KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A historic first for Jeff Gustafson.
Gustafson, of Kenora, Ont., became the first Canadian to capture the US$1-million Bassmaster Classic on Sunday. Gustafson led wire-to-wire in pro bass fishing's premier event, weighing 12 fish for 42 pounds, seven ounces to finish ahead of American Bryan Schmitt (40 pounds, 14 ounces).
"It hasn't sunk in yet, but it will," Gustafson said. "It's a big honour to be mentioned with all of the people who've won this trophy.
"Almost all of the legends in the sport have their name on it. It's pretty awesome."
But securing the iconic Ray Scott Trophy, which stands almost a metre high and weighs more than 20 kilograms, certainly didn't come easily.
Gustafson began Sunday's final round with a five-pound, 12-ounce lead over American John Cox. But Gustafson managed to boat just two fish that weighed a combined six pounds, 13 ounces to edge Schmitt and capture the US$300,000 winner's share.
"That was one of the hardest days of my life," Gustafson said. "I fished my butt off. I looked at 100 fish today (on MEGA Live Imaging electronics) and they were hard to catch.
"It was the sun, the pressure, and thankfully two of them bit my bait. The ride back, it was an hour boat ride … and it was horrible. I didn't feel like I was even going to be close or have a chance. Unbelievable, it's a crazy sport."
Schmitt weighed a final five-fish limit of 11 pounds, one ounce to finish second. He started Sunday's round in third, more than five pounds behind Gustafson and had assumed top spot after weighing his last five fish.
Cory Johnston of Cavan, Ont., also qualified for Sunday's final round. He finished 11th overall, his 12 fish weighing 30 pounds, eight ounces.
Johnston's brother, Chris, was 31st in the 55-angler field, his six fish weighing 15 pounds, five ounces. Cooper Gallant of Bowmanville, Ont., was 52nd with his four fish weighing six pounds, 13 ounces.
Gustafson and the Johnstons were appearing in their fourth straight Classic. Gallant, an Elite Series rookie, competed in his first event.
Chris Johnston's fifth-place finish last year had stood as the best-ever Classic finish by a Canadian.
Gustafson has been a force on the Tennessee River. Two years ago, he went wire-to-wire to capture the Elite Series tournament on the same body of water that made him the circuit's second Canadian champion.
Chris Johnston was the first in 2020 when he captured top spot on the St. Lawrence River at Clayton, N.Y.
Over his last two Tennessee River events, Gustafson has led for all seven consecutive days. And like he did in 2021, Gustafson not only targeted the same species — smallmouth bass — but used pretty much the same moping technique to catch him.
After locating the fish on his electronics, Gustafson used a jig tipped with four-inch plastic shad that he held a foot or two above them. However, as the Classic wore on, Gustafson had to vary his approach.
"They were getting a lot harder to catch after the first day so I was actually having to pitch at them and swim the jerk shad over top of them," he said. "Thankfully I got two of them to bite today but I'll bet you I had 100 look at it.
"I was throwing at fish all day. I had a lot of bad thoughts going through my head … but I stuck with it and just barely got enough."
And although the bite slowed down significantly Sunday, Gustafson said he wasn't overly tempted to change his approach.
"I didn't really have a backup plan," he said.
This marked the third straight event that at least one Canadian had reached Championship Sunday. Chris Johnston had cracked the top-10 the previous two Classics, finishing eighth in 2021.
That year, Cory Johnston and Gustafson both competed on the final day, taking home 11th and 21st, respectively.
Last year, Cory Johnston was tied for 26th while Gustafson was 41st. In 2020, Gustafson was the top Canadian at No. 31 while Chris Johnston was 34th and Cory Johnston was 47th.
Gustafson will have a little time to enjoy the Classic victory. The next Elite Series event is April 20-23 on South Carolina's Lake Murray.
"I've got a spot in next year's Classic now so the pressure is off big time for the rest of the season," Gustafson said. "I can just go and try to win every tournament now so that's a nice little perk to it.
"It's the highlight of my fishing career by one million times. It's been a wild ride. I'm only here because I'm a regular guy. I had a lot of help to get here, I have amazing sponsors or I wouldn't be out here.
"My dad and grandpa took me fishing when I was a little kid. If no one takes kids fishing, they're never going to go … dreams can come true."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2023.
The Canadian Press