KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Since the opening moments of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota, Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson has been counting down.
Not to a five-bass daily limit, but to the three-day limit of 15 he needs to be crowned a Classic champion.
After Saturday, he can say, “Ten down, five to go.”
Using the same moping technique he used to win a regular-season Bassmaster Elite Series event here on the Tennessee River in 2021 — and to take the lead in this Classic on Friday with 18 pounds, 8 ounces — Gustafson added five more smallmouth Saturday that weighed 17-3 and now holds a commanding lead with a two-day total of 35-11.
His closest competition going into Championship Sunday will be Florida largemouth specialist John Cox, who sits almost 6 pounds back in second with 29-15.
“I’ve just got to go out and get it done tomorrow,” said Gustafson, who has now led all six days of the two tournaments he’s fished here on Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes. “I don’t have any good backup plans. I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
In 2021, Gustafson did most of his damage in the canal that connects the two lakes, but his two best spots this week have been in Tellico. He started Saturday morning on the spot where he caught all of his Friday weight but found the bass were finicky after he’d pressured them.
With only two bass in his livewell, he moved to his second spot and quickly found the fish more cooperative.
“I didn’t really have to burn that second spot yesterday, but I went there today and took three fish off it,” he said. “They were three good ones. There were quite a few there when I pulled up, but I just kept missing them and scuffing them.
“Tomorrow, I’ve gotta fish perfectly. I don’t think I was really doing anything wrong. Maybe that’s just a little bit of the luck factor.”
As the water temperature continues to rise, Gustafson said he saw fewer bass in the deep holes he’s been targeting — something he said was predictable as more bass move toward the shallow areas for their annual spring spawn.
He has been identifying smallmouth on Humminbird MEGA Live forward-facing sonar and dropping his bait — a Z-Man Jerk ShadZ on a 3/8-ounce Smeltinator jighead — straight down, with an emphasis on keeping it just above their heads. That was more challenging Saturday with the winds topping 20 mph, and he relied heavily on his trolling motor to stay on the fish.
“It was tougher than it probably looked on TV, and it could get even tougher,” he said. “But I really believe I’ll have my chances. I just have to stay committed and do what has to be done.”
While Gustafson was out deep, Cox was using a technique that was basically the polar opposite. The noted shallow-water specialist employed a Berkley Frittside crankbait in water so shallow he had to hold his rod tip high to keep the bait from digging into the bottom.
With the winds blowing so hard, Cox went back to a protected area where he fished during the 2021 regular-season event where he placed third.
“I stayed in there, bounced around and grinded all day,” Cox said. “I picked up some other stuff — a bladed jig and a couple of other baits — but nothing felt right. So, I just stayed with that Frittside.”
Using the Kentucky blue and ghost morning dawn colors, Cox targeted shallow cover where largemouth are anxious to spawn. He said a predicted cold snap with an expected nighttime low of 49 degrees could actually work in his favor.
“With the water temperature where it is, the bass are ready to spawn,” he said. “I would rather them stay in this prespawn mode where they want to eat. That cooler weather could help out with that.”
Knowing he’s facing a 6-pound deficit and chasing a red-hot angler, Cox said he believes he might need 20 pounds or more to have a chance to win. But he believes that bag is possible.
“When I was fishing that spot back in 2021, there were three of us sharing it,” he said. “Between us, our biggest ones would have weighed 20. So, it can happen.”
Maryland pro Bryan Schmitt started the day in third place and held steady despite a slow start. Schmitt is targeting prespawn largemouth around shallow offshore cover, and he believes he found a spot late in the day Saturday that could play big during the final round.
“I found one little deal this afternoon that, if it fires for me in the morning, we could be good,” he said. “It’s the same scenario I’ve been fishing all week, just new water.”
Even though the bite on that spot took place in the afternoon Saturday, Schmitt believes it could be good early Sunday morning.
“For whatever reason, there’s some current there,” he said. “I’m thinking maybe they don’t have any choice but to be there.
“They’re the same kind of staging fish I’ve been catching all week. One leaves and another one moves in there — and that’s good.”
Gustafson leads the race for Rapala Monster Bag of the Week, which carries a $7,000 bonus, with the 18-8 he caught on Day 1.
Oklahoma pro Luke Palmer claimed the $1,000 prize for Mercury Big Bass of the Day with a 5-13 largemouth and took the lead for Mercury Big Bass of the Week, an honor that pays an additional $2,500.
Competition will continue Sunday with the remaining Top 25 anglers taking off at 7:30 a.m. ET from Volunteer Landing. The weigh-in will start at 3:30 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena, with one angler claiming the coveted Ray Scott Trophy and the $300,000 first-place check.
FS1 will broadcast live with the tournament leaders on Sunday beginning at 11 a.m. ET before afternoon action from Championship Sunday picks up on FOX at 12 p.m. with additional coverage on Bassmaster.com. A full viewing schedule can be found at Bassmaster.com/how-to-watch.
The annual Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by the U.S. Army will take place across the Knoxville Convention Center and adjacent World’s Fair Exhibition Hall with exhibitors on-site selling a variety of merchandise for fishing, hunting, camping and more. Hours for the Expo will be 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.
The Bassmaster Classic is being hosted by Visit Knoxville.