March 27, 2023
Last Thursday evening, on the eve of the start of the Bassmaster Classic, Jeff Gustafson attended a function where fellow Canadian angler Jim (“Big Jim”) McLaughlin was honored by the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame for his lifelong dedication and contributions to the sport of fishing. McLaughlin’s influence in bass fishing in Ontario and across Canada is far-reaching and helped paved the way for anglers like Gustafson to chase the dream of being a competitive tournament angler.
One could argue Gustafson is now helping pave the way for the next generation of Canadian bass anglers, especially after what he achieved on the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tenn., last weekend.
Gustafson caught stout limits of smallmouth (all exceeding the minimum length threshold of 18 inches) on days 1 and 2 of the tournament to give himself a lead of 5 pounds, 12 ounces over his closest challenger entering Sunday. He needed nearly all of that cushion as he managed just two keeper-sized smallmouth on the final day to close with 42-07 and become the first Canadian angler ever to win the Bassmaster Classic.
Gustafson, who lives in Keewatin, Ont., and has competed professionally in the U.S. since 2012, has been a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications and has served as a vital principal source of information for articles highlighting several freshwater species and techniques employed to catch them.
While the rest of the 55-man Classic field tried anything and everything to figure out the changing conditions on Fort Loudon and Tellico lakes, Gustafson stuck with a tried-and-true technique known as moping, to entice the bottom-oriented smallmouth. Read more about the technique here.
For his Classic win, Gustafson takes home the Ray Scott Trophy and a $300,000 first-place check.
“I had an hour ride back to check-in, and it was horrible,” Gustafson said Sunday. “I thought I’d blown it for sure. I thought there was no way I’d even be in the mix.”
As it turned out, Gustafson received hard charges from both Maryland pro Bryan Schmitt and Alabama pro Scott Canterbury, but neither could quite pull it off. Schmitt caught a five-bass limit that weighed 11-1 and finished less than 2 pounds shy of a win at 40-14, while Canterbury caught one of the biggest limits of the day at 12-1 and finished just over 2 pounds back at 40-1.
Gustafson spent the day in Tellico Lake doing the same thing that had worked for him six days in a row on the fishery—four during his 2021 regular-season Elite Series win and two to start this Classic—but something was different. Though plenty of smallmouth were still visible on his Humminbird Mega Live electronics, they simply weren’t as cooperative as they had been previously.
“I think it was a combination of they’ve been getting fished hard and there’s some heat coming and they’re ready to move up and spawn,” he said. “I’ve been working them pretty hard, and you could tell they were lazy.
“The last couple of days, they would just skyrocket up to the bait when they saw it. But today it wasn’t like that at all.”
After catching 18-8 on Friday and 17-3 on Saturday, he didn’t catch his first keeper until around 9:30 a.m. Sunday. Then it was another three hours before he caught his second and final.
But in the end, his “moping” tactic won out.
A technique that dates heavily back to his Canadian roots, Gustafson used a Z-Man Jerk ShadZ in the smelt color on a 3/8-ounce Smeltinator jighead with a 1/0 hook, fishing straight down for bass he could see on his Humminbird Mega Live forward-facing sonar. He fished the rig on a G. Loomis NRX+ 872 rod—a 7-foot, 3-inch medium action rig—with a Shimano Stella 3000 spooled with 10-pound PowerPro and a 10-pound Shimano Mastiff fluorocarbon leader.
He said the angle of the bait was key to many of his bites.
“I use a knot called a San Diego Jam or a three tag-end knot,” he said. “You can really tie whatever knot you want, but you want that bait to sit horizontal and natural in the water.
“I’ve been using that Z-Man Jerk ShadZ for years—long before they sponsored me—just because I feel really comfortable with them and they work.”
As for the action he was imparting to the bait, he said every fish was different.
“There’s no real jigging,” he said. “It’s more of a quiver. If they’re kind of eyeballing it, coming slower toward it, I just give the bait a little bit of a quiver.”
Sometimes Gustafson said he “plays games” with finicky fish.
“When they’re coming slow, I pull it up away from them a little bit sometimes,” he said. “You get a lot of bumps, too, where they hit it with their mouths closed. When they do that, I drop it back down and start the quiver like it’s an injured baitfish.”
Gustafson said he relied heavily on his Minn Kota Ultrex trolling motor to stay on top of the fish, especially on Day 2 when the winds topped 20 mph.
“Spot-Lock is one of the greatest things ever invented,” he said. “Every time I’d catch a fish before I’d even put it in the livewell, I’d hit Spot-Lock because, a lot of times, there were other fish following it. So, Spot-Lock kept me on them.”
Still, he said Mega Live was the key to his event.
“I know everyone doesn’t love the forward-facing sonar, but it’s mandatory equipment if you want to compete with these guys. Everyone has it, and if you don’t, you’re not even gonna come close to competing.”
The magnitude of being the first Canadian to win a Classic trophy was still dawning on Gustafson 30 minutes after the trophy was placed in his hands.
“It’s insane,” he said. “I’m kind of speechless. I wish I could have spoken a little better up there on stage. There are a lot of good anglers up there, a lot of people who love bass fishing in Canada.
“So, this is for everybody up there.”