MANY, La. — As the second period of the Championship Round ticked away at B&W Trailer Hitches Stage One presented by Power-Pole, Dustin Connell felt his lead slowly slipping away. The Alabama native had gotten off to a hot start, catching nearly 40 pounds of Toledo Bend bass in the first period and claiming the top spot on SCORETRACKER®. But around 1 p.m., his bite fizzled, and the field slowly chipped away. At one point, Zack Birge got within one scorable bass of the lead.
So, Connell ran to a new spot, one he hadn’t visited since the Qualifying Round. On his first cast of Period 3, he hooked into a 4-pounder. In that moment, the match met the proverbial fuse, sparking an epic display of fireworks.
During the two-hour final period, Connell boated a whopping 20 scorable bass weighing 58 pounds, 6 ounces, bringing his total for the day to 112-4 on 36 fish. In the end, he blew away the field, finishing 44-2 clear of runner-up Spencer Shuffield, who couldn’t quite recapture his Knockout Round magic. Drew Gill finished third in his Bass Pro Tour debut with 19 bass weighing 66-8.
“I looked for something like this all week,” Connell said. “And I can’t believe that it happened.”
Connell’s total marked the biggest day for any angler during the event — despite the Championship Round being shortened by 30 minutes due to a 1-hour, 45-minute fog delay. The win marks his fifth Bass Pro Tour victory and his third straight in regular-season events contested with every-fish-counts scoring. He also won the final two tournaments of the 2022 season.
Connell will take home $100,000 for the win, plus an extra $1,000 for boating the Berkley Big Bass of the day — a 7-14. Cliff Crochet’s 11-1 lunker caught on the first day of the event earned him $3,000 as the Berkley Big Bass for the tournament.
Here’s how the Top 10 anglers finished the Championship Round:
Ever since the BPT schedule was unveiled for 2024, Connell has had his eye on Toledo Bend. Given the late-winter timing of the event, he figured it would suit his strengths — namely, finding schools of fish with forward-facing sonar. And after failing to make a Championship Round during the 2023 regular season, he was hungry to get back in the Top 10.
“I do really well looking for schools of fish,” Connell said. “That’s how I grew up.”
So, Connell spent the months leading up to Stage One fishing three to four times per week on the lakes near his Clanton, Alabama, home. It didn’t matter that he primarily chased a different species (Alabama bass) a few hundred miles away from Toledo Bend. The practice was all about sharpening his skills with the hottest technique in tournament fishing: pinpointing suspended bass with electronics and using a soft-plastic minnow on a jighead to coax them into biting.
“I practiced for this tournament all fall,” Connell said. “I didn’t go deer hunting, I didn’t go golfing, I didn’t go sit on the couch. I’ve literally been fishing three or four days a week for four months, preparing for this, because I knew that this was going to be a tournament that I could have a really good shot.”
Despite the heavy rains that dumped muddy runoff into Toledo Bend prior to the event, Connell stayed committed to that strategy. He used a Rapala CrushCity Freeloader to catch most of his fish, especially in more stained water. He affixed the bait to various jigheads but said he leaned on a 5/16-ounce version Sunday. He also mixed in a smaller, prototype CrushCity plastic called a Mooch Minnow. Connell wouldn’t divulge many details about the bait, which will debut this summer at ICAST, but said it accounted for three fish over 5 pounds during the Championship Round, including the aforementioned 7-4.
He found all his fish, of course, with Lowrance ActiveTarget. Given the dingy water and fishing pressure, making precise presentations — the result of his offseason practice — proved pivotal.
Connell’s technique was no secret. Everyone else in the Championship Round chased fish offshore using forward-facing sonar, most with a jighead minnow.
The difference came down to finding large schools of actively feeding bass, which moved each day. Key to doing so, Connell said, was covering as much of the massive, 185,000-acre playing field as possible during the week. After a strong first day of qualifying put him well ahead of the rest of the anglers in Group B, Connell used his second day of competition solely to practice. Then, after stacking more than 45 pounds on SCORETRACKER ® in Period 1 of the Knockout Round, he once again set out in search of new water.
“The biggest key was decision making this week and trying to adapt to the water,” he said. “The water came up 3 feet, the water was muddy, the water started to clean.”
All that practicing paid off when Connell pulled the plug on his starting spot during the Championship Round. His first move took him to an area that was too muddy. Seeing how the water clarity had fluctuated led him to think of a spot he’d visited during the Qualifying Round. Connell described it as a pocket located between two major creeks. It featured a ditch, or “drain,” where bass could corral shad.
During his initial visit, the area didn’t seem special — he caught a 3-pounder and a 2 ½-pounder there — but with clearer water, he knew it had the ingredients to attract baitfish (and thus bass) in large numbers. Boy did it.
“I ran in that area earlier in the week, and the fish weren’t in there as good,” he said. “And then the water cleared up, and they just flooded in there.”
The spot didn’t just have bass in numbers, but big ones, too. On the day, Connell boated nine bass of 4 pounds or bigger.
Connell, who didn’t catch a single 4-pounder during the Knockout Round, attributed his Sunday smashfest to his mindset — the biggest key to his win. Given how rapidly the conditions changed, he refused to commit to one area at any point in the week. And when the pressure mounted as his Championship Round lead shrunk, he avoided spinning out, ultimately making the winning decision.
“I did not want to get stuck into a one-track mind on this lake, because it’s so big, the fish move, the wind blows,” Connell said. “I just kept an open mind all week and was not afraid to run to a new area.”
Connell has grabbed an early lead in the race for the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year title, although with six regular-season events remaining, there’s plenty of time for the standings to be shaken up. The prestigious award rewarding season-long excellence will come with a $100,000 payday in 2024.
Fishing Clash – an interactive 3D fishing simulation game that’s played by more than 80 million people worldwide – is the official AOY sponsor of the Bass Pro Tour, Tackle Warehouse Invitationals, Toyota Series and Phoenix Bass Fishing League. You can download Fishing Clash for free in the App Store and on Google Play or log on to www.fishingclash.game for more information.