As a professional bass angler, Jeff Gustafson feels completely at home in his boat. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's also where he feels the most safe.
On Thursday, the resident of Kenora, Ont., officially kicks off his third year on the Bassmaster Elite Series -- the highest level of pro bass fishing -- with the season-opening tournament on the St. John's River in Palatka, Fla. Last week while fishing in Florida in preparation for the event, Gustafson posted pictures of his catch on Istagram, something he and numerous other pros routinely do.
And while that solicited a number of best wishes, it also drew criticism from some questioning why Gustafson was travelling abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I know with everything going on with COVID, it's a tricky thing," Gustafson said during a telephone interview. "For me, it's a tough situation in that it's my job.
"Getting to fish at this high level is something I've literally put 20 years into pursuing so I'm chasing it and doing it. We made it through last year and you just try to be safe. When I'm actually out on the water, that's as safe a place that I can be."
During competitions, Bassmaster Elite anglers fish alone. Sometimes, though, they can be joined in their boats by a cameraman.
And when Gustafson isn't on the water, he's staying by himself in a house that he's rented.
Gustafson needs to fish in order to make a living. He can't fall back on his second job as a fishing and hunting guide because the global pandemic has put a serious crimp in those occupations.
The Bassmaster Elite Series has adopted new protocols due to the global pandemic. Last year, anglers were tested and spectators weren't allowed to attend tournament weigh-ins.
Anglers also must remain socially distanced during weigh-ins, so they wait in their boats until it's their turn to proceed. Everyone on stage for the weigh-ins are required to don facemasks.
The pandemic also forced officials to postpone the 2021 Bassmaster Classic -- the circuit's marquee tournament -- from late March to June 11-13 on Lake Ray Roberts in Fort Worth, Texas. It's also caused foreign competitors like Gustafson and fellow Canadian Chris Johnston, of Peterborough, Ont., to modify their travel plans once the season begins.
"Normally if I have a week or two off, I will leave my truck and boat with friends and fly home," said Johnston, who last year became the first Canadian to win an Elite Series event. "But now it's hard to do that.
"You go home and have to quarantine so it's really not worth going for five or six days, which makes it hard on family life at home. Hopefully this stuff clears up and we can get back to normal, a lot of people are hoping that."
A fact not lost upon Gustafson.
"It's going to be more challenging to get to come home for the foreseeable future," he said. "Like everything, this isn't convenient for anybody and you just try to get through it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press