Some things are just meant to be. So, maybe it’s right that Dalton Head will be the first ever collegiate qualifier to REDCREST when the championship event heads to Lay Lake — perhaps his favorite fishery — in March.
“The first time I ever came to Lay Lake, I was probably 9 or 10 years old, and I didn’t know anything about the place other than what people told me,” the young angler said. “Everybody used to catch them here on a swim jig, and all I wanted to do was swim a jig. I didn’t know how, or anything about it. I went through my grandad’s box, and he had these God-awful-looking swim jigs – they were white and red with nasty ugly hooks on them. My first time out, we had 21 pounds, swimming a jig. My second time out was a tournament, and I think we had 22 pounds. I’ve loved this place since the beginning.”
Running since 2019, the top championship at Major League Fishing hasn’t included a college angler in the past. But in 2023, the top team at the Abu Garcia College Fishing National Championship not only earned a title, but the chance for one of the winning anglers to fish their way into REDCREST at the Toyota Series Championship. So, this fall, Montevallo University anglers Peyton Harris and Head battled it out on Table Rock to see who would earn the golden ticket.
After Day 1, the teammates were pretty tight, with Head in 114th place after catching four bass for 8-8 and Harris in 145th with three for 6-5. Dealing with volatile fall fishing, both anglers must have felt like they had a good chance on Day 2 – maybe not to win the event, but a good day of fishing from either angler would send them on to Lay Lake, less than an hour from campus. That day, Harris blanked and Head caught another four bass to finish 83rd, well above the halfway mark, and earn his spot in REDCREST.
College Fishing tournament director Kevin Hunt wasn’t surprised in the least.
“It’s no surprise that Dalton has punched his ticket to REDCREST,” said Hunt, who has headed up college fishing for MLF and FLW since the beginning. “I know how hard he has worked to get to this point in his career. Much credit goes to his college team and coach pushing him, but he also comes from a fishing family where roots run deep in competitive fishing. This has been his dream for a long time, and I expect big things from Dalton at REDCREST.”
In his third year fishing for Montevallo, Head has already made waves at the college level. With Montevallo in the midst of a three-year run as the Bass Pro Shops School of the Year and coming off 2021 and 2022 seasons as the Tackle Warehouse School of the Year, the team is obviously loaded with talent. As part of the squad, Head has won the National Championship on Toho, made a Top 10 with MLF at Pickwick, picked up a Bassmaster College Series win at Cherokee and a win in the first college event he ever fished – a C-N Collegiate Series derby at Cherokee.
“My dad was a huge tournament fisherman, he loved fishing tournaments,” Head said. “All I ever did was look up to him. He and my grandad got me into fishing and hunting, but I shook off the hunting. Fishing just clicked for me. It’s what I love to do.”
Head wasn’t initially super hot on college fishing, but when he realized fishing at Montevallo could put him on the water all around the country at a low cost, he let himself be talked into it by mentor Barry Isbell.
“I want to thank the University of Montevallo, I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” Head said. “It’s unreal that I get to fish around the country for free, all the time.”
Some of the top prospects in fishing haven’t grown up around the sport, but that’s hardly the case for Head. As you’d expect for someone from Moody, Alabama, Head had every opportunity to get into it. He’s grown up having family involved in fishing, been on the water with Scott Canterbury and picked up Isbell as a key mentor.
“My nephew Jackson started hanging out with him when they were 10 years old, maybe younger than that,” Isbell said of how he got to know Head. “They didn’t have a fishin’ team at school, but Jackson pushed me into being the coach at school. That’s how it all got started.”
A former FLW Tour co-angler, Isbell earned a win in 2008 on Loudoun-Tellico and finished runner-up in Angler of the Year to Stetson Blaylock that season. In coaching Jackson, Head and the rest of the Moody High School anglers, Isbell pushed the kids to learn multiple techniques and seasonal patterns. Afterward, he started fishing locally with Head.
“As the high school stuff was finishing, Dalton was staying in it, and a lot of the other kids had moved on and got out of school,” Isbell said. “Dalton wanted to fish with me, and we started to fish the buddy stuff around here – we fished a bunch together.”
Isbell tried to keep him positive, imparting the sort of mindset-related advice that so many pro anglers make central to their game plans.
