Canadian Jeff Gustafson looking to finish 2021 Elite Series season with strong effort

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Now that he's back on the right side of qualifying for the '22 Bassmaster Classic, Canadian Jeff Gustafson's goal is to stay there.

The Kenora, Ont., angler heads into the Elite Series' final event 34th in the overall standings. The top 39 qualify for next year's Classic, the circuit's premier event.

Gustafson moved up 11 spots with a 14th-place finish on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y., last weekend. The season finale begins Thursday on the St. Lawrence River at Waddington, N.Y.

"I still have to catch them so there's some pressure," Gustafson said. "But I'm lucky we're on a smallmouth bass body of water, it's up my alley so I have control over my end result.

"I don't need a top-10 finish, just a solid tournament."

Gustafson has posted consecutive 12th-place finishes in this event. A repeat performance would be a nice cap to what's been a roller-coaster season.

He earned his first Elite Series win on the Tennessee River in February, becoming just the circuit's second Canadian champion. But he struggled over the next five events — his best finish was 30th on Lake Fork at Quitman, Texas in April — before last weekend's effort.

"That was huge last week," he said. "That took a lot of pressure off."

Many fishermen believe pro anglers, with their high-powered boats and cutting-edge technology, catch everything they hook. But Gustafson admits even seasoned pros lose fish, which often can be felt in their wallet.

Gustafson lost a quality fish Saturday that literally cost him thousands of dollars. He still earned US$10,000, but was less than a pound out of cracking the top-10 and qualifying for the final day of competition.

American Justin Hamner earned $15,000 for finishing 10th.

"I lost a big one, the biggest one I hooked all week," Gustafson said. "It was 4 1/2, five pounds, it was up shallow on my hair jig and that's a bait you hardly ever lose them on.

"But you're going to lose some, that's the nature of smallmouth fishing because they fight so hard. That's why we love them, but, yeah, they do cause some heartbreak, that's for sure."

Especially when lost fish come late in the day, giving the angler precious little time to find another big one.

"I was sort of having a tough day, I'd missed a couple of other ones in the morning," Gustafson said. "When you lose it initially, you're kind of, 'Oh well, at least I'm doing the right thing here.'

"But the clock just eats at you and that's what happened, I ran out of time. I knew I was going to be a little short but that it would be close and that's exactly what happened. It's disappointing because I think I had a pretty good game plan in terms of having a chance to win the tournament ... but when you finish in the top-20 against these guys, you really can't be too disappointed."

Chris Johnston, of Peterborough, Ont., made history at this event last year by becoming the first Canadian to win an Elite Series competition. But not only was the tournament held a week later, anglers launched out of Clayton, N.Y., which is located near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and a short distance from Lake Ontario, where Johnston and many others spent time.

But Waddington is a 90-minute trip to Lake Ontario, even in calm conditions. Wind and pleasure-craft traffic could make that trek even longer, cutting down on actual fishing time and creating potential challenges to returning in time for the daily weigh-in.

"The tournament is probably going to be won (at the lake) but I'm not going — it's just too far and too much of a gamble," Gustafson said. "I think I can get the job done that I need to do in the river and hopefully that doesn't cost me.

"To go to the lake ... it's hard on your gear and equipment, there's some risk there because you've got to go and make it back each day."

But there's also the allure of big fish. The general consensus is four-plus-pound smallmouths are more common in Lake Ontario than the St. Lawrence because river fish tend to expend more energy battling current.

Johnston and his older brother, Cory, of Cavan, Ont., could afford to gamble if they wanted. Chris Johnston is third in the overall standings with 630 points - 69 behind leader Seth Feider - while Cory Johnston is 11th (567).

Once the St. Lawrence event concludes, Gustafson will return home until the start of the '22 Elite Series season. He'll still fish team tournaments in northwestern Ontario but admits the pressure will be off.

"I take them serious because the competition is very good, but at the same time they're team tournaments and I'll get a chance to fish with some buddies," he said. "It's more relaxing because there's no points on the line, you can go have fun and just enjoy our beautiful northwestern Ontario weather.

"I've been on the road pretty much since January so I'm ready to get back and kind of be there for the rest of the year." This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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