By Todd Ceisner
David Dudley and Bryan Thrift. In a boat together. Fun fishing at Lake Norman.
No, it’s not the premise of a new YouTube-based reality series (but that might be fun, right?). The two longtime FLW Tour A-listers with a combined $6.8 million in career earnings, two FLW Cup wins and six FLW Tour Angler of the Year titles between them, did spend a few hours together on the sprawling North Carolina reservoir the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
It was the first time Dudley could recall he and Thrift fishing together. Dudley said Thrift was quick to relinquish control of the bow and he noted there was a sense that both were sizing each other up when the other wasn’t looking.
“I told him we can go skip docks but that would be a one-man show with him,” Dudley joked. “We went around and tried a few things.”
Then Dudley pulled into an area where his electronics lit up earlier in the day with countless arches, indicating fish of some sort down below. Thinking he’d impress Thrift by showing him a big school of fish he’d found on his lake, Dudley wanted Thrift to troll over them to get his opinion on how they were setting up. Thrift insisted they were white bass and paid them little attention.
“Next thing I know, he takes us to a brush pile he and Matt Arey planted back in 1990,” quipped Dudley, who likes to visit Norman in the offseason to try new things and “train for the upcoming season.”
The outing was curiously timed considering what had been going on behind the scenes in the Major League Fishing offices in Tulsa, Okla., and the B.A.S.S. headquarters in Birmingham, Ala. It’s been established that by the time Dudley and Thrift were fishing brush piles together, Brandon Palaniuk and Gerald Swindle had informed MLF of their desire to leave MLF’s Bass Pro Tour and return to the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Those moves suddenly freed up two spots on the BPT roster and Thrift and Dudley were among the top candidates to fill them. Thrift received his invitation via phone two days prior to his outing with Dudley – and then didn’t say a peep about it while they were on the water together. So when did Dudley’s phone ring?
“I dropped Bryan off at 3 p.m. and about 30 minutes later I got the call from Boyd,” Dudley said Monday.
Joking that he “must’ve been MVP number two” since Thrift received his call first, Dudley said he was relieved to get a call from MLF co-founder Boyd Duckett, who officially offered him a spot in the 2020 BPT field.
“I was excited, no doubt. I had goosebumps,” Dudley said. “In my mind, that was an $80,000 phone call because I was faced with trying to qualify [via the FLW Pro Circuit] for two straight years at $40,000 each year. Two, I get to compete against people I haven’t fished against in years, and it’s a new chapter in my fishing career. I’m trying something new.”
Speaking of trying something new, after leaving Thrift at the dock, Dudley returned to the area where he marked all the fish earlier in the day and caught spotted bass nonstop for 30 minutes straight.
Cause for Concern
As the offseason wore on, Dudley admitted he grew concerned about where he’d be competing in 2020 prior to receiving the BPT invite. The FLW Pro Circuit, which is replacing the Tour, is slated to be capped at 150 competitors, but all the roster shuffling in the sport over the past 15 months has sapped what was FLW’s premier circuit of several perennial contenders. Had he and Thrift remained, they would’ve been the faces of the circuit without question alongside John Cox, who has said he’ll attempt to pull double duty on the Elite Series and Pro Circuit.
“You can’t take anything for granted, so I was preparing for a two-year journey,” Dudley said in reference to the critieria put forth by MLF under which FLW Pro Circuit anglers will qualify for the BPT in 2022. “Until I got the call I was preparing for a journey one way or the other, whether on the B.A.S.S. side or the Pro Circuit. That process of thinking was already spinning in my mind.”
Dudley said had he received an invitation to the BPT last year, he would’ve accepted it. Instead, he came back to the FLW Tour and captured his record fourth AOY title, edging Cox by 20 points.
“I’m excited to start new a chapter in my fishing career. I like new challenges,” Dudley said.
Ready for a Reboot
Dudley has very little left to prove in traditional five-fish limit tournaments. He’s never been known as a big fish hunter and he thinks his proclivity for generating bites could translate well to the BPT.
“I know I have the talent to do it. I’m just homing in and trying to refocus,” he said. “I can’t sit here and say if I like or hate the format. I have no idea.”
In the coming weeks, Dudley hopes to get a few friends together and simulate a portion of a day of BPT competition, possibly at Lake Norman, complete with timed periods. He wants to get a feel for how he might react if he knows other anglers are catching fish and he’s not.
“I have to practice this format,” he said. “I think it will be right up my alley. Jacob (Powroznik) and I are a lot alike. We just go get bites and let the cards fall where they fall. I just love getting bit. I don’t have a big-fish mentality.”
What he does have is the mentality of someone anxious to grind through the learning process.
“I’m a fighter and if things aren’t going my way, I’m going to fight to figure out how to make it go my way,” he said. “I’m a student of the game, so if it ain’t working you better be on your p’s and q’s of figuring it out. To me, the reward is the bite. I don’t care if it’s 12 inches or 3 pounds. Getting a bite means I had the right pace and rhythm and right depth and right angle and right cast. That to me is money. That’s why I love crappie fishing so much.
“I haven’t won a big bass award more than once in my career. I’m not necessarily a big fish guy – that’s not me. I’ve always been a guy who likes to get bites and I think in this format it may take me a little while – I hope it doesn’t – but I like a format that rewards a guy who likes to get bites.”