By BassFan Staff
As he idled back to the boat ramp under a bright blue Mississippi sky Monday afternoon, Dustin Connell seemed convinced he hadn’t caught enough to seal the deal and close out the win at the Ross Barnett Reservoir Bassmaster Elite Series.
“I don’t think I have it,” he muttered. “I don’t want 2nd place.”
Every so often, he’d wipe a tear from his cheek after it had trickled out from behind his sunglasses.
Little did the Elite Series rookie know he was one of only seven finalists to fill out a limit the day after the event was originally supposed to finish up. A line of severe storms on Sunday forced B.A.S.S. to postpone the final day until Monday. The 12 remaining competitors encountered yet another set of conditions on the chameleon-like reservoir.
Connell returned to the same stretches in the Pearl River that had gotten him to this point. He caught a good one early on and eventually boxed a limit, but made the run back to the south end of the lake feeling like he was one 3-pounder short of locking it up.
Ultimately, his 12-15 bag (his smallest of the event) was more than enough to turn away a final-day charge from Kevin VanDam, who sacked 16-04, but still couldn’t overcome his 10-15 stringer on day 1.
The final tally: Connell 64-13, VanDam 62-10.
“Today was probably the hardest 12 pounds, 13 pounds I’ve caught in my entire life,” Connell said. “This is a dream come true for me. I never would’ve expected in my rookie year to win one of these things.”
This was the ninth B.A.S.S. tournament for Connell, who’s 26 and hails from Clanton, Ala. He is the first former college angler (he attended the University of Alabama) to win an Elite Series tournament. In March, Jordan Lee became the first former college competitor to win the Bassmaster Classic.
It was VanDam’s seventh runner-up finish in a full-field Elite Series tournament and gives him three straight top-30 results after missing the cut at Cherokee Lake in the season opener.
VanDam’s nephew, Jonathon, caught 13-05 on day 4 and moved up a spot to close with 59-04 in 3rd, his best finish since placing 2nd at the St. Lawrence River in August 2013.
Bobby Lane rallied seven spots behind a 13-15 stringer to finish 4th with 57-09. It’s his second top-7 finish of the year and comes of the heels on an 87th-place showing at Toledo Bend.
Mark Menendez turned in his best Elite Series showing since winning at Lake Dardanelle in 2009. His 12-10 effort moved him up a spot to 5th with 57-07.
Here's a look at how the rest of the top 12 finished up:
6. Dave Lefebre: 56-14
7. Ish Monroe: 56-01
8. Matt Herren: 55-09
9. Skeet Reese: 52-02
10. Fred Roumbanis: 51-12
11. Keith Poche: 51-04
12. Brent Chapman: 48-09
Keith Poche tumbled nine spots from 2nd to 11th with only three fish and Brent Chapman fell from 5th to 12th after weighing just two on day 4.
The area around Ross Barnett didn’t receive as much rain as had been forecasted on Sunday and a couple of the gates at the spillway were open, so it was difficult to gauge how much the lake had risen, if at all.
Some areas were blown out by another day of persistent winds, accentuating the value of cleaner water and the presence of baitfish.
The Elite Series is idle for two weeks before returning to Texas for the Sam Rayburn Reservoir Toyota Texas Fest, which will be the first full-field Elite Series event to utilize a catch-weigh-release system on the water.
Connell had to wrestle this fish out of a mat before getting it in the boat Monday morning.
Connell: It Was Meant To Be
> Day 4: 5, 12-15 (20, 64-13)
In Connell’s mind, there were two tournaments going on at Ross Barnett Reservoir – the one he was in way up the Pearl River and the one taking place on the rest of the fishery.
“Kevin won the downriver and lake tournament and I won mine,” he joked Monday night as he made the drive back to Alabama.
All kidding aside, he said he had not fully absorbed everything that had transpired over the previous 5 days.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “It was really meant to be. It was one of those deals where everything just clicked. I didn’t think it would come this soon, but I’m glad it did. I had a weird and good feeling about Ross Barnett. I don’t know why, but I had about 10 different things happen this week that were just crazy.”
Nobody went as far up the Pearl as Connell did and he approached the 6- to 7-mile stretch of river like he would tackle the Coosa River near his home. He flipped and punched matted grass or debris and mixed in a swimjig and frog.
The water had risen and the clarity deteriorated further on day 4 where he had been fishing.
