Jeff Gustafson is nice, maybe too nice.
Anyone who’s met the affable Canadian can see he’s kind, gracious and would pleasantly fulfill any reasonable request for a favor.
Bassmaster Elite Series running buddy Seth Feider called him “the best dude on planet earth,” and “right as rain,” but added he is probably too nice. So nice, in fact, that Gustafson, 38, would have let Feider fish around his winning spot in the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Tennessee River.
“Yeah, probably,” Gustafson admitted. “We talked about that. I just said, ‘If you wanted to come and mess around that zone and not get on top of me.’ He just said, ‘Hey Gus, there’s a time for sharing where we get checks, and there’s a time for winning. And you got to win.’”
Gussy and Feider, from Minnesota, are part of the “Eh Team” that includes Canadian brothers Cory and Chris Johnston, Chris Groh of Illinois, and “we’re starting to let ole trailer park Matt (Robertson) in there, too,” Feider said. The group rents a house for tournament weeks, where Gussy cooks a mean chicken strip and runs a tight ship by cleaning up for the crew, and they share fishing info to varying degrees.
Feider said he talks the most with Gustafson, giving and getting intel like baits, colors and depths. Upon hearing Gustafson found smallmouth schooled up deep, Feider knew it presented a great chance, and he wasn’t about to horn in.
“I didn’t try it because I knew he could win this tournament,” Feider said. “When he said he got his limit in 40 minutes on Day 1, I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s over.’ If I asked Gussy if I could come, like on Day 2 or Day 3, fish right next to him, he would have let me.
“It’s different when you’re on some mediocre stuff — if we all fish in here we’ll all get a check. He was on something where it was his opportunity to win, so I didn’t bother him. Still, if I asked him the night after Day 1 if I could have fished next to him, he would have said yeah. I didn’t want to ask him because he’s too nice and would have said yeah.”
That kind of proper bassin’ respect for Gustafson is shared by fans, some of whom flocked to watch him yank fish after fish from the deep spot. There was a crowd of spectators in the canal when Gustafson decided to vacate so as not to draw attention, but he felt he left it in good hands.
“I missed saying this on stage Sunday. Those people were amazing. They never fished it,” he said. “A couple boats were there every day, and the first day, there was a bunch. After my fourth and fifth fish, I told them I’m going to get out of here and asked, ‘Will you guys leave this alone?’ Guys on a couple boats were like, ‘Absolutely, we don’t even have rods in the boats.’ I knew if anybody tried to fish it, these guys would have blasted them.”
Gustafson had other worries in second-guessing his fortunes, like did he just get lucky, would Day 2’s rain inhibit his bite? Even on Championship Sunday, he was worried about missing his early bite because of a fog delay.
“It was lucky, like super lucky,” the humble Gustafson said of discovering the spot and having it hold out all four days. “More than anything, I feel grateful every day that I get to fish the Elite Series and how I got super lucky in the way everything happened.”
Many Elites report they had no idea a victory was ahead, that everything just lined up. The Tennessee River was no different for Gustafson. Like most in the field, he was having a rough practice as conditions made the expected largemouth bite spotty. On the final day of practice, he caught several smallmouth bass in the canal, and with not much else, figured he’d mine it. He had no idea the huge brown vein he would unearth.
“Not a clue. Wednesday night you could have said I’ll give you three bass a day and you’re going to get 50th place, I’d have taken that all day long,” he said.
Basing the fishery solely from the 2019 Classic, Gussy and the field all attempted to entice largemouth with shallow crankbaits, ChatterBaits and spinnerbaits. While keeper largemouth played a premium role in others’ success, only around 30% of the field caught limits in the event. Gustafson tried them to no avail. At first, his primary spot was to be a nearby Loudoun cove where he caught three bass on the first day of practice, but he hoped to expand despite it being a well-traveled area.
“It’s funny, there’s a huge ramp right there and everyone launched at Tellico at some point,” he said. “Everyone drove right over those fish. You couldn’t see them. They were just relating to those rocks. It had all those ingredients.”
