We did it!!!

Sunday, March 26 was one of the worst days of my life. Then it became one of the best. Holding the lead for two days of the Bassmaster Classic, the third and final day was a tough one. Over the first two days, everything went perfectly. I caught the biggest limit each day and carried a lead of nearly six pounds into the final day. Catch another limit and I would win the biggest tournament in all of bass fishing. Things would not go as smoothly on day three.

The tournament waters, on the Tennessee River, were special for me because I won my first professional tournament there back in 2021. When it was announced that it would be the venue for the Classic last year I was excited to get back. There was extra pressure last season on the Elite Series because I wanted to make sure I qualified for this Classic. We qualify by finishing in the top 40 in points at the end of the nine event season in the 100 angler field.

When we fished the Tennessee River in 2021, I caught limits of smallmouth bass four days in a row and everything worked out great. This fishery is known more for its largemouth bass fishing, especially for tournament anglers because there is a unique regulation that requires smallmouth bass be 18 inches in length to keep. A smallmouth of that size is a quality fish in the three pound plus range. I found the smallmouths schooled in deep water in 2021 so my plan this time around was to look for the same pattern and hope I could make it happen again.  

After the practice was completed before the tournament, I felt like I had a chance. I had found a couple of spots that held schools of smallmouths and if they hung around for me, I might be able to catch some nice fish. The thing with the smallmouths is that if you were able to get a limit of them, you were going to have a big weight. For this tournament there are no points on the line, just a big beautiful trophy and a $300,000 first place prize so all of the anglers are fishing to win. I decided to spent all of my time trying to catch smallmouth bass.  

The first two days, everything went great and I had my five fish limit by mid-morning each day. It seemed like everything was going perfectly. I knew that the fishing was going to be harder on the final day. It was warming up very quickly so the deep water fish I had found were going to start moving shallower where they will spawn soon. I only had a couple of good spots and I had fished them hard the first couple of days so the fish were getting harder to catch and the weather the final day was clear with bright sun and no wind. The fish were a lot more cautious and simply hard to catch. Using the electronics on my boat, I could still see that there were fish around on my spots, so it gave me the confidence to just stick with it. 

I caught all of my fish on the same bait I used last time, a four inch Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ, rigged on a Smeltinator jig head, made by Lake of the Woods Sports Headquarters in Kenora. On the third day, I tried some different baits but nothing seemed to work and I was only able to boat two smallmouths.  

I was making about an hour long boat ride so the ride back to the check-in was terrible. I didn’t think I had any shot at winning and that I had blown this amazing opportunity I had. When I got in and heard that it was tough for the other anglers as well, I held some optimism that maybe things would work out.  

Jeff Gustafson shows off a bass, on his way to winning the top spot at the Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville, Tennessee. He’s the first Canadian to win the trophy. – Submitted photo

I would be the final angler to weigh my fish and when I was told I needed slightly over five pounds to win the tournament, I knew that I had enough to do it. The two bass I caught on day three were the two most important fish catches of my life, no doubt.  

The best part of winning was that there were so many people in Knoxville to be part of it with me. My family was there and many friends came from all over Canada and the U.S. Bassmaster has a tradition where they do a Champion’s Toast on Sunday night following the tournament and that was a great party where I was able to visit with everybody, including many of the anglers that I compete against, who I have so much respect for. It was a special night that I’ll always remember. 

It will take a while to all sink in, but it was an amazing weekend and the highlight of my fishing career. I owe many thanks to all of the people who have helped me out along the way to pursue my lifelong dream. This is proof that dreams can happen.