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Trio of Canadians will chase US$300,000 top prize at Bassmaster Classic competition

Jeff Gustafson will take a different mindset and approach into the biggest event on the Bassmasters Elite Series. Gustafson, of Kenora, Ont.

Jeff Gustafson will take a different mindset and approach into the biggest event on the Bassmasters Elite Series.

Gustafson, of Kenora, Ont., will be in the 54-angler field that opens the US$1-million Bassmaster Classic on Friday at Lake Ray Roberts in Fort Worth, Texas. The winner will receive $300,000.

While the Classic is the circuit's top event, it doesn't count toward the '21 standings so anglers can be aggressive and take more risks.

"And you're going to see that," Gustafson said. "It's our Super Bowl event, it's the biggest tournament of the year but it's way less stressful because there are no points so you're more likely to gamble and fish for big ones to try to win.

"I still want to catch fish to make sure I get to weigh-in and not embarrass myself but if you don't win, no one will remember where you finished two months from now. For sure, somebody's life is going to change because the $300,000 first prize is significant but beyond that, it's the title that's always associated with your name."

Gustafson helped make history when he and brothers Chris and Cory Johnston participated in the '20 Classic. It marked the first time three Canadians had competed in the event. 

Hank Gibson of Keswick, Ont., (1990) and Ottawa's Charles Sim (2016) were the only other Canadians to have qualified for the Classic. 

Japan's Takahiro Omori (2004) is the event's only non-American winner. Gustafson finished 34th last year while Chris Johnston, of Peterborough, Ont., was 34th and Cory Johnston, of Cavan, Ont., was 47th.

Sim has the best Classic finish by a Canadian (31st) while Gibson was 41st.

This will be the first Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) tournament on Ray Roberts so few of the anglers have a history there, putting significant importance on the pre-tournament practice sessions.

But the elevated water levels they dealt with in practice are expected to have dissipated come Friday, changing conditions. They also must deal with timber and submerged stumps, which can cause serious damage to equipment and the high-powered boats competitors run in these events.

The tournament was originally slated for March 19-21 but rescheduled due to pandemic-related restrictions. All competitors will fish Friday and Saturday with the top 25 advancing to Sunday's final.

"When they changed the date I was kind of happy because typically on these southern reservoirs now it's more offshore fishing, fishing in deeper water which suits my style a bit more," Gustafson said. "But in the last month, it has rained like 20 of the last 30 days and the lake was flooded so many of the fish will go up into those flooded trees and bushes.

"This lake isn't known for numbers or great fishing overall but there are big ones here. So it will probably be an exciting event but it will probably be pretty challenging and tough. I think if you can catch five or six fish, probably three or four of them are going to be bigger (three to seven pounds)."

The combination of the fishery and event has Gustafson taking a new approach.

"I've got a lot more heavier tackle in the boat than I would if we were fishing somewhere else," he said. "If you hook a 10-pounder you want to make sure you have the right equipment to give yourself the best chance to land it.

"Hopefully I can develop something but you have to be open-minded. I've got 25 rods with all kinds of lures and baits for every depth imaginable. A few Texas guys have fished here but most of the field doesn't have much history so it will be interesting . . . after it's over when you see what the guys who did well were doing you'll go, 'Oh man, why didn't I think of that?'"

Big crowds are expected at daily weigh-ins.

"It's going to be good to see fans with everything we've all gone through the past year." Gustafson said. "There's a lot of support for us from Canada and it's unfortunate because many Canadians who'd probably be attending won't be.

"Last year, our families were down and some friends from home drove in because it's a huge spectacle."

Gustafson will have some work to do following the Classic. While he registered his first Elite series win March 1 on the Tennessee River, Gustafson stands 45th in the overall standings.

The top 39 anglers will qualify for next year's Classic, slated for Lake Hartwell in South Carolina. Chris Johnston stands fourth while Cory Johnston is ninth.

The Elite Series resumes on Lake Champlain in Waddington, N.Y., from July 8-11 before heading to the St. Lawrence River in Plattsburgh, N.Y., July 15-18. Both are quality smallmouth bass fisheries, a dominant species in Ontario.

"Both places are where I have real high expectations," Gustafson said. "I did well at both venues last year (12th on St. Lawrence at Clayton, N.Y., 15th on Lake Champlain) and right now I'm sitting just outside the cut for the '22 Classic at Lake Hartwell.

"It's a lake I have a real good history at and I really want to be in that event. If I do my job at those two, I'll be fine. It's been a bit of a tougher season but I got to win one so that really takes the pressure off."

Chris Johnston became the first Canadian Elite Series winner at last year's St. Lawrence event. Cory Johnston was seventh and finished ninth at Lake Champlain.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press