“That changed a lot for me,” he said. “It had me wondering what I should go do. A lot of times we try to outsmart ourselves. I started to run around, but then I told myself to go do what I’d been doing.”
When he settled back in, he came to a mat that he’d fished a few times before in the tournament. He made a flip to the back side of it and his line suddenly jumped. He set the hook on what turned out to be a 5-pounder, but he had to reach down under the mat in order to retrieve the fish.
“That one key bite, I don’t know how it stayed hooked,” he said. “For some reason she was there and I’m sure glad she was.”
Kevin VanDam needed one more like this one to overtake Connell.
2nd: VanDam Comes Up Short
> Day 4: 5, 16-04 (20, 62-10)
Kevin VanDam said he wasn’t sure what to expect at Ross Barnett when he saw it on the schedule. He hadn’t fished there since he was a teenager.
As it turns out, it wasn’t so bad after all.
“It’s a pretty small lake for an Elite Series event,” he said. “With all the timber and stumps, it makes it more challenging to be efficient, but it’s mostly shallow water. It’s a spinnerbait lake, always has been.”
After catching just 10-15 on day 1, he stormed back to 3rd place entering the final day, but still had a deficit of 5 1/2 pounds to overcome. He had a 5-09 anchoring his stringer on the final day, but wound up one or two good bites short of winning
“Today was a challenge,” he said. “With so much rain from those storms, they dropped the bottom out of the lake and it sucked mud out of everywhere. So much got muddy and with the wind blowing right up the lake, it blew dirty water into the backwater and pockets off the main river. Places that I didn’t think would be dirty got dirty.
“What really hurt was Saturday I had a fish die, so I couldn’t cull. I was throwing back 4-pounders. That’s hard to make up for that.”
3rd: Consistency Key for JVD
> Day 4: 5, 13-05 (20, 59-04)
Jonathon VanDam had no regrets pulling away from Ross Barnett today. He only wishes he’d caught one more big fish over the course of the tournament. Other than that, things went as well as he could’ve hoped.
“It was a good week, for sure,” he said. “It’s a tough fishery. Everything was changing all week and we had to adapt. It was probably one of the toughest events mentally with all the changing that went on. Places where you caught them the day before would be no good. I found a handful of new stuff during the tournament, but once I found what I was looking for, that was key.
“I would’ve loved to have had a couple more areas,” he added. “I didn’t lose any that would’ve helped. I just never had a big bite all week. That’s what the difference was for Dustin and Kevin. Both had a big bite today. Consistency goes a long way, especially if you’re on the right size.”
Jonathon VanDam recorded his best finish since 2013 this week.
He spent the final day in the Pearl River as he had the previous three days and mowed through pad fields with a vibrating jig and a jerkbait – yes, a jerkbait.
“Two of the marshals I had this week were part of a local bass club and grew up on this lake and they were blown away,” he said.
He keyed on two spots today, including one he had success at on Saturday, while he had steer clear of others as the water had gotten dirtier.
“It was weird how it all worked out,” he said. “Places I thought would stay clearer got dirtier today. I had to throw more of the vibrating jig today because of the dirty water. I caught some on the jerkbait, just not the size I needed.”
4th: Lane Felt At Home
> Day 4: 5, 13-15 (20, 57-09)
The first day-4 fish Lane set the hook on, his rod ended up in the lake. He recovered nicely and posted his second top-7 finish of the season.
“It was one of those weeks, but it was a good week,” he said.
He had to punt on the area he’d been fishing as it was being battered by the wind and waves. He moved to an area that had produced a keeper for him Friday, but it was still challenging.
“I knew it would be tough with the cold front with wind,” he said. “These are Florida-strain bass.”
He swapped between a flipping rod around small cattails and a swimjig near scattered lily pads and put together a limit that was anchored by a 4-09 kicker. He moved into Pelahatchie Bay later in the day, but wasn’t able to upgrade.
“All in all, it was a great tournament,” he said.
5th: Menendez More Than Pleased
> Day 4: 5, 12-10 (20, 57-07)
Menendez admits he hasn’t been on his game lately and he thinks this week’s showing coupled with some words of encouragement from some close friends will spur him on to a strong second half of the season.
“I'm really pleased with my finish,” he said.
He came into the tournament after competing against Andy Morgan in an Ultimate Matching Fishing event. Morgan picked up on Menendez’s body language and asked him if something was wrong.
