Make it 2! Connell dominates on Lay Lake for second REDCREST victory - Major League Fishing

Make it 2! Connell dominates on Lay Lake for second REDCREST victory

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Dustin Connell became the first two-time REDCREST champion by catching 28 bass weighing 83 pounds even. Photo by Garrick Dixon. Angler: Dustin Connell.
March 17, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Just about every day in the 13 months since Major League Fishing announced that Bass Pro Shops REDCREST Powered by OPTIMA Lithium would take place on Lay Lake, Dustin Connell has thought about what it would be like to taste victory at the Coosa River impoundment where he grew up fishing. 

But in all his dreaming, scheming and practicing, the Clanton, Alabama, native didn’t envision this.

Connell routed the rest of the Championship Round field Sunday, stacking 28 scorable bass for 83 pounds on SCORETRACKER® – more than 30 pounds better than runner-up Alton Jones Jr. The dominant performance earned Connell $300,000 and made him the first ever two-time winner of the Bass Pro Tour’s championship event.

It wasn’t just his margin of victory that surprised Connell, but how he made it happen. As recently as Saturday evening, he planned to spend the final day fishing current seams in the riverine portion of the reservoir, as he had during the Knockout Round. But at the last minute, he called an audible, opting to start on the lower end of the lake targeting suspended, schooling spotted bass. One of several clutch decisions he made over the four-day event, doing so led to Connell landing on a pile of unpressured bass and unleashing an avalanche that buried the rest of the Top 10.

“This tournament has been on my radar ever since they announced it last year,” Connell said. “I’m like, ‘Oh man, I gotta win that one. That’s a great opportunity. I gotta win that one.’ And I won it today unexpectedly. I didn’t know that many (were) in there. They just moved in there.”

Here’s how the Top 10 anglers finished the Championship Round:

  1. Dustin Connell — 83-0 (28 bass)
  2. Alton Jones Jr. — 52-2 (19)
  3. Ron Nelson — 39-9 (12)
  4. Takahiro Omori — 36-11 (13)
  5. Jesse Wiggins — 32-8 (12)
  6. Jacob Wheeler — 29-13 (11)
  7. Gerald Spohrer — 29-9 (11)
  8. Cole Floyd — 25-15 (10)
  9. Nick Hatfield — 24-2 (9)
  10. Michael Neal — 18-1 (7)

Complete results

A fresh approach to a familiar playing field

Connell was careful to avoid the “home-lake curse.” Photo by Phoenix Moore

Competing on a fishery that an angler knows well comes with obvious advantages. Connell put his lifetime of experience on the Coosa River to use all week – knowing how baitfish and bass would behave amid the heavy current that rolled through Lay Lake, where bass would set up in that current, the best baits to trigger bites.

But there’s a reason so many anglers talk about the “home-lake curse” – Remembering places and ways one has caught fish in the past can get in the way of finding the best way to do so at the present.

Connell wasn’t immune to the pull of history, but he made it a point to base his decisions about where to fish on what he saw on the water, not where he’d found success before.

“When I’m running down the river, I’ve caught ‘em on so many different places, and I’m like, ‘golly, I need to stop, I need to stop,’” Connell said. “But I told myself before I fished this tournament, I said, ‘I’m going to fish this lake like I would any other one, not run off of history.’ I wanted to fish it brand new. And I did all week. I did really, really good practicing and just trying to find new areas.”

Key for Connell was turning over every possible stone to discover what could be the winning area. Not only during practice but also the two-day Qualifying Round, he visited every section of the lake, switching between techniques – shaking a jighead minnow for suspended fish, swimming a jig in grass, rolling a spinnerbait around laydowns, plying current seams with a scrounger head.

His thorough approach paid off on the second day of qualifying, when Connell found what would become his winning spot. Friday afternoon, he pulled into a bay off the main lake that featured two depressions where bass were chasing schools of shad. He caught just one 4-pounder there, but the number of baitfish present led him to mentally flag the area.

“The two depressions harbor the bait, and the fish swim around those depressions and feed on all the bait,” he explained. “And it’s just like their home place. It’s the deepest water in that bay, and the big spots just roam out there and chase that bait. And in the past, I’ve caught them in there. I’ve caught them on a jerkbait, I’ve seen them schooling in there. And I knew that they lived in there. I’ve caught them there a bunch of times, but not to that extent.”

