Living in Northwest Ontario is an outdoor enthusiast's dream, given its many fabulous fishing and hunting opportunities. But it presents pro bass angler Jeff Gustafson with a huge challenge.
Most Elite Series stops are a major trek for Gustafson. Life on the road is a fact of life for pro fishermen, but even tournaments last year in South Dakota and Wisconsin were roughly a nine-hour drive for the Kenora, Ont., resident.
Others in Florida, Texas and Tennessee took 20-plus hours to reach. Last year's stop on the St. Lawrence River at Clayton, N.Y., just 77 kilometres from Kingston, Ont., was a 22-hour trip for Gustafson, who figures he drives about 40,000 kilometres annually attending events.
And with this year's schedule including competitions in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, Gustafson will again spend a lot of time towing his 21-foot boat across the U.S.
"Driving and being gone from home for long stretches, those parts of it aren't glamorous," Gustafson said. "I'm also probably going to have a couple of five-week stints (in U.S.) because of our schedule, but at the same time it's nice to get out of northwestern Ontario in January and February and go to Florida and the southeast.
"And getting to go to places like the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain where the fishing is actually really good makes it a little easier."
This season opens Feb. 16 at Florida's Lake Okeechobee, but Gustafson hit the road last week.
He drove to Tennessee to get his boat checked out before taking it out for a trial run. Then it was off to Georgia to visit a friend and get detail work done on both his truck and boat. He'll head to Florida sometime next week.
Competing isn't cheap, either. Most expenses are in American currency, including about US$45,000 in tournament entry fees. Last year's trip to Clayton, N.Y. cost $1,000 one way in gas alone.
"The good side to that is if you have a good year you're getting U.S. money to bring back and the exchange is pretty good right now," Gustafson said. "I'm not complaining because I love what I do . . . but it's expensive."
Gustafson, 40, has been fishing professionally for nine years and is entering his fourth Elite Series season. He's registered 13 top-20 finishes and won in 2021 on the Tennessee River.
When on the road, Gustafson has multiple ways to fill the time.
"I do a lot of phone calls and catch up with people I haven't spoken to in a while," Gustafson said. "I also listen to podcasts quite a bit and music the other third of the time."
Having a satellite radio in his vehicle certainly helps. Gustafson has "three of four" bass fishing podcasts he listens to as well as hockey-related ones.
A diehard Pittsburgh Penguins fan, Gustafson has the NHL Network pre-programmed as well as Penguins channels. He also has a variety of musical choices.
"I'm a Howard Stern fan and usually start with that," Gustafson said. "I've also got a country station, '90s rock station, Pearl Jam is probably my favourite band and has its own station.
"I even have a rap station I sometimes listen to. I'll slide around until I find something to roll with, you know, mix it up a bit."
Sometimes Gustafson's wife, Shelby, joins him on the road. The plan this year is for them to travel together to eight of the 10 scheduled Elite Series events.
"She usually doesn't want to listen to hockey or bass fishing so it's usually some murder-mystery stuff, mini series/short stories podcasts," Gustafson said.
But Gustafson added his wife made an exception during the NHL playoffs when they both listened to Penguins game broadcasts.
Some pro anglers fly to Elite Series locations and have others drive their trucks/boats there. That's not the case for Gustafson, although his wife shares driving duties.
Gustafson is planning to return to Kenora during the season but remains hopeful he'll be able to leave his boat behind with fellow competitors.
"Our group of anglers is pretty cool that way," he said. "They might not tell you any fishing information the week of the competition, but for stuff like that, many guys offer all of the time that if I ever need a place to stay or leave my things."
Despite the challenges, Gustafson is looking forward to a season where he'll fish three new bodies of water (Georgia's Lake Seminole, South Carolina's Lake Murray and Alabama's Lay Lake).
"It's always fun to experience new places," Gustafson said. "But I'm also glad to be returning to places like Lake Champlain and (St. Lawrence River/Lake Ontario at season's end) . . . because as the year moves along and we move further north, my results get a little better."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press