Elite Series season wraps up at St. Lawrence River

The final event of the Bassmaster Elite Series season wrapped up this weekend at the St. Lawrence River on the Canada/U.S. border out of Clayton, New York. This fishery, which includes the east end of Lake Ontario is known as one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the World and it did not disappoint this past week.

When the schedule was announced last year I was really excited for the final three events of the season, in Michigan and New York, where we would visit three of the best smallmouth fisheries in the World. I had experience at all three venues and was excited for some fun fishing the wrap up the year. I also had good track records are each of these waterbodies so I was expecting some good finishes.

Jeff Gustafson congratulates Hunter and Kyle Welcher on their Angler of the Year win on the Bassmaster Elite Series. 

Unfortunately, the wheels fell off somewhat in these last few tournaments and I had some disappointing finishes at all three events. I can’t make any excuses, other than I made some bad decisions and I just have to learn from my mistakes. At the St. Lawrence this weekend, I ended up in 51st place, missing the top 50 cut and a $10,000 payday by three ounces. Unfortunately, I had a dead fish on the second day, that earned me a four-ounce penalty, which was costly. I always take pride in taking care of the fish that I catch and obviously, we don’t want to harm them. I opened my live well to check the fish with about an hour to go and one of the fish was gone. I knew it was going to cost me and it did. I’m not sure exactly what happened to it.

The fishing showed out again at the St. Lawrence, despite some tough weather to start the tournament. While the river has plenty of big smallmouths, most of the anglers go out to Lake Ontario, which is known to have more big fish. The wind blew from the south the first day so I figured it would keep most of the guys off the lake and lower the weights somewhat but that didn’t really happen. A lot of the anglers still went out in the Lake Ontario ocean and they brought back big limits.

We got two days to practice for this tournament because we lost a day due to a wind cancellation the week before at Lake Champlain but it went pretty good for me. I had the dream day my first day out on the Lake, where my five biggest fish went around 29 pounds. I caught a six and seven-pound smallmouth and several others over five pounds, which was pretty amazing. I didn’t find a big school of them however, it was one here, one there and I never ended up catching a fish off any of those places in the tournament.

The first day I tried to get out to the big lake but there were eight to ten foot waves coming into the mouth of the river in front of Kingston, which was where I was trying to fish. I got out there and tried to fish in it but I couldn’t make it work. I ended up catching a limit for 19-8 on day one, which landed me in 55th place. I did get out to the lake on day two and caught 21-3 but fell just short of making the top 50 cut.

Jeff Gustafson with a seven pound smallmouth he caught last week at Lake Ontairo. 

The season overall was my worst in my five years of fishing the Elite Series, ending up 51st overall in the points race in the 102 angler field. I was doing well at the midway point but missing the cut in the final four tournaments dropped me out of the top 40, which earn the Bassmaster Classic qualification. Fortunately, I earned my spot in the 2024 Bassmaster Classic by winning this past year, so I’m lucky there.

Now that the season is over, I’m looking forward to getting home to enjoy the great fall fishing we have. I’m going to fish several tournaments locally in September and October and work on my game a little bit to get ready for next year.

It was an exciting finish to season with several anglers having a chance to win on the final day.  Patrick Walters of South Carolina caught a four-day total of 105 pounds for 20 bass to win the $100,000 first place prize. That is a 5.25-pound average per fish, which is unbelievable. He is a very successful angler, who has won multiple events now and is still under 30 years of age. Canadian Chris Johnston finished second with 103-13, while Japanese anglers Kyoya Fujita and Takumi Ito were third and fourth, also going over 100 pounds. Impressive stuff from all of those guys.

Finally, a huge congratulations to Alabama angler Kyle Welcher who won the Angler of the Year title on the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series. He had an amazing season on a variety of waters across the country which is extremely hard to do so my hats off to him.