It was a spectacular showing by Northland Fishing Tackle and Bagley pro, Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson, who went wire-to-wire to win the 2021 Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite on the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tennessee with 63 pounds. Gustafson caught a limit of smallmouth all four days of the event, something no one else accomplished. Winning by just over seven pounds, it was the first career Bassmaster Elite Series victory for the Keewatin, Ontario native. Gustafson took home a big blue trophy and $100,000 for the win.
But the tournament didn’t begin with wine and roses. Gustafson admits practice was tough for him, largely relying on watching a video from when the Classic was held on the Tennessee River a couple years prior.
“The only info I had was watching the TV show from the Classic a couple years ago when Ott DeFoe won. That was mostly shallow cranking. So I showed up with an arsenal of crankbaits and that’s how I expected to catch the fish. I caught three keeper largemouths the first day of practice, fished dark to dark, and the second day I never caught a keeper all day. The third day I decided I had to try something different and I found some smallmouths. I caught a couple, marked a couple, but didn’t really realize what was there and how good it would be.”
Photo by Seigo Saito, courtesy of Bassmaster
Fishing the canal between Tellico Lake and Fort Loudoun Reservoir, a nearly 40 mile run from take-off, Gustafson found just the right amount of current and hard bottom to hold quality smallmouths in relatively deeper 18- to 20-foot zones.
“It was lights out—way better than I thought it would be. There were more fish than I would of thought and there were some big smallmouths, too. My attitude was maybe I’ll be able to catch a keeper smallmouth. I was really hoping to catch two or three bass a day and survive the tournament. That’s how I went into it. So it was really incredible how it worked out,” remarks Gustafson.
“I pulled up on Day 1 into the canal between Tellico and Fort Loudoun. There’s a fair amount of current in there so I was working controlled drifts over a hard rock bottom the fish were using as a current break. It all worked out that first day, and I got a limit fairly quickly,” says Gustafson.
“The only unfortunate thing is with all the live coverage within an hour there were twenty spectator boats watching. They didn’t fish and didn’t really bother me but I kind of wanted to expand on what I found. So there were all of these boats around and a couple of our tournament guys drove by and everything gave the impression that something was definitely happening. It was caused too much chaos and attention so I ended up largemouth fishing for the rest of the day and caught one two-and-a-half pounder. Moving eliminated the thought of me leading that canal for the rest of the event so I’d have it all to myself.”
Over the next three days Gustafson figured out the best smallmouth bit was early in morning and he caught fish from the get-go of his arrival each day. “Getting there early, I was able to capitalize on those fish and it all just kind of came together,” offers Gustafson.
He continues: “On Day 2 I caught four good ones right away in the morning but it took me until about 1 o’clock to get me fifth keeper. The smallmouths had to be 18 inches to keep so that kind of added to the challenge because I was catching a lot of nice 17-inch fish. That was a little bit stressful.”
“Day 3 was the same deal and then on Day 4 we had an hour-and-a-half fog delay. I had over a seven pound lead going into the final day but I still had to catch some fish. So it was a little stressful knowing that I was going to miss the prime morning bite. We took off at 8:30 and caught a keeper on my first two drifts so that kind of set the tone. The fish were still there and I slowly picked away at it and ended up getting my five keepers. I checked in early in Knoxville and was pretty comfortable with what I’d caught and it was a good end result—a lifelong dream for me to have stayed in that seven pound lead for first place.”
In terms of how Gustafson caught his fish, he relied on the “moping” technique at the Tennessee River event, also known as Damiki rigging.
Photo by Seigo Saito, courtesy of Bassmaster
“I used the ‘moping’ technique to catch my fish, a technique that the Lindners spilled the beans on after Jim and Bill Lindner won the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship a couple years in a row using it. They made some videos on it and showed us all how they were doing it. And now it’s a popular technique in Tennessee and really a fish-catcher in Minnesota and Ontario. And not just for bass—guys on the Detroit River are fishing walleyes with it. The moping term, Ron Lindner came up with that. In the south everybody calls it Damiki Rigging. Up north we call it “hanging a minnow” or ‘moping’. In terms of components, the Northland Slurp Jig is a really good jig for the technique and for years we used the Northland Mimic Minnow jig and soft plastic.”
Gustafson sums up the feelings of pulling off his first Elite win and upcoming events.
“This was a huge surprise but I’ve worked hard to get here. Ever since I was a kid I’ve dreamed of this and now is no different. It’s a spectacular feeling. We get back at it in a couple of weeks and I feel like I’m fishing pretty good right now. I just have to keep it rolling. It kind of takes the pressure off for the rest of the year to be in good shape with points. The support I’ve gotten from Northland has been top-notch for almost twenty years and I love those guys. I’m just proud to be a part of the team. When it comes to Bagley, I feel like there’s going to be some serious crankbaitin’ in the tournaments coming up.”
Charlie Peterson, Northland Fishing Tackle and Bagley’s pro staff coordinator, is thrilled with Gussy’s win on the Tennessee River. “We follow Gussy very closely at all of his tournaments with Bass Live running all throughout the office. Being able to watch him do his thing, fishing differently from everyone else in the field and pulling off his first Bassmaster Elite Series win was incredible.”