While many in the record-breaking Knoxville, Tennessee, crowd had heard the name Jeff Gustafson before, most had no idea just how far the Kenora, Ontario, pro’s fishing journey had taken him to reach that point at the 2023 Bassmaster Classic®, held in the heart of the Tennessee River Valley.
And despite Gustafson having won a Bassmaster Elite Series event on the Tennessee River in Knoxville just two years prior, some of the hometown fans were likely confounded when this unassuming angler from Canada dominated the biggest event in fishing. Gussy, as he’s known by friends and other anglers, not only won the Classic, he did it by catching smallmouth bass from an aluminum bass boat made by Lund®, a legendary Midwestern brand.
For the fans, seeing a Canadian angler dominate in such a way was newsworthy. After all, he’s the first Canadian to win the Classic. But for Gussy, catching smallies in his Lund in a high-pressure situation is a scenario that has played out thousands of times in his career.
You see, for as much as the Mercury-powered pro might have stood out from the crowd in Knoxville, the truth is that Gussy was groomed for Classic glory over more than three decades of high-level competition alongside some of the industry’s most accomplished anglers.
An Early Passion for Fishing
Gussy grew up in Northwest Ontario. While competing there and in neighboring northern Minnesota, he climbed the fishing ranks with an uncommon passion. This enthusiasm was first formed at the Kenora Bass International, a three-day tournament held annually on the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods, Gussy’s home waters.
“In the early ’90s, this was a big event in our community,” recalled the 40-year-old angler. “My parents took me, and I just caught the bug for it. The crowds were huge. There was even an area where kids could fish off the dock with nightcrawlers. Afterward, my dad started taking me fishing every time I wanted to go. When I was 10 years old, my Christmas present was an entry into the tournament with my dad.”
Soon after, Gussy was competing in the local Tuesday night league. In his teens, he fished every local tournament offered. He began guiding at age 14 and continued throughout his high school and college years. While it’s most famous as the “Walleye Capital of the World,” Lake of the Woods boasts incredibly diverse angling offerings. In addition to guiding for walleyes and bass, Gussy also put clients on crappie and northern pike.
“Multi-species guiding was a big part of my fishing education,” he said. “It forces you to learn different ways to fish. It helps with versatility. I grew up fishing lots of different styles and different baits.”
Building Relationships and His Reputation
As Gussy’s reputation grew, other prominent Northern sticks began taking notice. One legendary Brainerd, Minnesota, family, in particular, started taking him under its proverbial wing.
“I got to know Al, Ron, James and Billy Lindner as a teenager,” said Gussy. “They could see my passion and were so good to me. They really introduced me to the business side and media side of the fishing industry. We would do side bets at the Kenora Bass International. Sometimes it would be $100, and other times if I won I could pick 10 lures from Al. Ron liked to make the bets, but oftentimes Al would have to pay up.”
Northland Fishing Tackle founder John Peterson – another well-known angler from northern Minnesota – was also influential in Gussy’s career development. The two began hunting deer and fishing together in the early 2000s, which led to a lasting fishing relationship.
“He’s such a competitive and well-respected guy in the fishing industry,” Gussy said of Peterson. “He was probably the first sponsor I had that started paying me. We’re now team partners. We each practice in our own boat. He’s sort of grown up ice fishing and walleye fishing like me. We make a good team. In 2013 and 2014, we went back-to-back winning the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship.”
Heading South on Tour
His relationships and experiences competing back home helped Gussy build his way up to competing in higher-stakes events. In 2012, he took a major leap by joining the FLW Tour Eastern Opens. This was a four-tournament commitment that started in Florida and ended in Texas.
“I remember that I cashed a check at all four Opens that first year,” he said. “It was a huge confidence builder that I could compete nationally. I fished the full tour the next year and went three for six cashing checks. From there, I sort of hung in enough to pay the bills. Those first few years are sort of survival years until you get the experience.”
In 2019, Gussy joined the Bassmaster Elite Series, setting up four consecutive Bassmaster Classic qualifications and his eventual championship victory.
One factor that helped him along the way was that, whenever Gussy ventured south, he often had a familiar face welcoming him at weigh-ins – the late Ron Lindner, an angler whose influence continues to impact Gussy’s career today.
“When I started fishing in the U.S., Ron would come to the events,” Gussy recalled. “He would spend the winters down there and was such a supporter of mine. Sadly, Ron passed away in 2020. That ‘moping’ technique that I used in the Classic, Ron pretty much invented the term. During the Classic, there were several times that I thought about Ron and his influence.”
Some Southern anglers have been critical of the moping technique, terming it “video-game fishing” because Gussy caught his fish by spying them on his electronics, or stating that he caught his smallmouths with a “fairy wand” – a nickname for a light spinning rod. The pro responds to critics the same way he handled the pressure in the Classic – with poise and confidence.
“It’s funny to hear the comments. Some people have told me, ‘That wasn’t fishing.’ I don’t care how I catch them; that’s my job. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I know I bring a unique style (to the Elite Series). There are times where you have to be versatile, and I pride myself on being versatile. Believe me, I’ve made the desperation Tackle Warehouse order where I try and get on the hot local bite. But I know that if I can utilize my strengths offshore in deeper water with lighter tackle and my electronics, that’s where I have a better chance to win and beat these guys.”
Winning the 2023 Classic guarantees Gussy a berth in 2024’s championship event. Nonetheless, he’s been steady as ever this season, enjoying some solid finishes in early events while eyeing a three-tournament stretch on famed Northern smallmouth waters Lake St. Clair, Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River.
For Gussy, those events will probably feel a lot more like home. Like the old days, competing alongside the good friends and great anglers who helped prepare him for his professional fishing journey. A journey that, to this point, has been nothing short of an incredible success.
Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson competes on the Bassmaster Elite Series from a Lund 2075 Pro-V Bass XS boat powered by a Mercury 250hp Pro XS® outboard. You can follow Gussy on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and GussyOutdoors.com.
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