KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With a five-bass limit that weighed 15 pounds, 5 ounces on Saturday, Jeff Gustafson held onto the lead for the third straight day in the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Tennessee River.
The Canadian pro has a three-day total of 48-13, potentially setting himself up for his first career Elite Series victory.
Gustafson holds just nearly an 8-pound advantage over Alabama pro Steve Kennedy, who rebounded on Day 3 with a 20-14 bag of largemouth that lifted him from 19th to 2nd place with a three-day total of 40-15.
Unlike the previous day where he suffered through a couple of lulls and struggled to land his fifth keeper, Gustafson caught fish most of the day Saturday, filling his limit of 18-inch smallmouth within the first hour.
“I went right back to my best spot where I caught all my fish yesterday, and it took about 40 minutes to get my limit and yesterday it took me all day,” he said. “The 18-inch thing is tough. I caught a lot of 17-inchers today. I threw a 13-pound bag of those back. You have to get the right ones.”
Using the same technique as the previous two days, the Keewatin, Ontario, native expanded his area and caught quality fish, culling twice around midday. He added that he felt a few more bass have moved into his “juice” spot.
“With all the current happening, those fish are moving around and hopefully there will be a little batch of them tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of those little flurries and it happens quick. Hopefully it happens again tomorrow.”
During the afternoon, Gustafson said he made a couple of big drifts searching for more bass, catching one or two occasionally but never going back over his best spot. With dams along the Tennessee River open to account for the heavy rain pushing through the area, the current in Gustafson’s spot has ratcheted up and he isn’t sure exactly how that will affect his bite.
If he is able to pull off the wire-to-wire victory, he will become just the second Canadian angler to win a Bassmaster Elite Series event. The first was Chris Johnston, who claimed his first title on the St. Lawrence River in 2020.
“I’m very confident there are five there for me, I just have to catch them,” Gustafson said. “I’m in a good spot and have a good program going and I just have to do my job tomorrow. I’m going to have three spinning rods on the deck and that’s going to be how it goes.”
After catching just two bass Friday, Kennedy recovered in a big way Saturday with the biggest bag of the tournament.
The jig he was throwing on Day 1 failed to produce on the second or third days, so Kennedy switched techniques on Saturday and found the big bites he needed to jump into the cut. He is fishing for bass migrating into prespawn areas.
“Yesterday was 45 and raining and I didn’t feel like they would be up there shallow, but everyone caught them and so I had to figure out how to catch them,” Kennedy said. “They called me on (Bassmaster) LIVE after I caught a 4-pounder. I went around the curve and caught a 4-pounder.”
As he was ready to make a move, the Bassmaster LIVE crew called Kennedy via Skype again — and again, the call proved to be a good-luck charm.
“I was ready to leave. It took forever to talk to them,” he said. “So, I went around the corner and there was one tree that I had run the boat over top of that I didn’t get a good cast to. I was talking to them and made one cast and caught that huge fish on LIVE.
“I kept wondering when they were going to call me again.”
The 6-5 largemouth earned the Auburn, Ala., native the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day and clued Kennedy in to the type of water he needed to be fishing. He culled several more times to reach the 20-pound mark, the first angler to do so in this event.
“They are moving obviously,” he said. “The main river is 47 degrees, the creeks are 52 or 53. They are wanting to move in but the water dropped. Some were coming in and some were coming out. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow.”
Floridian John Cox caught 14-3 to jump from fifth to third heading into the final day with a three-day total of 38-1. Cox caught two fish earlier in the day when the water temperature was still low, each of which was barely hooked.
“It fell to that 51, 52 range and I haven’t been catching anything on that Berkley Frittside until about 53 degrees. So, I kind of started off and I could feel it bump fish and every once in a while one would swat at it. The first one I caught, one little bit of the hook got him.
“I lost a really good one and then I came back an hour later to where I lost that good one and hooked it again. They weren’t eating. Once that water temperature rose to about 53, I caught the rest of my keepers.”
The water temperature has been key for Cox, who has had very little success with temperatures below 53 degrees.
“(Today) I knew the water was going to be kind of cold, but I didn’t know how cold,” he said. “It’s just so dead until the temperatures start rising and then they start swimming into the area.
“The crappie are coming in, the bass are coming in. It’s really cool to watch them come in there.”
The Frittside has been the bait of choice for Cox, an angler who historically hasn’t thrown crankbaits, after he realized every fish he weighed-in on Day 1 came on the bait.
“A lot of them weren’t hooked good. They would swat at it and I would get them,” he said. “I ruled out the ChatterBait and everything that they had to actually take.”
The Top 10 anglers will compete for $100,000 on Championship Sunday starting at 7 a.m. ET from Volunteer Landing. Anglers will check in at 3 p.m. and weigh-in shortly after at World’s Fair Park Performance Lawn.
Live coverage of the event can be streamed on Bassmaster.com and the FOX Sports digital platforms. FS1 will also broadcast live from the tournament beginning at 8 a.m. tomorrow.
The tournament is being hosted by the Visit Knoxville Sports Commission.