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Canadian Jeff ‘Gussy’ Gustafson just won the 53rd Bassmaster Classic on Fort Loudon/Tellico in Knoxville, Tennessee, amassing 42 pounds, 7 ounces of smallmouth over three days of fishing. The fishing on Fort Loudon and Tellico Lakes was excruciatingly slow, but the grind made for an interesting Classic as shallow water specialists tried to keep up with Gussy, who was targeting fish out deep.
When the fishing is tough and there are few bites to be had, bait selection becomes paramount. Here’s a breakdown of the top five baits from the 2023 Bassmaster Classic.
The Winning Bait: Z-Man Jerk ShadZ on a Damiki Rig
A Damiki rig consists of a jig head, typically with a pointed nose, rigged with some sort of small shad imitation soft plastic. Think more fluke than swimbait though, as this technique is all about finesse. By dropping this bait directly below the boat, or pitching it out and letting it pendulum down to a vertical position, anglers were able to mimic the threadfin shad in Tellico Lake and trick finicky smallmouth into biting.
No one did this better than Gustafson, the eventual champion. Gussy’s main rig consisted of a 3/8 ounce Smeltinator Jighead paired with a 4-inch Z-Man Jerk ShadZ in Smelt color–although he changed up weights and sizes throughout the three days. The champ credited the buoyancy of the ElaZtech material for his success, saying it helped his lure stay horizontal better. Fourth place finisher Drew Benton also used this technique in part, targeting smallmouth early and then going after largemouth shallow later in the day.
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Drew Benton (4th), John Cox (5th) and several other anglers used shallow-running crankbaits to find success this week. Cox used a Berkely Frittside flat-sided squarebill crankbait almost exclusively last week to target largemouth bass in the shallow, muddy creeks on Fort Loudon.
Cox fished his crankbait around riprap, rocky banks, bridge pilings, laydowns, stumps, sticks, and any other cover he could find shallow. Drew Benton used a shallow running Bagley crankbait around similar cover to catch a few of his key fish.
A spinnerbait showed up in the hands of several top contenders, notably third place finisher Scott Canterbury and Drew Benton, who sat a spot behind when the scales settled on Championship Sunday. Both anglers were using 1/2 ounce Nichols spinnerbaits, Canterbury with tandem Indiana blades and Benton with a single big Colorado blade.
Finding stained water was key to locating shallow largemouth this week. There’s typically plenty of it on Fort Loudon, but due to the lack of spring showers leading up to the Classic, muddy water was in short supply. When anglers could find a little stain, the spinnerbait shined and produced most of the big shallow-water largemouth bites we saw.
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Flipping a jig shallow is one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to targeting largemouth in the spring. And it keeps working year after year. Canterbury used a jig extensively in this event, as did Brandon Lester (6th), Jay Przekurat (7th) and Jacob Powroznic (9th). Whether fishing in muddy, stained, or clear water, almost all the anglers opted for a 1/2 ounce flipping jig, with the Dirty Jigs Flipping Jig being mentioned multiple times.
Most of the jig bites came from flipping shallow cover close to the boat, as we saw illustrated by Brandon Lester on the first day as he boated one of the biggest bass of the tournament out of a shallow lay down. But other anglers also skipped jigs under docks and casted to isolated cover to catch critical fish on a jig.
Shaky Head Worms
Bryan Schmitt rode the shaky head all the way to a second place finish. Though other anglers certainly used a shaky head this week through brutal conditions, none did it better than Schmitt. Focusing almost exclusively on isolated cover, the Maryland pro would cast his bait up to sticks and other shallow cover and let the shaky head sit, until the fish lurking there, finally bit.
This style of fishing requires patience and confidence. To help with the confidence, Schmitt had a couple tricks up his sleeve. He soaked his baits in BaitFuel (we heard other anglers mention doing this as well). But Schmitt also used a Floatzilla Capsule that he placed in the tail of his MISSILE Baits Magic worm. This addition caused the tail of his green pumpkin worm to float up in the fish’s face, something he believes was critical to his success on such a stingy fishery.
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Final Thoughts on the Best Lures of the Classic
The Damiki rig has been around for decades now under one name or another. Though this sleeper bait is still widely overlooked, it’s one of the most effective ways to catch deep staging fish. The shallow water classics still worked with spinnerbaits and squarebills leading the pack. And if you’re looking for fish in transition, jigs and shaky heads are good choices.
Many of the best bass anglers in the world just made the most out of a tough fishery using these pre-spawn approaches. With the exception of the extreme northern and southern parts of the United States, one or more of these five baits will work well in your home waters very soon.