With his recent Bassmaster Classic victory, Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson became only the second international angler to capture the crown, his Canadian roots and fishing methods paving the way on what must now be Gussy’s favorite fishing hole.
Fans will recall Gustafson’s remarkable 2021 victory in this same location – the Tennessee River near Knoxville – home to Tellico Lake and Gussy’s finicky, yet catchable, smallmouth bass.
You’ll also recall my prediction here last week matching the event’s outcome. Sure, Gussy was an easy pick, but it was his cleverness that shined through as much as his angling ability.
Gustafson knew deep-water smallmouths could play a key role in this Classic. He’d found them before; loads of them. Enough to win any derby. Last week, it looked even better.
“There was a lot of fish there, even more than last time,” Gustafson noted of his winning hole from a couple years ago. But, as predicted here at Bass War, those fish were so pressured that attempting to catch them was futile. “I realized there was no way to win the tournament there,” Gussy reported.
So off he went. Knowing that playing his strength was key to the title, and knowing that strength lied in catching open-water smallmouth, Gustafson did what any level-headed veteran angler would do. He picked up his trolling motor and went looking for new water, assured that not every brown bass in the lake lived in a previously publicized canal.
It wouldn’t be easy. Populations of smallmouth in the Tellico fishery have never been robust, and a strict minimum length limit makes many bass ineligible for weigh-in. But, after hours of searching, Gustafson found a spot with a few good bass. A while later, he found another. Slowly, very slowly, things were coming together. No need to panic. A seasoned professional hard at work.
A tidbit in the post-game press conference keyed us in to the real trick to Gussy’s trade.
“You couldn’t see them idling over them,” he reported. “You had to drop a bait.”
There it is. That, truly, was the key to Gustafson’s win.
During his last visit to the Tennessee River, when Gustafson single-handedly opened up an entirely new fishery on this system, he discovered that the bass lie outside the view of sonar. Possibly on the bottom, maybe somehow outside the cone; either way, the Tellico smallmouths don’t seem to mark well. It takes a drop, with a lure, to bring them into view on a sonar screen. I wonder if Gussy told anyone about that little tidbit he discovered a few years ago. I wonder, more, if he considered it so valuable then.
To find the fish, Gussy had to fish. He outworked, outperformed, and out-thought everyone else. Doubling up with the use of forward-facing sonar, the bass, now even tougher to catch, made Gussy work for it. But he’d worked before. Work is nothing new to Jeff Gustafson, believe me.
I’ve worked with Gussy a bit in the past and can honestly say he’s one of the most genuine, down-to-earth anglers I’ve ever met. And one of the hardest-working. Gussy does it his own way. He’s got a different boat, fishes a different way and hails from a different, distant land. He’s endured the logistic challenges, the inability to fish open-water during the offseason, difficult exchange rates and “no shipment outside the U.S.” every time he orders tackle. Gustafson’s worked for it, no question.
Gussy brings recognition to a different type of bass fishing, and the realization that the Northern contingent can win when everything is on the line.
With Gustafson’s domination will come a new generation of fishing, or further adaptions to push the norm. And, years from now, when newly discovered populations of bass make hoards of other anglers champions, they’ll have Jeff Gustafson to thank.
(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.)