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Canadian pro bass fisherman Jeff Gustafson celebrates winning his first Bassmaster Elite Series tournament in Knoxville, Tenn., on Feb. 28, 2021.Seigo Saito/The Canadian Press

In his youth, Jeff Gustafson spent countless hours casting for smallmouth bass and northern pike on Lake of the Woods near where he grew up in northwestern Ontario. His family had a cottage and a small boat, and it allowed him the freedom to explore the pristine waters.

His father, Jim Gustafson, had been a hockey player drafted by the St. Louis Blues. In 1977, his uncle, Brian Gustafson, was a teammate of Wayne Gretzky’s on the Soo Greyhounds. Jeff liked to play hockey, too, but gave it up at 13 years old.

“By the time I was a teenager all I wanted to do was fish,” he says.

Gustafson is 38 now, and one of the world’s best bass fishermen. Last weekend, he became only the second Canadian to win an event on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour, the world’s most famous professional fishing circuit.

In each of four days on the Tennessee River near Knoxville, Tenn., he caught a limit of five bass – in this case, all smallmouths – that weighed a cumulative 63 pounds. The first-place finish in a field of 100 anglers was worth US$100,000, the most prize money he has earned at a single tournament.

“It is the highlight of my career,” Gustafson says.

He learned to fish as a little boy from his father and grandfather. Dad preferred to pursue walleye because they are fabulous on the dinner table. Grandpa had a tackle box full of lures and favoured species that put up more of a fight, such as bass and northern pike.

“I make my living as a tournament angler and to do that you have to be able to do a little bit everything,” Gustafson says. “I am fairly versatile when it comes to different types of fisheries. The things that they [his relatives] taught me have served me well.”

He grew up in Kenora, on the north edge of Lake of the Woods, and at 14 began to hang out at one of its many fishing camps. He would mow the grass and do yard work because it gave him a chance to chat with and learn from the guides. One morning a guide did not show up, and the owner of the Ash Rapids Lodge invited him to fill in.

“I was a little runt that weighed about 100 pounds and wore glasses,” Gustafson says. “He took me down to the dock where two Americans were waiting in a boat. When he told them I was going to be their guide for the day, they looked at him like he was crazy.”

The lodge’s owner, Roger Clinton, volunteered to refund the cost of the trip that day if the tourists failed to catch anything. He didn’t have to.

“I knew my way around that end of the lake,” Gustafson says. “I can’t tell you how many hours I spent looking at [fishing] maps. I took them to all of my favourite spots and they caught their fair share.”

When he was in high school, Gustafson continued to hire out as a guide at several lodges on the lake. He also flew in to remote wilderness camps to learn more tricks of the trade.

“I’ve never played a video game in my life,” he says. “I have spent all of my time outdoors.”

He got a degree in geography from the University of Manitoba and then returned to Kenora where he continued to work as a fishing and hunting guide.

He has spent the past nine years fishing in pro bass tournaments, almost entirely in the United States. He initially competed on the Major League Fishing circuit, where he finished second once and took home a US$30,000 purse. That was the most he had won before last weekend.

Two years ago he jumped to the Bassmaster elite tour and since then has participated in 22 tournaments with four top-10 finishes and nine top-20s. He was 24th in the year’s first event in Florida before he won the next one, in Knoxville.

He had never fished in the Tennessee River and got off to a bad start. The rules allow the anglers three days of practice before any event. He fished from dawn to dusk each day with little to show for it.

On the first, he caught three largemouth bass below the 14-inch tournament minimum. The next, he caught no keepers at all. The third day he caught three undersized smallmouths. Per tournament regulations, they have to be at least 18 inches long to count. Largemouth bass, which are mostly caught near shore, will grow bigger than smallmouths, which prefer deep water.

“I thought I was in big trouble,” Gustafson says. “I thought I might not catch a freaking bass over the entire weekend.”

The year before last, at a tournament in Texas, his total catch over four days tipped the scales at only 3.5 pounds. He finished 101 pounds behind the winner.

“It was by far the worst I had ever done at a pro event,” Gustafson says.

On the first day of the tournament last week he returned to the spot where he had caught the smallmouths on the preceding day. He quickly caught his limit. And then he did it again, and again and again. He led wire-to-wire, and his winning catch was seven pounds more than the runner-up.

He credits part of his success to using a fishfinder to determine the depth of the fish, so he could present his lure to them in the most enticing fashion.

“The same things worked every day,” he says. “That is pretty rare.”

This week he drove 2,100 kilometres from Knoxville back home to Kenora, pulling his 20-foot boat behind him on a trailer. He will be home for a few weeks before his next tournament in Florence, Ala. That’s another drive of 2,100 km.

He is in the biggest league of bass fishing there is, but his life isn’t glamorous. He pays US$43,000 in entry fees a year to fish on Bassmaster’s elite tour. There are expenses for travel and gear on top of that.

He says the goal in each tournament is to finish in the top 50, which guarantees at least US$10,000 in prize money. All bass that are caught are kept alive in a well on his boat, and then released once they are weighed.

The US$100,000 that he earned last weekend will ease the financial burden for the rest of this year.

“It will take the pressure off for me and will help me to do better,” Gustafson says. “I’ll be able to have a lot more fun.”

The first thing he did after winning on Sunday, was text his wife, Shelby, in northern Ontario. “I texted her a picture of the cheque,” he says. “I was back in good graces again.”

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