By Todd Ceisner
Dustin Connell can’t explain how or why it transpired, but he somehow managed to find the winning stretch of water at the Ross Barnett Reservoir Elite Series.
He didn’t know it during practice, but by Friday (day 2 of competition), he was convinced nobody else had found an area with a better population of quality bass anywhere else on the tournament waters. What’s better is he felt like he was at home on the Alabama River and he treated it like he was in his backyard, too, in that he ran away from the crowds and in the process uncovered the winning fish.
It was the perfect scenario for the 26-year-old rookie who exudes a calmness and level-headed demeanor far beyond his years. Very little seems to move his needle, but it was hard for him to hide his giddiness during the tournament as he produced consistent stringers throughout.
“That’s been my brother’s and my trademark back home,” he said. “We’re known for that. We’ll make the longest runs and go way up the river and catch ‘em. It’s good for two reasons – those are the least-pressured fish and we have them all to ourselves. The down side is it’s a long run, but it’s all relative. I don’t like joining the crowd.”
His daily average of 16-plus pounds outdistanced the field and allowed him to fend off a final-day push from none other than Kevin VanDam, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Connell as he deposited his day-4 stringer on the scale.
“That was surreal,” Connell said. “There’s your fishing idol and the guy you’ve been reading about since you were 10 and you’re standing on stage with him.”
Here’s a rundown of how he pulled it off and became the second straight first-time Elite Series winner of the season.
Connell had never seen Ross Barnett Reservoir prior to the start of practice. His first inclination was to throw a frog, but that didn’t produce many bites, so to the Pearl River he went.
“I went up the river with a jig and to find a shad spawn,” he said.
Having a stretch that spanned several miles was crucial.
“That was a big deal for me,” he said. “I don’t know how or why, but I got dialed in on the section of the river where the big ones were. I knew on the lower end, all that would bite were small ones. Up river, I caught a 5, a 4 and a 3.”
He expanded further up the river and continued to get above-average bites.
He targeted overhanging trees with limbs and branches in the water and also deep laydowns along with mats that fish would congregate under.
“Some water was 15 feet and some was 2 feet,” he said. “They all suspend under that stuff. When I’d pull up, I might flip a washed-up mat against a stump in 13 feet and they’d be right underneath it.
“It’s easier for big fish to move vertical than horizontal. If a cool front comes through, they drop down a few feet rather than having to move a long way to find deeper water.”
> Day 1: 5, 19-12
> Day 2: 5, 16-11
> Day 3: 5, 15-07
> Day 4: 5, 12-15
> Total = 20, 64-13
Connell had 25 bites on day 1 when he hauled 19-12 to the scale.
"I cracked 'em on the shad spawn," he said. "Thursday was the only day the shad spawned up there. Any time you're in a river, shad will get around anything green in the river."
On Friday, the fallout of the storm that rolled through Wednesday night began to show itself. Dirtier water began coming down the river and it had Connell worried his places might get trashed or the fish would bolt.
"I swam a jig early and didn’t have any bites and I felt like the mud was ruining everything," he said. "I felt like my deal was done. I was close to folding."
Rather than fold, he adjusted. After visiting a couple Plan B areas that didn't pan out, he went back up river and began flipping the spots where he had thrown a swimjig earlier.
"The first one was a biggun' and I said, 'This is the deal,'" he said. "I caught a 3, a 4 1/2 and a 5 doing that."
That's about the time his conviction got stronger about his decision to stay in the river.
"Friday, I was convinced it would happen," he said.
His weight dropped to 16-11, but it was enough to put him in the lead for the first time in his brief Elite Series career.
Saturday was one of the smoothest tournament days he could remember having and his 15-07 stringer put him more than 5 pounds ahead of the pack after three days.
It was a slow start, but he caught a couple early keepers on a frog, then rotated through his spots in the river, where flipping and punching produced the bulk of his bites, including a 4 1/2-pounder and a 3 1/4 later in the morning when the sun had popped out.
After the final day was pushed to Monday to allow a string of storms to roll through, Connell took a while to settle down. He had feared the storm would trash his areas, but it had little impact other than the water coming up a little bit.
He worked quickly through some spots with little to no success. He then flipped up a 4 1/2-pounder from a mat that he had fished three or four times previously.
“I knew it would be an epic grind,” he said. “I finally caught a big one and a good keeper.”
After having caught an early limit and building on that the first three days, nothing came easy during the final day. He caught significantly fewer fish and broke one off he thought would came back to haunt him.
“Every day I lost two or three that I thought would cost me,” he said. “On Monday, I broke one off and I thought it was going to cost me. I caught a keeper at 1 o’clock. I only had four at the time and I thought, ‘That might be a $100,000 fish,' and it was.’”
Still, on his way back to the dock, he was sure he hadn’t caught enough to hold off a final-day charge from another finalist.
“I can’t explain the swing of emotions,” he said. “I started idling in. I felt like I didn’t win. You give it all you got and still don’t win. I didn’t want to let that happen.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Swim jig gear: 7’ heavy-acton ALX IKOS Hammer 7 casting rod, Shimano Curado casting reel, 65-pound PowerPro braided line, 3/8-oz. 6th Sense Divine swim jig (electric pearl), NetBait Baby Paca Craw trailer (pearl).
> Flipping/Punching gear: 7’11” double extra-heavy ALX ZOLO Power Bolt casting rod, Shimano Metanium MGL casting reel (7.4:1 ratio), 70-pound Daiwa Samurai braided line, 1 1/2-oz. unnamed punching weight, unnamed punch skirt, NetBait Paca Slim (various colors).
> When he threw a frog, he opted for a SPRO Bronzeye (midnight walker).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “I separated myself from everybody and did something different from everybody else.”
> Performance edge – My T-H Marine Atlas jack plate. I could trim it all the way down in those giant waves and it would keep me from spearing those waves and I could move it all the way up when I was up the river. That and my Lowrance electronics were really important.”
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