NOTE: Gustafson actually took first place in the tournament, winning over 300K USD. Story imediately below was written before the event. At the bottom of this story is an update describing the win.
Kenora’s Jeff Gustafson will compete this weekend in what’s been called the Super Bowl of fishing competitions at the Bassmaster Classic in Tennessee.
Gustafson has been a professional angler for just over a decade and currently competes in the Bassmaster Elite Series.
“It’s kind of the top competitive [bass] fishing circuit in the U.S. And the [Bassmaster classic] is our sort of championship event,” he said when reached in Tennessee. “I qualified for it based on last year’s season.”
Gustafson said there are nine regular season events all over the United States, spanning from Florida to New York and Tennessee. Competitors get points based on where they finish.
“There’s 100 anglers in the field, and the top 40 [are awarded spots in] the Classic,” he said, adding it will be his fourth time competing in the event, which awards the top place finisher a $300,000 U.S. prize.
“This one is kind of special because we were fishing on the Tennessee River in Knoxville and I actually won an Elite Series tournament here two years ago at the same place,” he said. “So it’s a body of water that I have a good history on.”
Gustafson took home over $136,000 that day.
He said the Classic is a three-day event, which changes locations each year.
It runs from Friday through Sunday, with the whole field fishing the first two days before the top 25 competitors fish on the final day.
“We got to keep [the bass] alive in the boat, we weigh them, and then they’re released back into the lake,” he said. “You just got to catch the five biggest bass that you can each day, and that’s how you determine the winner.”
The winner is chosen based on the combined weight of the fish over the three days.
Gustafson described the spectacle of the event, which ends each day at the Thompson-Boling Arena, where the University of Tennessee basketball teams play.
“It’s big like an NHL arena. Boats get pulled into the arena each day and there’ll be a pretty good crowd the first two days. On Sunday, the final day, the arena will be packed…with 15,000 people or more,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
He called the Bassmaster Classic a major event, with lots of media coverage and a chance for him to represent his sponsors — and maybe even get more sponsorship. He said the event includes some perks others don’t.
“Regular season events have a $5,000 U.S. entry fee. There’s no entry fee for this one, and everyone that fishes gets $10,000 U.S.. So it’s a big deal just to be in the event,” he said.
“And then obviously if you do make the top 10, you can win pretty good money. The winner gets a pretty awesome big trophy and just a lot of prestige.”
The event is also paired with the biggest fishing expo in the world, which takes place during the tournament.
“Everybody in the bass fishing community is at this event, from the manufacturers to media people and sort of anybody that has anything to do with bass fishing,” he said.
Gustafson said his life revolves around bass fishing and tournament fishing, which he’s followed since he was young.
“I had a father and grandfather that took me fishing when I was a little kid and I just caught the bug for it,” he said. “We have a big tournament in Kenora called the Kenora Bass International. It’s been going on since 1988 and when I was a little kid, my parents took me to watch the weigh-in for it, and it was just something that I wanted to do.”
Gustafson said he went to the University of Manitoba where he was “kind of on the ‘Keep Mom Happy program.”
“I guess when I got done with that, I knew that I didn’t want to get a full-time Monday to Friday job,” he said.
Gustafson, now 40, started fishing professionally in 2012. He first started on a different tour for six years before joining the Bassmaster Elite series, where his career series earnings so far total just a little more than $450,000 U.S..
“To do it professionally, it’s very expensive. The entry fees are one thing, but just the travel and all the equipment, it’s an expensive hobby,” he said.
“I just got some help to get started and I’ve just been able to sort of do well enough to stay at it. I’m certainly not like one of the top guys in the world. But I’m competing against the best in the world, and I’ve been holding my own and doing pretty well.”
“I kind of consider myself lucky every day that I’m out here getting to do this,” he said. “It’s sort of a dream to get to fish in [the Bassmaster Classic]. You want to make the most of the opportunity, but at the same time, enjoy being here and just try to enjoy every minute of [the experience].”
Gustafson said his boat will be equipped with a live camera feed during the first day of the tournament.
