“The night before the tournament, I would have signed up for a 50th place showing.”
Jeff Gustafson was out of his comfort zone. Three days of practice on the Tennessee River had resulted in five bass, total. This is not going to be a good tournament, he thought.
Fast-forward four days, and Gustafson was holding a blue Elite Series trophy after wiring the event from start to finish. Could it be real? And what changed?
As we now all know, Gustafson’s dominating performance was legit. But what’s left unexplained are the events credited with his breakthrough technique, one that we’d all heard of, and quickly forgot. For now, bass fishing resources will credit the Damiki Rig with Gustafson’s victory. And that’s fine, but far from the truth.
Let’s go back to another time in a distant place. The year is 2004, and Jim and Bill Lindner – the renowned northern fishing gurus responsible for Lindner’s Angling Edge television – are again at the bank. This time, they’re making another $50,000 deposit, the result of back-to-back victories at the Fort Francis Canadian Bass Championship. By now, the legendary team is considered nearly unbeatable in the area.
In college at the time, Jeff Gustafson took note. The legendary Lindners were his idols. Their technique was termed “moping”; the use of a shad-shaped soft-plastic, threaded directly on a jighead and fished vertically. It’s debatable whether moping began as a walleye technique that evolved for bass, or vise-versa, but it worked for both.
Through the years as both a tournament competitor and guide, Gustafson would develop his own moping game, eventually professing it as his best technique. “I’ve caught thousands of smallmouth on that thing. Thousands.” Gustafson emphasized.
The appeal of the moping technique lies in the ability to deliver a bait to deep fish, regardless of current. Walleye anglers in the north do the same thing in places like the Detroit River; Gustafson fills his freezer at the Rainy River every season. In each case, anglers have discovered the best way to deliver the bait and remain snag-free.
So last week, when Gustafson marked a few fish on a current-filled stretch of river, along with a little bait, he did what he knew best – drop a jig and mope.
“I had a Z-Man Jerk ShadZ rigged; I always do. So I dropped it down and caught two smallmouth back to back. They both had a school of fish following them.”
Even after the quick catches, Gustafson was far from convinced that he’d discovered much. “I was hoping just to catch a keeper smallmouth or two,” he said. The area’s 18-inch minimum size on smallies made it tough. “But I crushed ‘em,” Gustafson added. “It was like every smallmouth in the lake was in that canal. It was crazy.”
So how did all the other competitors miss it? They didn’t. A few fished around Gustafson, especially after they saw him waylay the brown bass the first few mornings. But their efforts resulted in blanks. The others, Gustafson said, “were Spot-Locking and trying to drop down to the fish. But the current was so heavy – I had my trolling motor on 100 percent and was losing ground.”
Herein lied the key. Gustafson, with thousands of hours of deep-water bass and heavy-current walleye experience, at a time far removed from modern-day Spot-Locks and dropshot everything, knew what to do. Mope.
“I chased the lure with my trolling motor to keep it vertical. And I dropped it down into the holes behind the rocks and gave it a little shake.” Gustafson’s biggest key to success was allowing his boat to drift, thus allowing his line to stay vertical as he made his way downstream, keeping his bait in the sonar cone on the trolling motor. It was vintage northern current fishing for fish that other competitors never knew existed. Truthfully, perhaps many locals didn’t either.
“The only previous knowledge I had of that place (the Tennessee River system near Knoxville) was watching the Classic show when Ott DeFoe won. And there was no talk of smallmouth, really,” Gustafson said, adding that any interviews of local anglers confirmed, “it was rare to catch more than a couple.”
But perhaps because he had nothing to lose, Gustafson went all-in on brown bass, despite having no plans to do so. “I didn’t bring much smallmouth tackle – like four spinning rods. And I only had a few jigs.” His bait choice was easy. “We used to use Flukes back in the day. But now, the only bait to use is the Z-Man bait. The ElaZtech stays perfectly horizontal.”
Another key lies in Gustafson’s willingness to try something off-the-wall and not get rattled. A credit, really, to his veteran status. “A few years ago, I would have kept going through the motions, not catching fish. But now I’m able to try other things and figure out something different. I do my best (in tournaments) fishing other ways than the norm.”
Jeff Gustafson is undeniably northern, and proud of it. You can see it in his choice of boat, hear it in his dialect. His fishing techniques often match his persona, this time resulting in a champion’s trophy a thousand miles from home.
Make no mistake. Despite what other sources may tell you, long before Damiki rigs, there was moping. An old-school technique popularized by the fishing legends of the North Country.
Now responsible for adding one more name to the list.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)