CULLMAN, Ala. – The final day of the Favorite Fishing Stage Three Presented by Mercury was moved up an hour in an attempt to beat the wind, rain and lightning forecasted for Smith Lake. While the wind and rain showed up for a couple of hours, the only electricity was on the water, namely from Dustin Connell and a blistering start to the day that led to the Alabama pro’s first career regular-season win on the Bass Pro Tour.
Connell posted 17 fish for 36 pounds, 7 ounces in the first period and never looked back en route to a 33-fish day for 71-2. A handful of anglers made runs to Connell – some getting close enough to have an outside shot – but the Favorite Fishing pro caught fish when he needed to late in the day to hold off surges by Jordan Lee (56-1) and Michael Neal (52-2).
Connell claimed the REDCREST title barely over a year ago in his home state on Lake Eufaula. Connell claimed Stage Three close to home as well, this time with an adjustment during the Knockout Round.
“I started the event fishing docks and that was kind of a ‘make the cut’ thing because I didn’t think that pattern could win,” Connell admitted. “My goal this week was to take it one day at a time and then try to find a big school of fish that could get me a win. During the Knockout Round, I was 4 pounds outside of the cut when I decided to make a run to the dam.”
He immediately knew he had found a potential winning area when he got there, thanks to his Lowrance ActiveTarget.
“I put the trolling motor down and panned around and immediately knew it was the winning area because there were tons of shad and bass there,” Connell said. “I knew I just had to make it to the Championship Round first. Luckily, I caught enough to get me to the final day.”
The area he was fishing was near the dam with rock shelves in 30 feet of water and he figured out the bass were using them to ambush baitfish. His boat was in much deeper water, but the 20- to 30-foot zone was critical.
“They were sitting on those rocks and coming up to get the baitfish,” he said. “My boat was sitting in 100 feet a lot of times, and as deep as 200 feet.”
Connell employed a drop-shot rig with a Googan Baits Drag N Drop and various other shad imitators to pick up the win, fishing them “Damiki rig” style. All of his fish came on spinning tackle: a Favorite Fishing 6-foot-10 and 7-2 Hex Series rods paired with 2500-size spinning reels spooled with 15-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line with a leader of 12-pound Seaguar Gold Label Fluorocarbon Leader.
Hometown boy Lee finished the event in second place and was the only angler to challenge Connell late in the day as he cut the deficit around 10 pounds at one point. Lee finished up with 29 bass for 56-1, primarily on a jerkbait, swimbait, and shaky head.
“I started the day running windy points, but they weren’t there like they were during the Knockout Round,” Lee said. “I was focusing on those points and hard bottom areas and ran into a point on the end of the island with a lot of bait. The bass were stacked there, no real big ones, but most of them were scoreable.”
That area proved to be his best and he mixed in a handful of jerkbaits, including a Berkley Stunna 112 in northern lights, as well as a 2.8-inch Berkley Power Swimmer swimbait and a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General fished on a 3/16-ounce shaky head.
“I threw the shaky head when the bite slowed down and caught quite a few on that,” Lee said. “I had one little sweet spot but that was it and it was hard to try to keep up with Dustin. He found a place where they were bunched up and kept biting and that’s what you have to have on this lake.”
Neal fished near the dam, targeting suspended bass in deep water all week. He utilized his forward-facing sonar to win his group and advance to today’s Championship Round, where he caught 24 bass for 52-2.
That weight came after making a key adjustment to his area and going to shallower water.
“I started the morning doing the same thing and in the same places I was during the qualifying round,” Neal said. “I went to my best stretch and they weren’t there. I went into the pocket and figured out that the baitfish had moved shallower and inside the drains. The bass were sitting in 30 to 40 feet over 50 to 60 feet of water.”
By then, Connell had already taken control of the event.
“It was too late to catch up once I figured that out,” Neal said. “I also found another new area, but just a little too late.”
Lee’s second-place finish pushed him to the top of the Bally Bet Angler of the Year race with 226 points. He’s trailed by Jacob Wheeler (224), Bryan Thrift (203), Kevin VanDam (198) and Randy Howell (194)
MLF partnered with Bally Bet for the 2022 Bally Bet AOY. Bally’s is MLF’s exclusive sports betting, daily fantasy sports, and free-to-play partner for all MLF tournament circuits. The 2022 Bally Bet Angler of the Year will take home a $100,000 prize at the end of the 2022 Bass Pro