The decisions that led to domination

Period 2 was when the day really took off for Connell. Photo by Phoenix Moore

Finding the area was one thing, but it took a series of clutch calls for Connell to find himself back there on Championship Day. Even as he arrived at the launch ramp Sunday morning, he was torn between returning to the river, where he’d caught more than 52 pounds of scorable bass the day prior, or joining the forward-facing sonar crowd in the lower lake. Feeling like his urge to fish current stemmed at least in part from nostalgia, he settled on starting the day chasing schooling fish, then running upriver in the afternoon, when the bite had been better the past two days (if need be).

“I said, I can catch 50-something pounds – maybe 60 (in the river),” Connell said. “I can’t catch 75 up there, no way. And I thought it was going to take 70, 72 pounds total (to win), because I figured they would catch a lot of fish. I said, ‘I’m going to go down, start down here and then work my way up.’ … Well, I never got to go upriver.”

Connell’s first stop was the main-lake area that had accounted for most of the forward-facing sonar success all week – half of the 10-angler field started Sunday morning within sight of one another. Whether due to pressure or those bass heading to the bank to spawn, it quickly became apparent that the bite had dried up.

After feeling several fish short-strike his bait, Connell became the first to leave. He first stopped in a nearby pocket before hitting the bay where he’d caught the 4-pounder two days prior. Before even dropping his trolling motor into the water, he knew he’d found something special.

“I rolled up, and as soon as I set the boat down, I saw bait on my 2D (sonar), and I said, ‘Dude, we’re about to catch ‘em,’” Connell said. “‘They’ve got to be here; all the bait’s in here.’ And this low-light conditions had all that bait up shallow, and they were there.”

Connell began Period 2 in second place, 6-7 back of Ron Nelson. Within the first 15 minutes, he boated back-to-back 4-pounders to take the lead. From there, the rout was on. In a 70-minute span, he put 10 scorable bass on the scale, adding 29-4 to his total and extending his cushion to more than 20 pounds. By noon, he’d already reset the bar for the best single day of the week.

He didn’t just catch fish in bulk quantities, either. Connell landed 14 spotted bass of 3 pounds or bigger and three over 4 pounds. In all, he piled on 41-12 on 14 fish during Period 2, all of them eating a new minnow-style soft plastic from Rapala CrushCity called a Mooch Minnow. The bait is slated for public release at ICAST this summer.

“That bait is the perfect size, and it has two small tabs at the back of that creates a small, subtle swimming action,” Connell explained. “And instead of it just being straight-tailed, that little action, man, it really gets them going. I caught every bass I weighed in today on that bait. And it’s made out of TPE, and you can catch like 20 fish on (each one).”

An emotional triumph

Connell’s no stranger to success, but winning REDCREST on his home lake is particularly special for him. Photo by Phoenix Moore

Competing amid familiar surroundings with family and friends in attendance made for an emotional week for Connell. Even before he launched Sunday, he found himself tearing up, thinking about his journey from fishing Lay Lake out of an aluminum boat as a kid to returning as one of the most accomplished pros in the world.

“I’ve been shook up all day,” Connell said. “I was crying this morning at the boat ramp. This lake is very sentimental to me – the whole Coosa River system. I grew up fishing that way, fishing those lakes and catching those big spotted bass, and it just meant a lot.”

During the final minutes of Period 3, the tears returned, as his massive lead offered Connell a rare chance to soak in the win and what it meant in real time. He reminisced about catching Lay Lake spotted bass on topwaters with his brother – who was among the contingent to greet him at the boat ramp after his win – about asking his mother to drive him to the lake so he could fish from a canoe.

In some ways, this triumph – even with its lucrative first-place paycheck – is nothing new for Connell. He’s won REDCREST before, in 2021 at Lake Eufaula. It’s his sixth Bass Pro Tour win and his second in the past six weeks after he engineered a similar final-day beatdown at Stage One on Toledo Bend

But making another fond memory on the Coosa River and celebrating in person with some of the people who got him into fishing make this victory particularly sweet. Connell doesn’t think he could have made the winning decisions without his support system.

“I think I’ve just started to mature as an angler and understand how things happen and just be very methodical about things,” he said. “I guess, getting older, I just slow down a little bit more, just kind of analyze everything. Used to be I would freak out, run around and just make bad decisions. Now, decision-making is good, it’s solid. I’m in a good place. I have great sponsors. And when you’ve got that kind of support behind you, you can settle down.”

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