Big bass of Knoxville Classic

In comparison to many other bass tournaments, the bass weren’t that big at the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota – they just meant much, much more. The overall Mercury Big Bass from the Tennessee River out of Knoxville, Tenn., came close to matching the largest of 2019 on the same fishery. However, history was made on the stingy and ever-changing fishery near the Smoky Mountains.
Jonathan Dietz, the third and final qualifier from the B.A.S.S. Nation, was the first angler to post a catch on BassTrakk. From Corry, Pa., Dietz is doing well in the Elite Qualifier series this year. He was smiles in Thompson-Boling Arena to bring in a limit of 10-1 on Day 1. Despite only three fish on Day 2, Deitz remained 20th before posting the second-best Championship Sunday wieght with 12-2 to finish his first Classic 13th.
Brandon Card, among the favorites who grew up on the fishery, started 14th with 11-15. Still recovering from offseason illness of viral meningitis with Bell’s palsy, Card displayed resilience by even working back to start the Elite season and fish the championship. He really wanted to compete in a “home” Classic. With 11-3 on Day 2, Card moved up to 11th but with only two fish on Sunday finished 15th.
Scott Martin’s quest to finish family business looked to have a hopeful start as he posted a 4-3 on BassTrakk. Yet he only landed three fish for 7-7 to start 33rd, where he ended up finishing.
Brandon Palaniuk, vying for a Classic crown to go along with six B.A.S.S. wins and two Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles, entered a 5-0 on BassTrakk. He came in with two for 6-3, saying he “big-eyed” the bass that weighed 4-11. Palaniuk, who said he shoots for wins event though it sometimes translates to low finishes, took 48th out of 55 competitors.
Cory Johnston of Cavan, Canada, started in fifth place with 14-2, which included a couple of smallmouth near 4 pounds. Johnston was among three Canadians in the top seven after Day 1, but a rough Day 3 was his demise as he took 11th.
Jay Przekurat, of Stevens Points, Wis., had a 4-0 and was in the hunt with 14-0 on Day 1, good for sixth. Przekurate followed with a limit of 11-6 on Day 2 but fell to eighth. One of five anglers to bring limits in all three days, Przekurat finished seventh with 34-9.
Chris Johnston of Otonabee, Ontario, Canada, landed the Mercury Big Bass on Day 1, and the 4-15 helped him to stand fifth with 14-2. Johnston had only one fish on Day 2 to fall to 31st, out of the Top 25 cut.
Bryan Schmitt had a couple of 4-pounders in totaling 16-1. It put the Deale, Md., angler in third place. Winner of two Elite events, Schmitt was fishing his second Classic. After overnight storms hit the fishery, Schmitt figured the fish out and caught 13-12 to land in third.
Another favorite on the Tennessee river fishery was Brandon Lester. The Fayetteville, Tenn., pro entered this as a 4-8 on BassTrakk, and he went on to total 17-7, just 1-1 out of the lead. Lester caught 10-2 on Day 2 to fall to sixth, where he finished with 35-10.
Canadian Jeff Gustafson, who won wire-to-wire in the 2021 Elite tournament here, used the same pattern to lead after Day 1. Gussy, who fished for deep smallmouth in the canal between Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes, plied that spot again and added two more areas as he culled to the top limit of 18-8. He took over the lead with 14-0 at 9:48 a.m.
On Day 2, Chris Zaldain caught a fish almost as big as his Day 1 total for two bass. Zaldain, who finished 12th here in 2019 including the big bag of 21-12, made noise on BassTrakk with a 4-8. It gave the impression he figured out the big bite, but again they were few and far between. He only landed two again to finish 37th, proving this Classic was also about quantity.
Caleb Kuphall followed up three fish on the first day with a limit weighing 14-1. It catapulted the pro from Mukwonago, Wis., 21 spots to 16th, and another limit on Sunday left him 12th.
Austin Felix also made a big climb on Day 2, when field  matched the 24 limits of Day 1 and the average fish weight of 2-5. Felix had 15-12, the second best of the day, and climbed into ninth from 30th. On Championship Sunday, only eight of the 25 anglers caught limits, and Felix didn’t bring one in, falling to 22nd.
Drew Benton started eighth with 13-5 then busted a bag weighing 15-1, one of five on Day 2 topping 15 pounds, to move into fourth, albeit 7-5 out of the lead. The Panama City, Fla., pro was competing in his sixth Classic.
Oklahoma’s Luke Palmer had an awful Classic experience. On Day 1, he suffered a 3-pound penalty for missing check-in time by three minutes, dropping 13 places to 42nd. After a mechanical failure forced him into a backup boat on Day 2, Palmer caught the Mercury Big Bass of 5-13. While he missed the cut by less than a pound, his big bass earned him $3,500 from Mercury as his fish took overall honors and its $2,500.
Scott Canterbury of Odenville, Ala., was ninth after Day 1 with 12-13 then moved into fifth with 15-3, which included a pair of 4-pound bass.
John Cox was in the hunt with 14-4 on Day 1 to hold fourth. The pro from Debary, Fla., then moved to second with 15-11, the third-best on Day 2. Cox only had four fish weighing 6-14 on Championship Sunday, finishing 5-10 back of the winner.
Gustafson of Kenora, Ontario, busted Day 2’s biggest bag of 17-3 to build a lead of 5-12 over Cox. He regained the lead from Lester at 9:15 and didn’t have to look back. Gussy had worries that his schools of deep smallmouth were breaking up, and he noted enticing them to bite was more difficult on Day 2, so he had plenty to fret on Championship Sunday.
Matt Roberston, who went big fish hunting, found quality but not the quantity – he never could muster a limit. He had three for 10-15, two for 8-1 then two for 7-12 – including Championship Sunday’s Mercury Big Bass of 5-6, to finish 18th.
Gustafson did end up struggling on Sunday and left the door open, and Benton was among those trying to crash it down. Benton, however, finished one bass shy of a limit with 9-13. He needed a fifth fish weighing 4-5 to win.
Canterbury, the 2019 Bassmaster Angler of the Year, vied for his second major title as he also was within one bite of overtaking Gustafson. Canterbury finished with a limit of 12-1, finishing third just 2-7 from having his name etched on the Ray Scott trophy.
Schmitt was even closer, but the big bites from previous day escaped him. He had a limit for 11-1, just 1-9 back of the winning total. His 40-14 was good for $50,000, yet that barely takes out the sting of coming in second at the Classic.
Despite landing only two fish, Gustafson held off all the charges to win the 2023 Classic with 42-7. He is the first Canadian to win the title, and he took the $300,000 first-place prize north of the border and another $7,000 for the Rapala Monster Bag of 18-8 on Day 1.