Canadians Cory Johnston 5th, Chris Johnston 7th & Cooper Gallant 48th
By Brain Brasher
BASSMASTER PRESS RELEASE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jeff Gustafson’s motto during the opening round of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota seemed to be, “Why make it complicated?” The fifth-year Bassmaster Elite Series angler from Kenora, Ontario, Canada, took the lead Friday in the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing on the Tennessee River — and instead of starting over or trying to reinvent something, he caught his bass the same way he did when he won a regular-season Elite Series event on this same venue back in 2021.
Fishing the same canal that connects Fort Loudoun Reservoir and Tellico Lake where he parked himself during that 2021 event, the 40-year-old pro caught a five-bass limit of smallmouth that weighed 18 pounds, 8 ounces and positioned himself for a run at a spot in pro fishing history.
“There’s just something about this place,” he said. “I’m jiving with it, and it’s worked so far. The technique I’m doing is one of my favorites. It’s a technique that I feel like I’m probably pretty good at compared to the rest of the field.
“You don’t get that opportunity at most of the venues we go to, but here it works.”
During his 2021 victory, Gustafson used a tactic referred to as “moping” that involves identifying smallmouth on forward-facing sonar — he uses Humminbird MEGA Live technology — and dangling a bait just within their strike zone. He did the same thing on Friday and expanded the areas where it will work.
“There’s a lot of fish in those same spots as 2021, but they’ve just been fished so hard that they’re really hard to catch,” he said. “The bites are real nippy and they look at it and they’re lazy.
“In the couple of places that I’ve found where I don’t think they’ve really been fished, they’re a lot easier to catch.”
Since he’s targeting deeper fish, Gustafson didn’t seem quite as concerned as some about an approaching weather system that is expected to bring 20 to 30 mph winds to the region for Saturday’s second round.
“It’s gonna make it a little more challenging, but it’s not like we’re going out on Lake Ontario,” he said. “It’s just going to make it a little more challenging on the motor. You make a bit more noise. But hopefully, it’s not going to bother the fish.”
Gustafson’s total was 1-1 better than that of Brandon Lester, an Elite Series pro from Fayetteville, Tenn., whose five-bass limit of 17-7 gave the impression that he had a much more productive day than he really did.
Lester said he caught only nine keepers — all largemouth — and none of the bass he weighed in were in his livewell until around 11:30 a.m. But a quick flurry saw him put three good keepers in the boat in a little over 30 minutes, and then he finished strong with a 4-10 just before 2 p.m. and a 2-8 just before quitting time at 3.
“I was honestly getting a little tight around 11, but I just kept telling myself it was gonna happen,” said Lester, who claimed his first career Elite Series victory last year on another Tennessee River fishery, Pickwick Lake. “When it started happening, it was just ‘bam, bam, bam.’”
Lester said it was a typical prespawn largemouth scenario, with the bass roaming around during the morning hours with the cooler water temperatures and then locking down on shallow cover as the water temps rose.
“On up in the day, they’ll slide up next to something — something you can pitch a bait next to — and you’ll catch them,” he said. “I did most of my damage in 57.9-degree water today, and that’s what I want to see.
“It was 52 degrees during practice. That’s cold. There’s a big difference between 52- and 57-degree water.”
Lester expects a similarly slow morning Saturday.
“I’m going go into it with the mindset that anything I catch before 10 o’clock is a bonus,” he said. “We’ve got a weather system coming in tomorrow with some wind that’s supposed to blow pretty hard.”
The weather concerns third-place angler Bryan Schmitt of Maryland as well since he’s basically following the same strategy as Lester of fishing shallow cover for largemouth with his best bites coming later in the day.
Schmitt, who has two Elite Series wins on his resume, started slowly just like Lester but then moved from his planned depth of 8 to 12 feet to a shallower range of 4 to 8 feet. That’s where he found all of the bass he weighed in for a solid limit of 16-1.
“What I noticed is that the water has come up a little bit and the water temperature came up a little bit,” Schmitt said. “I kind of moved up with the fish and found them. The patterns and lures were the same, just a little bit further up the hill.”
Schmitt said the bass could move even shallower, but the approaching weather could make his strategy difficult.
“I feel like I’m fishing places where more will just keep coming to me,” he said. “They’re just staging, staging, staging.
“If the water temperature keeps rising, they could go from 4 to 8 feet up into zero to 4 feet. But the wind is supposed to blow 20 to 30, and if there are 3-foot rollers crashing onto the fish, that could mess everything up.”
Canadian pro Chris Johnston claimed $1,000 for Mercury Big Bass of the Day with a 4-15 largemouth.
Competition will continue Saturday with the full field of 55 anglers taking off at 7:30 a.m. ET from Volunteer Landing. The weigh-in will be held at 3:30 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena, with only the top 25 anglers advancing to Championship Sunday with a chance to win the Ray Scott Trophy — the most coveted prize in professional angling — and the $300,000 first-place check.