Jeff Gustafson shares his Bassmaster Classic-winning secrets with his friend and mentor, Outdoor Canada’s Gord Pyzer


Jeff Gustafson (left) shares a little glory with Outdoor Canada fishing editor Gord Pyzer

GORD: Winning a tournament is never easy, let alone the Bassmaster Classic, so tell us about what lead up to this impressive win on the Tennessee River.

JEFF: When I won an Elite tournament there in 2021, I caught all my fish in the canal between Fort Loudoun and Tellico, the two lakes that make up that section of the Tennessee River. For our regular league events, we get three days to practise before the tournament starts. It’s a pretty quick week, and I like that because anything you find is still going to be relevant a couple of days later.


With the Classic it’s a bit different. We practise on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday the week before the tournament. We’re off Monday and Tuesday, then get an official day of practice on Wednesday, when they do a mock take-off and check in. It’s kind of a shorter day. Then we’re off the water Thursday, and the tournament starts Friday. So, it’s a long week. There’s a lot of activities, a lot of distractions.

Anyway, on my first day of practice, I went back to the canal where I caught all my fish the last time. Obviously, that’s my starting point, and there’s still lots of fish. But after a day or two, it was getting a lot of pressure, and not only from our guys. There was also a local tournament on the Saturday, our second day of practice, with a dozen boats fishing in there. At that point, I realized I might be able to take a couple of fish, but no one’s going to win the tournament where I caught them all last time. They were just too hard to catch. There was too much pressure. So, I started searching farther down into Tellico. It’s known to have a good smallmouth population, but you don’t hear about people catching them very often. It’s not a well-known thing.

GORD: Did you think at that point about going to the bank and catching the more plentiful largemouth, or was it smallmouth or bust?


JEFF: If it had been a regular Elite event, I probably would have gone for largemouths, which is traditionally what most anglers are catching there. For this one—it’s cliche to say it—but you fish the Classic to win. I just knew from the last time that the smallmouth thing existed, and there were a lot more bigger ones than most people thought. There was a population that likes to be in deep water and I had the bait they like, a jerk shad, and the moping technique (see “The winning tactic”).

On the third day of practice, I started working my way down into Tellico, a lot of the time just idling around. There’s not a lot of rock or structure out there, and I went a few hours and didn’t find anything. I stood up and fished a couple of times, then I’d go up near the bank for half an hour and not catch anything up there. Then I’d say to myself, you got to get back out there to find one school, or something unique, that you can go back to and catch fish.


Around lunch, I was idling around a chunk of main-river ledge and I saw a little bit of rock on my side-imaging. I hadn’t fished in an hour or so. I threw a waypoint down where I saw the rock, turned the boat around, went up to the front, dropped the trolling motor, grabbed my bait and started dropping it down. I was in about 28 feet of water. When my bait got to 20 feet, the bottom just erupted. It was like a volcano of fish.

I stopped my bait and caught a 17-incher. The smallmouth have to be 18 inches to keep in East Tennessee—that’s a rule they have on a lot of different waterbodies there. So, it wasn’t a keeper. I dropped my bait back down and it’s the same thing—I couldn’t have gotten it to the bottom if I’d wanted to. I caught a big beautiful four-pounder. The rock extended for about 30 yards and I went to where it stopped, dropped my bait down again and the same thing. It was another big school, and they weren’t even the same fish. I caught another big one, then thought, why did I even drop my bait down there again? So I left.