There was plenty of anticipation ahead of the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic at Tennessee River presented by Toyota, and while compelling until the very end, it did not follow the script many expected for this event.
Here are some of the biggest surprises from the week that was.
Gussy repeating his 2021 Performance
I can’t miss one more chance to take a dig at Bassmaster LIVE host and supposed “King of Fantasy Fishing” Ronnie Moore for getting this spectacularly wrong. He publicly doubted that Jeff Gustafson would be able to repeat his 2021 performance on this same fishery.
Boy was he so very wrong, along with many others.
While not exactly the same spot, Gustafson once again keyed in on brown fish on the Tennessee River and utilized the same “moping” technique he used to win his first blue trophy on this fishery in 2021.
Gustafson found several isolated rock piles outside of his Bassmaster Elite Series winning spot and exploited them with forward-facing sonar and a Z-Man Jerk ShadZ, finding enough 18-inch smallies to carry him to the Classic title.
The Elite event featured colder water temperatures with the smallmouth in the late winter/early prespawn phase. This time, in mid-March, many anticipated a full on prespawn event moving towards the spawn.
During official practice, freezing cold weather moved into the area. Had that cold weather stuck around longer, Gussy may very well have put together one of the more dominating performances in Classic history.
Gussy holds on for the win
More surprising than Gustafson repeating his exact technique to win, however, might have been the fact he was able to hold onto the victory by only catching two total keeper bass on the final day.
He said he saw hundreds of bass on his Humminbird MEGA Live imaging that final day, but almost none of them were willing to bite. Considering that smallies need to hit that 18-inch mark to be considered a keeper, it was a recipe for disaster.
But it turned out those two smallmouth were just enough to supplement his Day 1 and 2 performances and give him the edge over Bryan Schmitt and a hard-charging Scott Canterbury.
Aiding Gussy was the fact that fishing was tough for the rest of the 25 anglers fishing on Sunday. Before the Super Six anglers were announced, emcee Dave Mercer delivered quite the revelation. It was the first time in his memory not a single angler claimed the hot seat in a Classic before the final half dozen competitors weighed their bass.
The cut weight
It’s not quite the infamous 2005 Pittsburgh Classic, where a winning weight of just 12-15 lifted Kevin VanDam to victory, but Fort Loudoun and Tellico Lakes have not yielded the quality of bass we are used to seeing from the Tennessee River this time of year.
To make the final-day cut, Bryan New needed just 16 pounds. During the 2019 Classic, it took more than 20 pounds to make the final day. Even during the Elite Series event in 2021, an event with several wild weather swings, it took 18 pounds to land in 25th after two days.
Even during the 2021 Classic at Ray Roberts, which was shortened by a few hours on Day 2 because of thunderstorms, Seth Feider was the last angler to make the cut with 21-0.
Many of the anglers and fans expected the two fisheries to show their full potential during this prespawn event. Instead, it was incredibly difficult for a lot of anglers to catch a keeper, let alone a quality bass.
There’s a couple of reasons for that. During Classic practice, temperatures fell dramatically before warming up again for the tournament. It may have warmed up too quickly during the Classic in the minds of John Cox and Canterbury.
Water levels also rose during the course of the three days of competition.
It’s also a fishery that doesn’t handle pressure well, nor is it a place, according to Greg Hackney, where you can expect stretches of bank and targets to reload with bass.
Hackney catching smallmouth
With the idea of prespawn largemouth moving up and into waters that were dirtying up from rain and storms, fans likely expected Greg Hackney to go all-in on largemouth and repeat his 2021 success (a seventh-place finish). Instead, fans that tuned into Bassmaster LIVE saw Hackney fishing a spillway and catching smallmouth.
That was actually Hackney’s backup plan that became the only viable way for him to compete for a top 10 in this event. The original plan was to target largemouth, and he remarked that he saw the bass that could lead to as much as a 30-pound bag during practice.
His largemouth deal never materialized in the tournament and the smallmouth in that spillway were the only ones he felt somewhat confident about catching.
But even the smallies moved on him from day to day. The rainfall caused more water to come over the spillway, and the current seams changed daily.
He fell one bass short of his limit each day, but consistency of any kind went a long way in this event and Hackney notched a 10th-place finish.
Gerald Swindle is a fan favorite heading into any event he fishes, but this Classic had everyone believing this might be the Alabama pro’s time. The entire bass fishing world wants him to win one of those big trophies so bad. And with the tournament moving towards a junk fishing deal, it seemed to be the perfect setup for the two-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
Unfortunately, things did not go Swindle’s way and he finished in 44th. He threw back several short fish on Day 1 and could not find five keeper bass either day.
Luckily for Swindle, he is already in great position to make the 2024 Classic in Tulsa. He is 14th in the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings after the first two regular season events.
Young guns make the final cut
Because of their age and lack of experience, the College Classic Bracket winner often gets overlooked in the Classic hoopla. While the 1996 Ranger he drove in the Bassmaster College Series last year drew attention, some likely underestimated Louis Monetti’s fishing abilities.
But a grimy tournament, as Mark Zona likes to call them, is just what Monetti thrives on.
In a tournament where keeper bites were hard to come by, Monetti kept his head down and grinded out a limit the first two days of the event to qualify for the third day before falling shy of that mark with three fish on Sunday.
Speaking of young guns, Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifiers angler and 2022 Chesapeake Bay winner JT Thompkins also notched a Top 25 in his first Classic with a 24th-place finish.
Also often overlooked are the B.A.S.S. Nation anglers, but Jonathan Dietz represented the grassroots anglers honorably in his first Classic appearance. The Corry, Penn., angler stayed in the Top 25 all event and then rocketed up the leaderboard to 13th the final day with a limit weighing 12-7, the biggest bag of Championship Sunday.