Winning Baits

How Jeff Gustafson won the TN River Classic

Here’s the deal: Pretty much everyone fishing that Classic was competing against Gussy. They all thought he was going to catch those bigger smallmouths like he did at the TN River Elite in early March 2021 and would be the one to beat. And they were right. But Gussy didn’t do it exactly like he did it the last time.

For starters, this time he had forward-facing sonar, not just 2D like last time. Second, he hardly fished where he won it in ’21. Here’s how he did it, and huge congrats to Gussy for being the first Canadian and the second person not from the US (Takahiro Omori in 2004 was first) to win the biggest tourney in fishing. #stout

Going in and practice

> “Obviously I saw the potential of the smallmouth bite the last time we were there. Going [to the Classic] I was 100% I was gonna fish for smallmouths. It’s the Classic [an all or nothing deal].

> “When I got there [for practice], the canal where I caught them all the last time was pretty loaded, probably more fish there than [in 2021]. But it was getting pounded by everybody. Locals were pounding it – there was a 100-boat tournament at the canal the weekend before….

> “The 2nd day of practice it was getting fished way too hard. The fish were there but they were too hard to catch. I said, ‘The tournament is not gonna get won in this spot.’

> “The 3rd day I went a little farther down in Tellico and ended up finding the 2 places where I caught all my fish. One was a bit of rock on a ledge, other was a point with a little bit of rock on it.

> “There’s not very much rock out there. You could idle around for an hour and not see anything. I found a something a little different on the bottom…I think that’s why no one else got on it – it was pretty hard to find.

> “In this place all the smallmouths are glued to the bottom – that’s what probably saved [his spots from being found]. I learned that the last time we were there: If you saw something on side imaging that looked interesting, you would have to drop a bait down…if fish were there they would show themselves really quick….

> “I caught a few fish on other places as well. If I had one more fresh spot for [day 3], it probably would’ve made my life easier, but I was never able to find another one.

> “Most of the fish were around 28′, but I caught fish from 22′ to 32′.”


> “Day 1 I started in the canal. I just figured that if I could take a couple fish out of there over the 3 days, it would help me a little bit. I caught a 17.75-incher right away [min size was 18”]. Then I hooked a keeper and went to boat-flip it and it pulled off. Obviously I wasn’t happy – that was the first one I hooked. It ended up being the only fish I lost that I saw the whole event.

> “The first school I found, I caught that 18 lbs in less than half an hour. It happened pretty quick – they were eager to bite. After the 5th one, I pulled the trolling motor up. I spent a lot of the first day looking for new spots and never really found anything good.

> “Day 2 I started there and caught 2 off of it, then I went to my second spot and caught 3 fish there. I spent a chunk of the second day looking for new stuff, but I never found anything….

> “On the way back I caught a 3.5 and culled 2.5 in the canal. That was an important fish: If I didn’t catch it, it would’ve been a lot closer than it was.

> “Day 3 was tough…. I didn’t really stray from my program, and I never went more than 10 minutes without working on a fish. They were there but they were just super hard to catch. I think it was a combination of the pressure, the weather – flat and sunny…just getting warmer and the fish were starting to leave…it just seemed like they were lazy. Just very hard to catch.

> “It wasn’t like there were no fish left on these areas and I was just aimlessly hoping for a miracle. I had a lot of bad thoughts – should I do this or should I do that – going through my head, but I’m glad it worked out. I caught that 2nd fish late and obviously I needed it.

> “I definitely considered doing other things, especially in the afternoon, to try to catch a few. But I didn’t have a good backup plan or largemouth plan. I just had what I had and it worked out.”

Winning baits

> 4″ Z-Man Scented Jerk Shadz (smelt color) on a 3/8-oz Bass Tactics Smeltinator Jighead (has a Gammy hook). “3/8 was good because I wanted a heavy jig to get down to the fish I see on my screen quick, and also if I was fishing vertically it was a lot easier to keep it under the trolling motor.

> “I had all 3 [Jerk Shadz] sizes rigged up. I caught 1-2 on a 3.75. If the tournament was the weekend before, I probably would’ve been done in 20 minutes every day. They were snapping [in the colder water in practice, which is why then he] was using a 5-inch bait.”

> 7′ 3″ M G. Loomis NRX+ 872 Spin Rod, Shimano Stella Reel (3000), 10-lb PowerPro Braid (yellow, the color he always uses) to 10-lb Shimano Mastiff fluoro (new line).


> “Humminbird Mega Live obviously. Anyone that was watching saw how I was using that to see the fish, to keep my bait above the fish, and to just know when one was coming to check out my bait. I couldn’t do what I was doing without it.”

> Humminbird SI (and I think 360?) was key for finding the deep rock.


> “You want to keep [the bait] above them. They can see it from a lot farther away than you think. If you can make them swim a little bit – if they work for it – they tend to bite it more often.

> “I missed a lot of bites on days 2 and 3 because they were bumping the bait and not getting it good.”


> “A lot of friends and family came down for the event. It’s a project for everybody up north to get to Knoxville, and we had friends from AZ and FL that came.

> “…everybody that was at the event. The arena was packed. It sure felt awesome to have everyone there cheering….

> “Also B.A.S.S. – we get the rockstar treatment [during Classic] week. Everything is totally top notch.”

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