“I told him I’m tired and I’m tired of being gone and my body hurts,” Menendez said. “And Andy said, ‘I enjoyed fishing behind you today. I enjoyed your pace and the tactics you used. You’re too good to quit.’ I really appreciated that. That’s really gotten ahold of me and taken root. A couple other key people in my life have said the same thing, so I came here with a new vigor.”
On day 4, the shad-spawn bite along the dam that had carried him through much of the tournament fizzled out, but he was able to expand on a dock pattern in Pelahatchie Bay that had supplemented him earlier in the event.
“I couldn’t get bit around a seawall or anything you’d think would be holding a fish,” he said. “It had to be the leading post on a dock on which the wind was rocking and rolling.”
He dropped down from a half-ounce out-of-production Strike King Premier Elite jig to a 3/8-oz. version in order to slow the fall.
“I needed the bait to float,” he said. “With these post-spawn fish, I never felt a hit. My line would be two feet over there before I felt anything. The key was the positioning of the fish. If a dock had three feet of water on it, you were getting bit.”
He tallied seven keeper bites Monday and had a 4-pounder anchoring his stringer.
“Today and Saturday were two of the best days of tournament fishing I’ve had a in long time,” he said. “I was precise and my presentations were good. That day off helped me a lot, too. I was able to do icing and therapy on my elbows and hands and that made a tremendous amount of difference.”
> Day 4 stats – 12 anglers, 7 limits, 2 fours, 2 threes, 1 two.
1. Dustin Connell -- Clanton, AL -- 20, 64-13 -- 110 -- $100,500
Day 1: 5, 19-12 -- Day 2: 5, 16-11 -- Day 3: 5, 15-07 -- Day 4: 5, 12-15
2. Kevin VanDam -- Kalamazoo, MI -- 20, 62-10 -- 109 -- $26,000
Day 1: 5, 10-15 -- Day 2: 5, 17-00 -- Day 3: 5, 18-07 -- Day 4: 5, 16-04
3. Jonathon VanDam -- Kalamazoo, MI -- 20, 59-04 -- 108 -- $20,000
Day 1: 5, 15-13 -- Day 2: 5, 15-01 -- Day 3: 5, 15-01 -- Day 4: 5, 13-05
4. Bobby Lane Jr. -- Lakeland, FL -- 20, 57-09 -- 107 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 20-14 -- Day 2: 5, 11-10 -- Day 3: 5, 11-02 -- Day 4: 5, 13-15
5. Mark Menendez -- Paducah, KY -- 20, 57-07 -- 106 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 17-00 -- Day 2: 5, 17-11 -- Day 3: 5, 10-02 -- Day 4: 5, 12-10
6. Dave Lefebre -- Erie, PA -- 20, 56-14 -- 105 -- $13,500
Day 1: 5, 18-04 -- Day 2: 5, 15-10 -- Day 3: 5, 10-03 -- Day 4: 5, 12-13
7. Ish Monroe -- Hughson, CA -- 19, 56-01 -- 104 -- $13,000
Day 1: 5, 14-07 -- Day 2: 5, 16-02 -- Day 3: 5, 13-09 -- Day 4: 4, 11-15
8. Matt Herren -- Ashville, AL -- 20, 55-09 -- 103 -- $12,500
Day 1: 5, 14-06 -- Day 2: 5, 15-03 -- Day 3: 5, 14-11 -- Day 4: 5, 11-05
9. Skeet Reese -- Auburn, CA -- 19, 52-02 -- 102 -- $12,000
Day 1: 5, 14-08 -- Day 2: 5, 12-01 -- Day 3: 5, 16-02 -- Day 4: 4, 9-07
10. Fred Roumbanis -- London, AR -- 18, 51-12 -- 101 -- $11,500
Day 1: 5, 15-14 -- Day 2: 5, 13-14 -- Day 3: 5, 15-00 -- Day 4: 3, 7-00
11. Keith Poche -- Pike Road, AL -- 18, 51-04 -- 100 -- $11,000
Day 1: 5, 20-02 -- Day 2: 5, 11-00 -- Day 3: 5, 15-06 -- Day 4: 3, 4-12
12. Brent Chapman -- Lake Quivira, KS -- 17, 48-09 -- 99 -- $10,500
Day 1: 5, 18-01 -- Day 2: 5, 10-14 -- Day 3: 5, 15-14 -- Day 4: 2, 3-12