Canadian pro Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson’s bass refused to play fair on the final day of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota on the Tennessee River.
But fortunately for him, the bulk of his work was already done. Despite catching only two smallmouth bass that weighed 6 pounds, 12 ounces on Championship Sunday and falling three fish short of the 15 he’d been counting down toward all week, Gustafson held on to win the most treasured title in professional fishing with a three-day total of 42-7.
As the first Canadian Classic champion ever, he 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,” said Gustafson, who now holds two-straight wire-to-wire victories on this fishery. “I thought I’d blown it for sure. I thought there was no way I’d even be in the mix. “When I got back and looked at BassTrakk, I still wasn’t sure. I knew I didn’t have much more than what mine said and the guys behind me both had limits that might have been heavier than what they had entered.”
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,” Gustafson 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, Gustafson 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 keeper — and by then, he had unofficially lost the lead on BassTrakk.
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-in 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.” The 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota set a new record, welcoming a crowd of 163,914 fans to Classic Week activities. Gustafson claimed the $7,000 Rapala Monster Bag of the Week with the 18-8 limit he caught on Day 1. As a member of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Canterbury is bringing home an additional $20,000.
He also earned the $1,000 BassTrakk contingency for the closest estimate of his weight throughout the first two days of the event. Florida’s Drew Benton took home an additional $7,500 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program, while John Cox earned $2,500 for being the second-highest placing entrant. Kentucky pro Matt Robertson won $1,000 for the Mercury Big Bass of the Day with a 5-6. Oklahoma pro Luke Palmer claimed the $2,500 prize for Mercury Big Bass of the Week with a 5-13 he caught on Day 2.
The Bassmaster Classic is being hosted by Visit Knoxville.