KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — In his tournament experience thus far, Canadian Jeff Gustafson said he had never fished a Southern fishery where smallmouth bass act the same as they do up North.
That changed Thursday when the Canadian pro most people know simply as “Gussy” smashed a limit of mostly smallmouth weighing 17 pounds, 14 ounces, securing a Day 1 lead in the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Tennessee River.
The Keewatin, Ontario, native holds a nearly 4-pound advantage over three-time Elite Series champion Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., who put 14-0 on the scales.
“I’m catching them a way that I love to fish at home,” Gustafson said. “I’m pretty excited to get back out there, and I’m 100% committed to smallmouth. I spent five hours largemouth fishing this afternoon and caught one 2-pounder and a couple shorts.
Gustafson said he found the spot during the final day of practice. But with the 18-inch minimum size limit for smallmouth on the Tennessee River, he wasn’t sure if the area held the right quality of fish.
He learned quickly on Thursday that it did, landing a limit of smallmouth by 9:30 a.m. in an area with several other competitors close by.
“It was one of the toughest practices I’ve ever had, and I found a little something yesterday and I didn’t catch big fish like that,” he said. “I didn’t know if I could get a keeper; the 18-inch thing is tough.
“My first fish I hooked this morning was 17 7/8 inches. Then I caught another short and another short, and then the next three I got were keepers. It worked out.”
The bass Gustafson located are in about 20 feet of water, and he said what he is doing is something a little different than most of his competitors.
“What I’m doing is kind of a unique way of catching them,” he said. “It’s not easy for everyone if you’ve never done it.”
With a weather system expected to arrive Friday that could bring heavy rains for the second round, Gustafson said he isn’t sure how the smallmouth will react.
“They could be gone tomorrow, but I think if I don’t have a lot of company I should be able to catch a few more,” he said. “I think that is just where they are living right now. I’m confident and excited to go again tomorrow. I’m not calling my shot, but I’m going to do that again tomorrow.”
The rest of the field managed to catch mostly largemouth bass in shallow water.
Kennedy said he caught nearly all of his fish on a jig and was fishing painfully slow to get his bites. He added that he broke off a quality fish on a crankbait.
The nine-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier said he had success in dirty water during practice. Then when he arrived at one of his best spots Thursday, he discovered the area had cleared tremendously.
“It was loaded in practice,” Kennedy said. “I got down there this morning and did not get a bite. The water was crystal clear. They weren’t there. I had to punt and just go fishing.
“I’m grinding. It’s not like I’m on them. I only caught five keepers.”
While Kennedy caught all largemouth Thursday, he still expects smallmouth to play during the event. He isn’t sure what the weather will do to his bite on Day 2, especially with the water clarity changing every day.
“When we first got here, the main river was muddy, the pockets were clear and the very backs were muddy,” he said. “By yesterday, the very backs were clear, the midsection of the creeks were muddy and the river started to clear.
“So, I don’t know if I’m going to have any dirty water left. I’m scared to death to do this again.”
John Crews of Salem, Va., secured 13-14 of mostly largemouth to finish Day 1 in third place, 2 ounces behind Kennedy and an ounce ahead of fourth-place Brandon Card. Crews said he was using a mix of reaction baits to catch his bass, with long lulls between bites.
“It seemed like I kept catching one every 45 minutes. You had to beat them down,” Crews said. “I ended up catching four keepers by noon and a couple shorts. I changed techniques and ended up catching a keeper right away. About another 45 minutes later, I caught a big one that weighed 5-7.”
Card anchored his Day 1 bag with a 5-9 largemouth, which was the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day.
The full field will take off from Volunteer Landing at 7 a.m. ET Friday, and the Day 2 weigh-in will begin at 3 p.m. After Friday, only the Top 50 will advance to Saturday’s semifinal round.
The Top 10 anglers will compete on Championship Sunday with a chance at the $100,000 first-place prize.
Live coverage of the event can be streamed on Bassmaster.com and the FOX Sports digital platforms. FS1 will also broadcast live from the tournament beginning at 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
The tournament is being hosted by the Visit Knoxville Sports Commission.