Video: Jeff Gustafson Hangs on to Win 2023 Bassmaster Classic

Jeff Gustafson of Kenora, Ontario, became the first Canadian to win the “Super Bowl of bass fishing,” the 2023 Bassmaster Classic.

Video: Jeff Gustafson Hangs on to Win 2023 Bassmaster Classic

Photos from Bassmaster and Jeff Gustafson Facebook

If you’re a fan of watching professional anglers catch high numbers of bass, then the 2023 Bassmaster Classic on the Tennessee River won’t be remembered as a great event. That said, if you enjoy high drama, then this year’s tournament was must-see TV.

Let me provide a bit of background in case you aren’t a regular fan of professional bass fishing. The annual Bassmaster Classic is considered by many to the be “Super Bowl of bass fishing.” And like the Super Bowl, it moves locations from year to year. The 2023 event took place on the Tennessee River, with host city Knoxville.

It isn’t a first-come, first-serve tournament; anglers must qualify for the prestigious event. This year, 55 top-notch professionals hit the water with hopes of hoisting the Ray Scott Trophy. All 55 anglers fish the first two days of the event, and each one can keep his biggest five bass each day. The bass are kept alive in oxygenated live wells, weighed on stage in front of a large crowd, then Bassmaster staff takes care of the fish immediately after the weigh-in to ensure they’re returned to the Tennessee River in good shape.

Each angler’s 2-day weight (maximum of 10 bass) is compiled and then the top 25 anglers go out for a final day. The weights are cumulative.

Canadian Jeff Gustafson — "Gussy" to his friends and fans — was the leader after 2 days, with a weight of 35 pounds, 11 ounces (10 bass). Rounding out the top five were John Cox (29 pounds, 15 ounces), Bryan Schmitt (29 pounds, 13 ounces), Drew Benton (28 pounds, 6 ounces) and Scott Canterbury (28 pounds even). Each of these anglers had brought five bass to the weigh-in each day. 

As you can see from the weights listed, the leaders were bringing bass weighing about 3 pounds to the scales. Yes, there are bigger bass in the Tennessee River, but during this event at least, 5-pounders were rare.

Heading into day No. 3, Gussy had a lead of 5 pounds, 12 ounces, over second place. His lead over fifth place was 7 pounds, 11 ounces. This is important because while fishing could be considered tough during the first 2 days, it would turn out to be even more difficult on the final day.

Betting on Smallmouth

Unlike all of his competitors, Gussy gambled and went “all in” targeting the Tennessee River’s smallmouth bass, which aren’t as plentiful as largemouth bass. However, if you can find the smallmouth, they generally are big. And this is important to understand before reading further: Anglers could keep any largemouth bass measuring at least 15 inches, but state law mandates that a smallmouth must measure at least 18 inches to be put in the live well. This means that on the final day, if Gussy caught a 17.75-inch smallmouth, he’d have to release it. But if one of his competitors caught any largemouth of 15 inches or longer, he could keep it.

On the Classic’s final day, the 25 qualifying anglers had 8 hours to fish (same as the previous 2 days). And it’s critical that you aren’t late for your official end-of-day check-in time. Anglers suffer a 1-pound penalty for every minute they’re late, and after 15 minutes your entire catch for that day is disqualified.

This information is important to understand because the portion of the Tennessee River that Gussy was targeting deep-water smallmouth was about a 1-hour boat ride from the Classic launch/check-in docks. In other words, he’s fishing only 6 hours (max) because he’s driving for 2 hours. In fact, on the final day, to ensure he had enough gas to make the long run back to check-in, Gussy took a break from fishing and stopped at a marina to purchase more gas.

With a lead of 5 pound 12 ounces over second place, it was clear that if Gussy could land five 18-inch (or larger) smallmouth bass on the final day, he’d be virtually impossible to pass. An 18-inch smallmouth from the Tennessee River weighs more than 3 pounds, and if he caught five more smallmouth for 17 or 18 pounds (like he did during days one and two), there would be no way someone could catch him. However, if Gussy had trouble finding a limit of legal smallmouth, then that would open the door for other anglers to catch him.

And that’s exactly what happened. Many veteran anglers with knowledge of the Tennessee River questioned whether it was possible to catch a limit of legal smallmouth each day of the 2023 Classic, and it turns out they were correct.

Through the course of the final day (about 5.5 hours of fishing), Gussy was regularly seeing deep-water smallmouth bass on his forward-facing sonar (Humminbird Mega Live), but they wouldn’t hit his 4-inch Z-Man Jerk ShadZ (smelt color) rigged on a 3/8-ounce Bass Tactics Smeltinator Swimbait head (below).

Check out the brief Facebook video immediately below; Gussy explains his plans prior to the tournament and shows you his favorite lure for Tennessee River smallies. (Be sure to "click to enter fullscreen" and turn up the volume for best viewing.)

Eventually, Gussy caught two legal smallmouth, but that was it. With only two bass in his live well, he raced the 1 hour back to the check-in, with thoughts that one of his competitors had caught a limit of five bass and would take the title.

"I had an hour ride back to check-in, and it was horrible," Gussy said during the televised weigh-in. "I thought I'd blown it for sure. I thought there was no way I'd even be in the mix." 

As it turned out, Gustafson’s two smallmouth weighed 6 pounds, 12 ounces, giving him 42 pounds, 7 ounces, for the 3 days, and he finished 1 pound, 9 ounces, ahead of second-place finisher Bryan Schmitt, who had started the final day in third place. Schmitt caught five bass for 11 pounds, 1 ounce (all largemouth); 3-day total of 40 pounds, 14 ounces.

For the victory, Gussy took home the first-place check of $300,000 and the coveted Ray Scott Bassmaster Classic Trophy. He also became the first Canadian to win a Classic.

Check out the YouTube video below to watch Jeff Gustafson catch his second smallmouth during the final day of the 2023 Bassmaster Classic. It turned out to be his final fish of the day, and it was just enough to give him the victory.


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