While not quite as hefty as the lunkers landed in the first Elite of 2021, big bass played significant roles in the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Tennessee River, Feb. 25-28. While limits proved critical, as they always do, having one or two fish that weighed twice or three times the average earned the pros more money and important Bassmaster Angler of the Year points.
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Mark Menendez kicks off our look at big impacts with a 4-pound, 3-ounce bass that was 35% of his 11-11 limit on Day 1, which put him eighth. He made the Top 50 cut at ninth but only managed one bass on Day 3 to finish 31st.
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Canadian Cory Johnston landed this oversized largemouth entered as 4-2 on BassTrakk to put him 11th on Day 1. He was among the 71 anglers fishing Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes who did not catch five on the day, but having a fish twice the day’s average of 2-2 gave him the highest start among those who didn’t limit.
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Gary Clouse, who led for two days in the first stop on the St. Johns River, caught only one fish in his home state event, but it was one of the right ones, a 4-11. Clouse, founder and president of Phoenix Boats, missed the cut but stayed busy doling out checks, giving Derek Hudnall and Brandon Palaniuk $1,500 each as they won a day with 9-8 bass and shared the overall Phoenix Boats Big Bass at the St. Johns.
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Jake Whitaker put his hat in the ring for Day 1’s bonus with this 5-6, almost half of his four for 10-15 that put him 15th. Whitaker, who had a horrific 91st-place finish at the St. Johns, finished sixth in Knoxville to climb to 50th in AOY points.
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John Crews topped Whitaker’s bass by an ounce with this 5-7 that bolstered a 13-14 limit and put him third. Crews couldn’t repeat the big feat on Day 2 with five weighing only 8-1, but he reached Championship Sunday and settled for 10th and its $15,000 payout.
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Big fish honors on Day 1 went to Brandon Card and his 5-9. The only true local in the event — he lived in Knoxville before moving this past year to North Carolina — Card started fourth and stayed in the hunt with Day 2’s big bag of 16-10. Three fish on Semifinal Saturday hurt his chances to win, but his 18 bass in the event landed Card a fourth-place finish and $25,000.
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The story of the event was wire-to-wire winner Jeff Gustafson, who on the final day of practice found the winning spot in the canal joining Tellico to Fort Loudoun. Although Gustafson didn’t have any fish topping 4 pounds in his four limits, the smallmouth he caught weighed well above the average fish. Smallmouth had to be 18 inches while largemouth and spotted bass only needed to be longer than 14 inches to be legal. Gussy started with 17-14 to lead by almost 4 pounds.
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On a rainy Day 2, Greg Hackney got the big hit parade rolling with a 5-7 that helped him to a 13-4 sack to stand fourth. With three fish on each of the final two days, Hackney ended seventh but his second Top-10 finish moved him up one spot to lead the AOY race with 193 points.
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Chad Morgenthaler’s 5-10 on Day 2 helped him climb 19 spots to 20th. Despite the fourth largest bass weighed Friday, Morgenthaler couldn’t capitalize as he zeroed on Saturday to fall to 42nd. He was the highest finisher with eight fish as the Tennessee River reared its finicky ways.
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Brandon Cobb gave up hopes of catching limits to solely target big bass, and it worked out somewhat as he cobbled out a good finish over three days nine fish, including these two.
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After Day 2, all the Top 10 had caught limits, and Cobb was 11th with only seven bass. A 5-11 and its near twin bolstered his 13-7 bag, impressive as it came on three fish. With two fish going 6-11 on Day 3, Cobb finished 22nd, a rather strong showing on a trying fishery with no limits.
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John Cox and his wild blonde locks made a move on Day 2 with this 5-13 in a 14-0 bag, moving him into fifth from 22nd. He found a more consistent bite the last two days, catching 14-3 and 14-9 to finish with $30,000 for third. There were 39 limits on Day 2 and the average fish weight went up an ounce to 2-3.
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The Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the event came from Brock Mosley in dramatic fashion on Day 2. Stuck on four fish with check-in time approaching, Mosley’s last cast produced this 6-10. It gained Mosley about 20 places as he weighed 14-10 and jumped to third. With only four fish over the final two days, Mosley finished ninth.
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While a number of largemouth anglers made noise in the rain, Gustafson’s Day 2 was much slower. His first limit came in little more than an hour, but he needed all day to catch five that measured on Friday. His average smallmouth was down to just over 3 pounds in his limit of 15-10, which allowed Card to trail his 33-8 total by 3-1.
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Caleb Sumrall, showing how his 3-year-old son, Axel, holds fish, was happy to recover from a two-fish, 59th-place Day 1. On Day 2, Sumrall had half his 13-4 in two fish to climb 34 spots, and another limit pushed him to finish 19th. Others who had big recoveries from Day 1 included Skylar Hamilton (86th to 42th with 13-10) and St. Johns winner Bryan New (85th to 45th with 12-1).
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Scott Canterbury, the 2019 AOY winner, made the jump into the Top 10 with his second limit on Day 2. His Day 3 was slower but he did land this 6-4, the second largest of the day, on Bassmaster LIVE. He only had one more small bass for 7-11 on the day to finish 15th.
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Gustafson made quick work of a 15-5 limit on Day 3, plying rock around 20 feet deep with a 3/8 Smeltinator jighead paired with a Z-Man Jerk ShadZ. With 48-13 over three days, Gustafson had 10 pounds on those in the Top 10 and threatened to run away with the title. In stepped Steve Kennedy.
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Kennedy, who stood second after Day 1, fell to 19th with only two fish on Friday. The three-time Elite winner, who is known for targeting monster fish, created some drama by bringing in the biggest bag of the event, 20-14, which included the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of 6-5. Kennedy cut his deficit to 7-14 and gave some hope that Championship Sunday wouldn’t simply be Gustafson’s victory lap.
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Fog added a bit more drama to the day as it delayed takeoff an hour and a half, cutting into Gustafson’s key morning bite. Also, locals did not believe smallmouth-only bags could hold out and win over four days. Each day there was concern Gussy’s fish might have relocated, but each day Gustafson found them on rocky outcroppings in the canal.
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Jason Christie, who began Day 4 in ninth, landed the big bass of 5-5 in weighing the biggest bag of the day at 16-5. Along with Phoenix Boats Big Bass $1,000 bonus, that one fish bumped Christie’s payout an additional 5K to $21,000.
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While needing a bit more time to fill his limit, Gustafson caught 14-3 on Championship Sunday and checked in early with the winning total of 63-0, earning his first B.A.S.S. title and $100,000. The 100 AOY points for winning puts Gustafson second in the standings with 177 points after two of nine schedule Elite tournaments.
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Gustafson is the second Canadian to win an Elite event, following Chris Johnston’s victory on the St. Lawrence River last season. The international flavor of B.A.S.S. is spicing up, as Carl Jocumsen became the first from Australia to win an Elite in 2019.