Jeff Gustafson believes an open-minded approach will help him net a second straight Bassmasters Classic berth.
The Kenora, Ont., resident is currently No. 33 in the Elite Series standings after five of the nine scheduled events. The top 40 anglers at season's end will qualify for the Classic, the circuit's premier event, slated for Lake Ray Roberts in Fort Worth, Texas, March 19-21, 2021.
But Gustafson is only 19 points clear of 41st spot overall. So there'll be a sense of urgency when the Elite Series resumes Sept. 30 on Lake Guntersville in Scottsboro, Ala., the first of four season-ending tournaments in the southern U.S.
"In Canada, some of our best fishing is in the fall but down south it's probably the toughest time of the year," Gustafson said during a telephone interview. "It's still hot and has been hot for months so it will be a little different for everybody.
"I've fished three of the four lakes in the past, but it's been in the spring. I'm going to just be open-minded and hopefully figure something out where you can have a good event."
But Gustafson can't rely on falling back on what's worked in the past.
"Every year down south, the conditions are always different," he said. "Water levels change a lot and you're not visiting the lakes at the same times.
"It's very rare that what worked one time will work again."
However, Gustafson remains convinced staying open minded remains key following mixed results in the circuit's three northern tournaments. Gustafson was 12th at the St. Lawrence River competition in Clayton, N.Y., and 15th on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y., before finishing 76th on Lake St. Clair in Michigan on Aug. 20-23.
Gustafson expected to do well in all three as the primary quarry was smallmouth bass, a species that's common throughout Ontario. But on Lake St. Clair, he simply couldn't get enough to bite.
"It was super disappointing . . . it's smallmouth bass fishing which is kind of my strong suit," Gustafson said. "No excuses, that's fishing and at the end of the day you can't force them to bite.
"It won't be the last bad tournament I'll have. I made some mistakes I wish I could re-do but you learn from them and carry on to the next one."
Currently, Gustafson is enjoying some down time with his wife, Shelby. He'll be home to celebrate his 38th birthday Sept. 19 and plans to participate in two local tournaments — one with his significant other — before heading back south.
That's when the grind will resume. This year, Gustafson is driving to each pro event, no small feat considering where he lives.
"It's funny because when we go to the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain or even St. Clair, many of my fellow competitors think it's my home water because I live in Ontario," Gustafson said. "I'm like, 'You guys from Alabama are closer to the St. Lawrence River than I am.'
"It's a lot of wear and tear on you but also your equipment, the boat trailer and truck. The travel and time away from home are parts of this job that aren't glamorous . . . so I've gotten into podcasts, I make phone calls and catch up with people. You just try to stay occupied."
Gustafson is in his second Elite Series season. He finished 28th overall in 2019, buoyed by a career-best second-place finish at Cayuga Lake, N.Y., and was the top Canadian in the Classic at No. 31.
"My finish wasn't satisfying, it was more just an accomplishment to be there and be part of it," Gustafson said. "The experience was top notch and very motivating to want to get back.
"But it's a different event because there's no points, just the big money (US$300,000 first prize). So you fish it a little differently, you're not as conservative as you might normally be."
Gustafson also spent six years (2013-18) on the Fishing League Worldwide (FLW) circuit. He registered five top-10 finishes in 44 tournaments, earning $316,975.
Gustafson is one of three Canadians on the Elite Series, joining brothers Chris Johnston, of Peterborough, Ont., and Cory Johnston, of Cavan, Ont. Cory Johnston is currently 13th in the overall standings while Chris Johnston — who this season became the first Canuck to win an Elite Series event — is No. 23.
Gustafson said he has a solid rapport with the Johnstons. The three often stay together on the tournament trail.
"We're all pretty good buddies and have a lot of fun," Gustafson said.
Fishing and the outdoors have long been Gustafson's passions. When not competing, he's also an outdoors writer and a fishing/hunting guide.
But Gustafson is hooked on the competitiveness of tournament fishing. He comes by that nature honestly as his father, Jim, was a 1976 third-round pick of the NHL's St. Louis Blues and both his sister, Kate, and brother, Ben, are accomplished marathoners.
Kate Gustafson was the first Canadian to cross the finish line at the '19 Boston Marathon (No. 35). Ben Gustafson cracked the three-hour barrier at the '16 Boston Marathon and has also completed the New York City Marathon.
In addition, Kate Gustafson played NCAA Division I hockey at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.
"I'm from a very competitive family," Gustafson said with a chuckle. "I've played hockey and other sports but I always loved fishing the most.
"Bass fishing and competitive fishing is what I live to do but I'm happy to go fishing anywhere, any time. Around Lake of the Woods where I live, it's world-class for walleye, pike, muskie, all of these multi-species options and I love being on the water."
And despite the pro circuit grind, Gustafson loves what he's doing.
"If you didn't love it, you wouldn't want to be in this sport because the expenses are outrageous," he said. "You can look at how much money I've won the last few years and it looks like a lot but when you start adding up the costs, I'm not getting way ahead or anything.
"I've been lucky to keep all of my bills paid and to keep doing it. That's what makes you happy."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press