Canadian angler and smallmouth savant Jeff Gustafson hoisted the big blue B.A.S.S. Elite Series trophy over his head this past weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee. Jeff, known as “Gussy” won the second Elite Series event of the season on the famed Tennessee River.
When anglers think of the Tennessee River Valley in March, it’s often about prespawn largemouth bass. This robust fishery is home to trophy largemouth which normally are in shallow water staging for the annual spawning process around this time. The 2019 Bassmaster Classic was held in early March on the same stretch of river, and that’s where Ott Defoe dialed in his winning pattern, throwing red and orange flat-sided crankbaits along shallow water banks littered with rock and rip-rap.
This year’s unseasonably cold conditions chilled the Tennessee River, which slowed down the spawning process. Instead of largemouth being shallow and hungry like they were in 2019, most fish were out deep and less interested in biting.
Regardless of conditions, almost all competitors fished shallow, beating the bank looking for largemouth using patterns similar to what Ott Defoe used in 2019. This strategy yielded results, but fish were stingy, and anglers struggled to fill their limits.
A Different Approach
That’s where Gussy was different; when the field zigged, he zagged. Instead of fishing shallow, Gussy fished in a deep canal between that connects Tellico Lake and the Fort Loudoun Reservoir. Smallmouth winter in this area, hugging to the isolated boulders in roughly 18-22 feet while letting the current pass overhead. Knowing this, Gussy scanned for boulders on his Humminbird 360 Graph looking for fish lurking near isolated rock fields. He then maintained precise boat positioning with his trolling motor to stay in the target zone. This 1-2 combo allowed Jeff to mark fish and stay directly over the top of fish.
Once positioned correctly, Jeff dropped a 4 inch Z-Man Jerk Shad rigged on a small jig head down. He gently jigged, dropped, raised, and quivered his bait to trick smallmouth into biting that he marked on the graph. The advanced technology of his Humminbird 360 allowed him to watch fish react to his jigging cadence, similar to as in ice fishing, a pastime this Canadian is very familiar with.
The Tennessee River is home to the oily and nutrient-rich gizzard, skipjack, and threadfin shad, which are all popular menu items for both largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Shad thrive in warm water but don’t do as well in cooler temps. Shad can experience seasonal die-offs in the winter when water temperatures begin to drop dramatically. When this happens, affected shad will quiver and shake, fighting for their lives as they descend to the bottom in a slow death spiral. Predatory fish like bass take advantage of this window by scarfing down shad much like football fans devouring appetizers at a super bowl party.
With unseasonably cool temperatures, the Tennessee River was undergoing the annual shad die-off, and Gussy knew it.
Jeff used the Z-Man Jerk Shad in two colors, Bad Shad and Shiner, constantly switching between each to mimic the pulsating flicker of a dying shad. This approach helped Gussy lead the derby from start to finish by quite a margin, finishing the tournament nearly 8 pounds ahead of the second-place finish.
Davy Hite, a B.A.S.S. commentator, mentioned how this simple technique has taken on names like “The Damiki Rig,” “Tightlining,” and even “Video Game Fishing.” Essentially it’s using a small jig head and minnow style bait to target specific fish you’ve marked on your graph in deep water.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s obvious that Jeff Gustafson is very dialed in on this effective technique. Way to go Gussy!
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