Finding it was part intuition and part fluke. While practicing along the banks of the canal, Gustafson spotted the bottom rocks on his 360, trying a Ned rig and blade bait with no bites. Clent Davis came along and tried with a Keitech swimbait, telling Gussy he had a couple follows but no commits. Gustafson left to seek largemouth again, but there was a voice in his head.
“What Clent said bugged me, so I went back and tried a Damiki fluke rig,” he said. “I drop it and 10 seconds, thump, catch a 16-incher with other ones with it. Then I caught a 17, then a 15. I was like, ‘Man, there’s a bunch of fish in here.’ But I don’t know if I can get a good one or not. I actually went a bit farther up and caught a keeper smallmouth. I looked around for more stuff on the Tellico side, and that was that.”
About that time, a struggling Feider checked in and knew immediately his road roommate would be a factor, what with landing three 18-inch keepers among his dozen catches. Feider caught four fish in practice and went on to finish 29th in the event with 24-3. Gustafson’s report left Feider telling Bassmaster LIVE’s Mark Zona that the Great Canadian Snow Leopard should have a camera for Day 1 if the show wanted some catches. The big worry was catching smallmouth that measured.
“I wheel in there the first morning and lit them up,” Gustafson said. “Had a big bag in like an hour. I literally went in hoping to catch a keeper. If I got two, that would be phenomenal. I had three in the first 10 minutes.”
The LIVE audience witnessed some of Gussy’s catches from an angler fishing nearby, Chris Zaldain, who couldn’t pluck any himself and left. Spectators soon flocked to the canal, inhibiting Gustafson from expanding on his pattern.
“We all love being on LIVE, it’s helpful and great for us, but that could have ruined everything for me,” he said. “Within an hour, there was like 20 boats that were all over me. I would have loved to try to develop more area there, but there were way too many boats.”
With a Day 1 leading 17 pounds, 14 ounces in his livewell, Gustafson again went searching for largemouth in hopes of finding a backup plan. He tried all the usual suspects, docks, bluffs, backs of pockets and current breaks, but fishing was tough. He then figured much of the field had to be struggling and realized what he needed to do.
“I am not leaving that canal no matter what happened the rest of the tournament,” he said. “If they’re like that tomorrow and the rest of the tournament, I’m going to win.
“On the second day after I caught a couple, then it was real. The fish are here to win. My confidence got better, and I wasn’t really too worried. I got a really, really unique opportunity, and I got to make it happen.”
Happen it did, with follow-up bags of 15-10, 15-5 and 14-3 giving him a winning total of 63-0, topping second place by 7-1. Gustafson became the second angler from Canada to hoist a blue trophy in as many years, preceded by Chris Johnston’s win on the St. Lawrence River.
“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” said Feider, who comically didn’t agree when it was suggested the cultural stereotype of “Minnesota nice” extends north over the international border to where Gussy lives. “That’s BS. We’re not that nice in Minnesota. We’re all just @#*holes up here.”
Point taken. Yous guys can fish, though. Gustafson called his winning technique, learned from the Lindners and initially used for ice fishing and walleye, moping. (See Gussy break the technique down with Ronnie Moore.) Feider, well-versed in smallmouth himself including wins in two season-finale Bassmaster Angler of the Year events, said he immediately recognized Gustafson was on a “winter hole” and knew he was a master at that technique.
“There’s a massive congregation, it’s usually fairly deep,” Feider said. “It’s where they’re going to live. In my part of the woods, it’s October to May. Down there it’s probably December and maybe a little into March. He could have caught a limit there for the next 10 days.
“I’ve not done it in any current before — that’s kind of an art. Impressive feat to keep the bait over the bass’ heads, 2 to 3 feet off the bottom, in 2 mph current, 20 or more feet down. I don’t know if I could do it.”
The Arctic blast the week before the event surely helped keep the smallies there, and Gustafson broke through to victory by instinct, good fortunes and going against the grain.
“A few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have done something different like that,” he said. “There was no pundit information that someone would catch them in 20 feet of water. I’m just lucky I did something a little bit different, looked somewhere different.”
And it was nice to see a nice guy finish first. Very nice.