KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Canadian Jeff Gustafson will be the man to beat Sunday in the final round of the US$1-million Bassmaster Classic.
Gustafson, of Kenora, Ont., remained first overall Saturday after weighing a five-fish limit of 17 pounds, three ounces (biggest bag of the day) on the Tennessee River. That gave Gustafson a two-day total of 35 pounds, 11 ounces and a lead of five pounds, 12 ounces ahead of American John Cox.
Gustafson is looking to become the first Canadian to win pro bass fishing's premier event. The best-ever finish by a Canuck came last year when Chris Johnston, of Peterborough, Ont., held the lead on the final day before taking home fifth spot overall.
"I hope so, man," Gustafson said of potentially earning the historic victory. "But (there's) still a long way to go.
"We have to catch them again (Sunday). It's tough fishing against these guys, everyone is so good."
If Gustafson can secure the victory, he'd become just the second non-American Classic winner. So far, Japan’s Takahiro Omori (2004) is the only International competitor to do so.
Gustafson has been a force on the Tennessee River. Two years ago, he went wire-to-wire to capture the Elite Series tournament on the same body of water that made him the circuit's second Canadian champion.
Chris Johnston was the first in 2020 when he captured top spot on the St. Lawrence River at Clayton, N.Y.
Over his last two Tennessee River events, Gustafson has led for six consecutive days.
"I'm real lucky coming to this place," Gustafson said. "I don't know what it is, but it suits my style.
"I'm fishing a way I am very comfortable (with) and how I like to fish. It's probably not the most exciting for everyone to watch but I love it and I am going to do it again (Sunday)."
Like he did in '21, Gustafson is concentrating solely on smallmouth bass. The overwhelming sentiment heading into the Classic was that a mixed bag of largemouths and smallmouths would be needed to secure the $300,000 winner's prize.
And with the weather warming up and largemouths close to spawning, the possibility for bigger fish certainly exists. But Gustafson isn't going to change tactics.
"It was harder today, " Gustafson said. "There are less fish, they're getting smarter but we found five of them.
"I knew coming into this if you can catch 15 smallmouths you're going to be in a real good place come Sunday afternoon. That's my plan. I don't have a backup plan, I'm going to go catch five more of those things (Sunday) hopefully."
Gustafson won't be the only Canadian competing in the final round Sunday. He'll be joined by Cory Johnston, of Cavan, Ont., who had a five-fish limit weighing 12 pounds, seven ounces Saturday to stand seventh overall with 26 pounds, nine ounces.
Johnston's brother, Chris finished 31st in the 55-angler field, his six fish weighing 15 pounds, five ounces. Cooper Gallant, of Bowmanville, Ont., was 52nd with his four fish weighing six pounds, 13 ounces.
Gustafson and the Johnstons are appearing in their fourth straight Classic. Gallant, an Elite Series rookie, competed in his first event.
This marks the third straight event that at least one Canadian has reached Championship Sunday. Chris Johnston had cracked the top-10 the previous two Classics, finishing eighth in 2021.
That year, Cory Johnston and Gustafson both competed on the final day, taking home 11th and 21st, respectively.
Last year, Cory Johnston was tied for 26th while Gustafson was 41st. In 2020, Gustafson was the top Canadian at No. 31 while Chris Johnston was 34th and Cory Johnston was 47th.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2023.
The Canadian Press