Kenora’s Gustafson wins Bassmaster Classic
Kenora’s Jeff Gustafson made history on Sunday by becoming the first Canadian to win the Bassmaster Classic
Gustafson’s win was so dominant he took title during the final weigh-in with only two fish, for a total of 12, versus his closest competitors having 15, during this weekend’s competition in Knoxville, Tenn.
“That’s my Stanley Cup right there,” Gustafson said while on stage accepting the trophy, which also comes with a $300,000 U.S. prize.
After the first two days, Gustafson was so far ahead, that many of his competitors basically conceded that it would take a disaster for him to not win.
“The first two days went as perfect as they could be. But I knew I didn’t have a lot of spots so I knew that [Sunday] was going to be a lot tougher.
It was a roller coaster because the first two days, everything was perfect and then yesterday it was far from far from perfect,” he said during a phone interview during his 21-hour drive back to Kenora on Monday.
He said it still hasn’t really sunk in and that he had about 1,000 messages waiting for him on his phone.
Sunday proved to be challenging for all the competitors.
“That was one of the hardest days of my life. I mean, since six o’clock this morning, my heart has been [racing] and I fished my butt off,” he said.
“I looked at 100 fish today on my [fish finder] and they were hard to catch. It was the sun, there was the pressure and thankfully two of them bit my bait.”
Gustafson said he didn’t feel confident on the ride back, but credited his camera guy for helping to calm him.
“It was great spending the time with him this weekend and he kind of consoled me a little bit, but I didn’t feel like I was even going to be close or had a chance,” he said.
He explained that he felt horrible on the hour-long boat ride back to the check in.
“Like all the way back. I just felt like I blew this amazing opportunity that I had,” he said. “And then when I got back, my camera guy said ‘you’re actually probably going to win. You’re in good shape, but it’s going to be close and you didn’t totally blow it.’”
“So once I knew that I had a chance, I felt better. It was still very stressful,” Gustafson said. “Obviously, I knew it was going to kind of come down to probably ounces and that can go either way.
It worked out in my favor this time and I finished second or missed getting a cheque in a lot of tournaments by ounces. You kind of catch both sides of that. This was a good one to come out on the right side of it.”
“Thankfully the first two days I caught enough to buy me some breathing room [Sunday].”
“I get my butt whipped by these guys all the time.,” he said. “So it feels good to be the boss after this one.”
Gustafson said he used a fishing technique that is really popular in Northwestern Ontario for bass fishing and catching walleye as well.
He said he uses a little four-inch a soft plastic, minnow imitator developed by Bryan Gustafson (no relation), who owns Lake of the Woods Sports Headquarters in Kenora and actually travelled with him for support.
“He actually makes the jig heads that I was using in the tournament,” he said. “It was just something I was comfortable doing. And it was a really good bait on this particular body of water where we had the tournament.”
His partner, Shelby, also from Kenora, usually accompanies him to most tournaments said she was so proud of him.
“I knew he had such a stressful day out there and I knew it was probably one of the worst days of his life thinking that he lost it. But that it was about to turn into the best, it made it that much sweeter,” she said. “The affirmation of that with a long career and it means everything.”
When asked on stage about what it’s like coming from a small town in Northern Ontario to the biggest stage in bass fishing, Gustafson said, “Oh, man, 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,” he said, thanking his sponsors.
“I wouldn’t be out here [without them] and my whole career has been in a Lund boat and that’s my office and I love that thing.”
Gustafson credited his dad and grandfather who took him fishing when he was a kid.
“And you know, if no one takes kids fishing, they’re never going to go,” he said.
“So take your kids, your neighbour’s kids, your buddy’s kids and dreams can come true.”
Gustafson said competitive fishing may make them relocate closer to the tournaments.
“We’ve considered it because it’s a lot of travel [to get to] most of the tournaments in the southern U.S.” he said. “I don’t know how long I’ll do this for, but for the foreseeable future, it’s my job. Tennessee is pretty central to the schedule and where a lot of the places that we fish. So, at some point, maybe that would be something that we do.”
But he said Kenora is home, and they’ll always have a place in Kenora.
“We love the summers up there,” he said.
Stories By Eric Shih, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Originasl Published on Mar 23 and Mar 28, 2023