April 24th, 2024

Canadian Jeff Gustafson ready to defend $1-million Bassmaster Classic title

By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press on March 18, 2024.

Canadian pro bass fisherman Jeff Gustafson celebrates winning his first Bassmaster Elite Series tournament in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday, February 28, 2021, in this file handout photo. The odds don't favour Gustafson successfully defending his US$1-million Bassmaster Classic title. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, Seigo Saito

The odds don’t favour Canadian Jeff Gustafson successfully defending his US$1-million Bassmaster Classic title.

The Kenora, Ont., fisher is listed as the fifth pick (7-1) to win the ’24 Classic, which begins Thursday on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. Predictably, Oklahoma native Jason Christie — the 2022 champion — is the 3-2 favourite.

Nine anglers are ranked ahead of Gustafson, who went wire-to-wire last year on the Tennessee River to become the first Canadian to capture pro bass fishing’s top prize. He was a 4-1 second choice, having won his first Elite Series title there two years earlier.

“I don’t have much experience (at Grand Lake) … but I have an idea of what I want to do and hopefully can find something special,” Gustafson said. “Last year was a life-changing experience, it’s the tournament you want to win and when you do it just makes you want to win it again even more.

“If I don’t, I’ll be the first to congratulate the new winner.”

For a second straight year, four Canadians qualified for the Classic. Also in the 56-angler field are Cory Johnston, of Cavan, Ont., his younger brother, Chris, of Peterborough, Ont., and Cooper Gallant, of Bowmanville, Ont.

The Johnstons are in a group at 10-1. Chris Johnson has two top-10 Classic finishes while Cory Johnston has been 11th twice.

Gallant, 52nd last year, is listed at 25-1. But he has consecutive top-10 finishes to start 2024.

Gustafson’s season has been a mixed bag. He was 24th at Toledo Bend in Many, La., then 59th at Texas’s Lake Fork.

“Not horrible but not awesome either,” Gustafson said. “I didn’t have a great practice at Toledo Bend so it’s always good to do better in the actual tournament than practice.

“At Fork, I missed the boat a little bit. I learned I probably have to get better at this forward-facing sonar stuff. It’s unbelievable how guys are using it and kicking butt.”

Forward-facing sonar (FFS) has been a huge story this season. Many competitors have significantly beefed-up the electronics on their boats, running between three and six units to better find bass as there are currently no rules against it.

Anglers can mount multiple transducers at one or both ends of their boats, with FFS providing complete coverage of what’s around them in real time. By watching a screen, competitors can pinpoint fish location, the depths baits run at, a fish’s reaction to them and when it strikes.

Gustafson won the Classic with just one unit. He intended to stand pat this season but added a second setup before Toledo Bend to remain competitive.

And with good reason. The first two ’24 winners claimed the US$100,000 top prize with over 100 pounds each.

In fact, the top-10 finishers at Lake Ford on March 3 all cracked the 100-pound mark led by winner Trey McKinney, 19, (130 pounds 15 ounces). Gallant was 10th with 100 pounds seven ounces, his first century mark.

FFS isn’t new to tournament fishing. But the technology’s recent explosion has prompted debate about whether anglers require experience or good electronics to compete.

Finding fish, though, is only part of the equation. Anglers must still determine baits and presentation to entice bites.

“I’ve got to figure out how to use it to put more fish into my boat,” Gustafson said. “It’s not going anywhere and we saw the first two tournaments that it’s going to be a factor in every event this year.

“You’ve got to catch five good ones every day if you want to be part of the party.”

Following Lake Fork, Gustafson remained in the U.S., spending time on the water refining his FFS game.

“A lot of it is just fully committing to it,” Gustafson said. “And it’s hard for me, and I think many guys who’ve fished for a long time, to give up on all the things you know and have learned to where many of these guys are putting their head down, going with it, hunting fish down and plucking them.

“I’m not crying about it, but it’s definitely easier said than done, especially on lakes here because there’s so many other species. Where I struggle a bit is just knowing what is and isn’t a bass.”

Gustafson said his FFS acclimation remains a work in progress.

“The plan is just to spend as much time in the boat and try to utilize all of the technology as much as possible,” Gustafson said. “I think at some point this season I’ll get my opportunities to have some strong events and hopefully I can take advantage.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2024.

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