Usually Jeff Gustafson makes the trip home to Kenora, Ont., from Bassmaster Elite Series events alone.
This time, though, he had company.
Strapped in the passenger's seat of Gustafson's truck for the 2,100-kilometre, 20-hour drive from Knoxville, Tenn., was a huge blue championship trophy. Gustafson claimed the hardware Sunday by winning his first Bassmaster tournament on the Tennessee River.
"It rode shotgun with me the whole way," Gustafson said. "I probably looked over at it a couple of times an hour and it made me smile.
"I feel so proud."
Gustafson took a COVID-19 test prior to leaving Knoxville, testing negative. He received a home test upon crossing the border at International Falls, Minn., and is currently awaiting those results while in quarantine.
Gustafson, Cory Johnston of Cavan, Ont., and brother Chris, of Peterborough, Ont.., all compete on the Elite Series. They're regarded as pro athletes and thus can cross the border to participate in tournaments but all adhere to strict testing and safety requirements.
Gustafson's win was a dominant one. He went wire-to-wire in securing the US$100,000 winner's cheque with 63 pounds, over seven pounds more than runner-up Steve Kennedy.
Gustafson certainly took the path less travelled. The 20 fish he weighed were all smallmouth bass -- a tournament first. After locating them on his electronics, Gustafson used a 3/8 or 1/2-ounce jig tipped with four-inch plastic shad that he held a foot or two above them.
"On Lake of The Woods and Rainy Lake, where I'm from, guys call it moping," Gustafson said. "Some of my buddies call it, 'Hanging a minnow," and down south they call it a Damiki Rig so it's funny all the regional names they have for the technique.
"From mid-summer to fall it's the predominant way to catch smallmouth and walleyes and one I'm very comfortable with. I can't believe I got to utilize it in a tournament in Tennessee on water nobody was supposed to catch smallmouth.
"Going in, you could've signed me up for 50th place and I would've said, 'Absolutely,' because it was one of the toughest practices I've ever had."
Gustafson hooked three keeper largemouth bass over three practice days. He came across the smallmouth haven in a canal late in the final session.
"The only reason I even fished there was I caught the largemouths in a cove right next to that canal," he said. "I was looking for another place around there and the cove was going to be my spot.
"I never ended up fishing it."
That's because Gustafson's spot produced a solid five-fish limit daily.
"Very rarely in one of these tournaments can you catch fish off the same place for four days," he said. "I probably have never done it before. It was a magical, special spot.
"There were people watching and I'm sure they're going to have fun there over the next few days. The spot will probably never be great again because it's going to get fished pretty hard."
Gustafson praised those there who watched him.
"Not everywhere we go are they that respectful," he said. "There are some lakes where (spectators) would've been out there fishing in the morning before we got there.
"These people were awesome. They never got in the way, they weren't fishing, they just wanted to watch and I am very appreciative of that."
Ironically, Gustafson's winning spot was one he and others bypassed during practice.
"There was a big boat ramp right in front of where I was fishing," Gustafson said. "At some point over the three-day practice I'll bet every angler in our field launched his boat there, I did twice and so everybody drove over the fish.
"Something about it felt right in that there was current, nice rocks on the bottom and schools of bait were evident on my electronics so it kind of had all the ingredients. I was really lucky . . . I probably found the best spot on the whole system."
Gustafson's spot was so productive that Sunday, with five fish weighing over 14 pounds in his livewell, he arrived at the weigh-in station 90 minutes early. He went into the final round leading by nearly eight pounds.
"A 20-pound bag there is rare," Gustafson said. "I know Kennedy had one Saturday (20 pounds, 14 ounces) but I felt if I went out and got my limit and he came in with 22 or 23 pounds to beat me, then I wouldn't have been that sad about second.
"I also had a 50-minute ride back and just wanted to leave enough time. If it was a lake I would've fished near the check-in but this was a river, there was pretty strong current and the check-in was upstream so I just felt like go in, take care of business and it all worked out."
However, a 90-minute fog delay Sunday caused concern, because over the previous three days Gustafson boated many of his fish early in each session.
"What I learned the first few days was the first hour was critical," he said. "Once we got out (Sunday) and started fishing, I caught two good ones pretty quickly and it took the pressure off."
The win also relieves some financial pressure for Gustafson knowing remaining season costs, like tournament entry fees, are covered.
"Just not having that in the back of your mind is going to make it more fun to be out there and you're probably going to have better results," he said.
But money won't be Gustafson's lasting memory of his first Elite Series win.
"After the weigh-in, Jason Christie (multiple Series champion) came up and sort of fist-pumped me," Gustafson said. "I don't know Jason well but he's someone I definitely think highly of and he said, 'Hey, the first one is always the hardest and I'm sure there will be more to come now. Congratulations.'
""The part I enjoyed the most was after everything was done, many other anglers wanted a photo with me and the trophy which was really cool. That's probably the thing I'll remember the most."
The next Bassmasters event is March 18-21 on Pickwick Lake in Florence, Ala.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press