inside grass lines were on points that led into the drains, and for Gibson, a Carolina rig helped put the knowledge gleaned from 17 days of fishing Sam Rayburn to good use.
“When the weather started warming up, my big fish left,” he said. “When the temperature dropped, it pulled them back down to where they needed to be.”
Also working well for Gibson was a familiarity with Sam Rayburn in February.
“I just ran a pattern,” he said. “I knew this time of year that when they leave, there’s another bunch that takes their place, so these areas stay full of fish.”
This was Gibson’s first Stren Series top-10 performance and his seventh top-10 overall.
Guzman drop-shots his way to third
Also moving up the ladder is Jim Guzman of Coldspring, Texas, who moved from sixth place to third with the only other limit on the pro side, a five-bass catch weighing 10 pounds, 3 ounces that bumped his four-day total to 53 pounds.
“I’ve just been drop-shotting,” he said. “I could cover a lot more ground quicker.”
Guzman practiced for 10 days and said that while the changing weather conditions this week did make the bite a little tougher, his fish pretty much stayed the same.
“I caught them in practice but a lot deeper,” he said. “I practiced in the cold, and the bite didn’t change for the most part.”
He was drop-shotting a trick worm and said the color didn’t seem to matter. This was his first top-10 finish.
Millender, Haralson score top-five finishes
“It was tough,” he said. “I was catching them in front of the buck brush with a Carolina rig, but this cold weather knocked them in the head. I could not get them to bite today.”
Millender was Carolina-rigging a 6-inch green-pumpkin lizard.
Behind him in fifth is day-one leader Charles Haralson of Laredo, Texas, with a four-day weight totaling 52 pounds, 8 ounces. He, too, struggled today, bringing in only three fish worth 5-15. He caught 20-2 on the first day, but has seen his weight fall every day since.
“The fish moved,” he said. “I wasn’t familiar enough with the lake, and I couldn’t find them. I had to hunt new water every day, and I managed to scratch out a limit every day but today. I tried to pick an area and catch everything that area had to offer.”
Rest of the best
6th: David Truax, Beaumont, Texas, 18 bass, 51-13, $6,000
7th: Stan Burgay, Timpson, Texas, 18 bass, 51-2, $5,500
8th: Tommy Durham, Waxahachie, Texas, 18 bass, 50-3, $5,000
9th: John Bond, Owasso, Okla., 17 bass, 46-9, $4,500
10th: Dicky Newberry, Houston, 15 bass, 42-12, $4,000
The next Stren Series event is a Western Division contest at Lake Mead near Las Vegas Feb. 21-24.
The next Texas Division tournament is the second event of the season. It will be held at Lake Amistad in Del Rio March 21-24.