By David A. Brown
FOLSOM, Calif. — Winners don’t shine only in the good times; they often must overcome discouraging days to reach the mountaintop. Just ask Luke Johns who sacked up a limit of 16.16 pounds to win the APEX Pro Tour Championship on Folsom Lake presented by Bridgford Foods and Visit Folsom.
The hometown favorite, Johns qualified through the Most Scorable Fish division, but doing so required him to overcome a disappointing first day that yielded only two scorable fish. Shaking off the frustration, he bounced back with a Day-2 total of 12 fish.
“This is definitely the biggest win of my career and the most memorable,” Johns said. “I had such a terrible start and to even come back and make a top 10 was incredible.
“To have the day that I had; it was one of those special days you dream about.”
After catching most of his Day-2 fish on a long tapering point in the South Fork, Johns started Championship Sunday on this spot. Nabbing a 3 1/2-pounder right off the bat helped him settle in for the final-round drama that included back-to-back 3-plus-pounders.
Johns caught his fish on a 3.3 Keitech Swing Impact Fat on a 1/4-ounce Owner football head. He fished his bait on spinning tackle with braided line tied to 10-pound Sunline Sniper fluorocarbon leader.
“I made sure the bait sunk to the bottom and slow rolled it as slow as I could go,” Johns said. “It was painful but that’s what it took to get bit.”
Catching eight fish today, Johns said his vast array of local knowledge actually played less of a role than most might assume. For him, it was more a matter of trusting his instincts to make wise decisions on the water.
“I know what’s in the lake and where most of the spots are, but I wouldn’t say my past memories really helped me much; I pretty much just flew by instinct today,” Johns said. “Luckily, my gut pointed me in the right direction.
“Nothing I fished was stuff that I necessarily knew fish were on. I just flew around and happened to stumble across the right stuff. I capitalized on the bites that I had and everything managed to work out the way I needed it to.
Johns said his victory was particularly special, as it closed out a big chapter in his life. Having recently purchased a boat, this tournament was the final event he’d fish out of the 1996 Skeeter ZX 202 in which he’s competed over the past four years.
“This boat was with me at the start of my pro-am journey, so it saw my first regular season win on New Melones in 2020, it saw me win an Angler of the Year title in 2021 and to finally get an APEX trophy and to win a Championship on the last day I’ll ever take this boat out is pretty incredible. I completed the trifecta.”
Jason Austin of Ione, Calif., who qualified through the Overall Weight division with a 2-day total of 26.09, placed second with 13.81. Spending his day in the North Fork, Austin directed his effort to offshore structure and boulders.
“I found that 25 feet was most consistent, but I also caught some shallower in 15 feet later in the day when we got some cloud cover,” Austin said. “I focused on the hazard buoys marking underwater boulders.”
Austin caught all of his fish on an umbrella rig with 1/4-ounce Ed’s Lead ball heads with 2/0 hooks and 3.3 Keitech Swing Impact Fat swimbaits in Tennessee shad. He found that getting bites required a glacial pace.
“You had to go as slow as you could possibly go,” Austin said. “The water temperature played a role. It was 48-49 in my area.
“Even with the cold water, they were chasing bait. I tried to stay where there was bait. There were birds in the area and bait on the graph.”
Struggling with a slow start, Austin reported his first consequential catch at 11. Prior to that he had to fish slow with a Z-Man FattyZ on a ned head just to get a couple of scorable fish to steady his confidence.
Nick Cloutier of Oakley, Calif. finished third with 13.63. His qualification came through the Scorable Bass division, in which he caught 18 over the first two days.
Sticking with the plan that served him well during the qualifying rounds, Cloutier fished the North Fork and targeted a point with two main rock piles rising from 30 feet to 10.
“I would just go back and forth; there was one on each side of the point and I just did a figure-8 around them,” Cloutier said. “They were pretty close and I think the fish were moving back and forth between the two rock piles searching for bait.
Cloutier caught his fish on a 1st Gen Topspin with a 3.8 Keitech Swing Impact Fat in smallmouth magic and light hitch. He also caught fish on a G Funk umbrella rig with 1/4-ounce Owner InShore heads and 3.8 Keitech Swing Impact Fats.
Cloutier also found he had to fish his umbrella rig extremely slow and close to the bottom to get bit. He marked a lot of bait in the area, but the fish only seemed interested in find on the bottom-hugging schools.
Cloutier caught fish throughout the day, but one in particular provided a memorable experience. The moment, he said, was made possible by Garmin Panoptix.
“I watched a 4 1/2-pounder come and eat my (umbrella rig) on Panoptix,” Cloutier said. “I probably would have reeled it back in if I hadn’t seen her, but I was able to slow it down and she came up and ate it.”
Rounding out the Top-5 were William Ponting of Temecula, Calif. with 12.52 and Marty Lawrence of Mesa, Ariz. with 11.32.
After two days of full-field competition, the top-10 anglers advanced to Sunday’s Championship round. The final field comprised the top-5 anglers with the Most Scorable Bass and the top-5 anglers with the highest Total Weight. Total weight and Scorable Bass count from days 1 and 2 are accumulated. In the final round, weights and keeper count are zeroed.