Time has become Jeff Gustafson’s most precious commodity.
In March, the Kenora, Ont., angler became the first Canadian to win the US$1-million Bassmaster Classic — pro bass fishing’s most prestigious title — going wire-to-wire on the Tennessee River.
And he did so in dramatic fashion, landing just two smallmouths weighing a combined six pounds, 12 ounces, on the final day to finish one pound, nine ounces ahead of American Bryan Schmitt.
Gustafson has since been besieged by media inquiries and appearance calls from sponsors. He has even received a request from Japan to fish there this fall and hold speaking engagements.
Japan has a rich fishing culture, but more for saltwater species. Still, it produces top-quality bass rods, reels and lures and four Japanese anglers compete on the Elite Series. In 2004, Japan’s Takahiro Omori became the Classic’s first international winner.
“I don’t know if it (Japan trip) will work out this year . . . but it’s a pretty cool opportunity,” Gustafson said. “Many more people want some time and overall that’s been good but it’s been busy.
“The part that’s a bit of a downer is our summers here are short and fly by so quickly. Not long ago, you felt, ‘Oh, it’s spring, I have so much to look forward to now for the next few months,’ and already we’re into July.”
In March 2021, Gustafson went wire-to-wire on the same fishery for his first Elite Series win. Each time he used the same moping technique — presenting a plastic shad bait on a jig just above smallmouths.
“I have a hard time saying no to anything,” Gustafson said. “I also booked a bit of guiding earlier in the winter so between that and the other activities and requests, it’s been busy.
“But again, something great happened and much of it is opportunity from that.”
Gustafson said the magnitude of his accomplishment only recently set in.
“It’s still surreal,” he said. “I still run into people I haven’t seen for a while or don’t even know and they’re offering congratulations.
“They’ll say, ‘We were pulling for you, that last day was hard,’ or, ‘My wife has never watched a minute of fishing on TV before and she watched the whole final day.’ That’s been cool.”
Gustafson said he’s humbled whenever he reads the names of past champions that adorn the Ray Scott Bassmaster Classic trophy.
“I can’t begin to explain that,” he said. “Kevin Van Dam and Rick Clunn have both won it four times and in my book they’re the two greatest of all time.
“Rick is 76 years old and still competing on the Elite Series and that’s truly inspiring. I’ve talked to him about fishing wherever we’ve been but I’ve also talked to him about life. He’s just one of those guys who’ll take an interest in whatever is going on in your life and whatever you want to talk about . . . he’s pretty awesome.”
Gustafson also had to resume his Elite Series schedule following the Classic, with tournaments in South Carolina (Lake Murray and Santee Cooper), Alabama (Lay Lake) and Texas (Sabine River). Action resumes July 27-30 on Lake St. Clair in New Baltimore, Mich.
The Classic victory cemented Gustafson’s spot at next year’s event in Tulsa, Okla. The top-40 finishers in the overall standings will qualify, with Gustafson sitting 45th with three events remaining.
Chris Johnston of Peterborough, Ont., is the top Canadian (tied for 39th with 354 points). Rookie Cooper Gallant of Bowmanville, Ont., is 43rd (343), followed by Gustafson (342) and Cory Johnston, of Cavan. Ont. (59th, 298).
Fortunately for the Canadians, the remaining events are on smallmouth fisheries, where they all traditionally excel.
“My goal is to legitimately quality for the Classic,” Gustafson said. “These next events are all smallmouth tournaments so I feel like I’m in a good position to still do that.”
Gustafson hasn’t felt a heavier weight of expectation since his Classic victory but admits it has somewhat impacted his approach.
“Maybe you lose the killer (instinct) a bit,” he said. “When we were in Alabama, it was really hot and we had a house on the lake.
“I was coming in and having lunch in air conditioning for half an hour, which I’d never consider doing.”
But it’s something Gustafson witnessed in 2022 after his travel companion, American Jeff Christie, won the Classic.
“I never saw him in the mornings, he was kind of getting up when he woke up to go pre-fish,” Gustafson said. “But this year, he’s up at the crack of dawn and putting in those long days because next year’s Classic is on a lake he’s familiar with and he doesn’t want to miss that one.
“Last year, I was thinking, ‘Man, it’s just that easy for him.’ Now, I get it.”
Gustafson earned $307,000 for the Classic win — $300,000 top prize, $7,000 for the tournament’s heaviest bag (18 pounds, eight ounces). But he hasn’t touched it.
“Sadly, a good chunk will go to tax because I have to pay tax in the U.S. and Canada,” Gustafson said. “It’s a lot of money and it’ll take the pressure off for the next couple of years but it’s not like I get to retire.
“I consider myself very lucky that I get to do what I do and I’m not going to act any differently now. We’d like to do some work around the house so that’s probably where some of it will go.”
More important is the prestige of being Canada’s first Classic winner. However, Gustafson doesn’t expect to be the lone Canuck for long as the Johnstons are forces on the Elite Series and Gallant, 25, already has Canadian Open and Bassmaster Open wins under his belt.
“Chris and Cory are two of the best in the world when it comes to bass tournament fishing and I’m jealous of how young Cooper is getting to start a pro bass fishing career,” Gustafson said. “There’s a pretty good chance before those guys are done they’re also going to have the chance to win that tournament.
“I’ve kind of grown up competing on the Canadian side against Chris and Cory. We’re friends, I know how good they are and they’re two of the most competitive people I know so it’s kind of nice I got to (win the Classic) before either of them. Now I’m introduced as the first Canadian Classic winner and reigning champion and I love hearing that every morning. But I love they also get to hear it.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2023.