“At first, he had a hard time with that; if he lost a fish or broke one off, it would get in his head,” Isbell said. “I was trying to teach him how to stay in the game. If you’ve only got two hours left, it only takes five minutes. Just trying to keep him positive. If it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t, there’s another day. You can learn how to cast and pitch a bait and all that, but you need to keep your mind in it to make it successful.”
Isbell also helped to develop Head’s worth ethic.
“Making sure he knew he had to work at it to make it happen was one of the main things,” Isbell said. “My nephew had the same opportunities, and he got to listening to some other high school guys, and they said college fishing wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. Well, Dalton knew these same guys, but he didn’t listen to them. My nephew had the same offer at Montevallo as Dalton, he didn’t go to college, he didn’t take that opportunity.
“I remember one time, we were practicing for a tournament, and he told me he wanted someone to give him a chance. I don’t know if he was hitting me up, but he wanted someone to give him a chance at the next level. I tried to tell him that day, and I don’t know if it was what he wanted to hear, but I told him ‘You’re your chance. You have to go get what you want. You’ve gotta make it happen. Nobody is going to hand it to you, you’ve got to work at it.’”
Now, Isbell’s protégé has done nothing but impress, even as he’s stepped out beyond the Coosa River.
When Montevallo won the natty back in February on Toho, even longtime fishing writer Rob Newell let himself be impressed. The final day of the event saw four teams catch more than 25 pounds, the weigh in a chaotic roller-coaster ride as each megabag hit the scales. For Harris and Head, it marked the culmination of a perfect tournament.
“That was unreal,” Head said. “I’d never caught a 27-pound bag before. I’ve caught 24, 25, but never 27 pounds. That whole tournament is a story by itself. Everything went right, every decision we made was right, it just ended up all working out.”
On Day 1, the duo sacked 20 pounds quickly in Kissimmee and ran back. On Day 2, after a long fog delay, they gambled on the run again.
“We were spun,” Head said. “We had the slowest boat in the field, an old Ranger Comanche, we figured there would be a ton of people at the lock, but we decided to risk it. We ran down, and as soon as we sat down we got to go in the lock – it just worked out.”
Loading the boat in short order on Day 2 set the duo up for an all-time final day and a move from third to first.
“On Day 3, we ran down there and ended up going to a place that got blown out,” Head said. “As soon as we set down, I saw it was still blown out, and right then like an 8-pounder blew up through some hay grass chasing shad. There ended up being a shad spawn going on, and because we had a camera guy in the boat, I had taken like all the tackle out. We ended up catching a 6-pounder that was blowing up on shad on a Senko.”
Their next stretch of grass and pads produced a 7-pounder. Then, their last stretch, which had been the best area until then, turned out to be a bit of a bust.
“Something told me to go in 80 yards; I put the boat down, and made two flips while the boat was still moving and caught a 9-pounder and we left,” Head said. “It was time to go, we had maybe 15 minutes of real fishing time. We’re still moving from being on the big motor, my line is behind the boat, and she’s swimming away with it. That was the fish that won it, and I’ve never caught a fish that big and got her in that quick – I think I turned the reel handle twice and Peyton got it in the net. It was the best fishing day I’ve ever had, in my life.”
While everything went right for the natty, Head had just about everything go wrong at the Toyota Series Championship as he tried to fish his way to Lay.
“The day before I left to go up there, I had my boat, and it went out,” he said. “So, I had to make a bunch of phone calls, and I got my buddy’s Vexus straight off the showroom floor. The first day of practice, by 10 o’clock, the trim relay went out on the motor, and the trolling motor went out.”
With the first borrowed boat on the bank to get fixed, Head made some more calls.
“I drove two and a half hours to another guy I knew in Missouri, to borrow his boat, got his keys, and we went to a storage unit to get his boat,” Head said. “I forgot to ask him the code to his storage unit, and so we had to just go in behind somebody. When we got out, there was a cop waiting on us and we got detained for two hours. So, it was 3 o’clock by the time I got to the lake.”
After that, practice actually went well, and by tournament time, it was all systems go on the Vexus.
“I thought I found the fish to do really good,” Head said. “I love to LiveScope, that’s my deal – I was super, super excited to be there because of that. I found some largemouth in 65 feet of water that I thought I could have 16 or 17 pounds off of, and they ended up leaving. I had some brush and other places, and it just did not work out, so I started idling. Everything I caught in the tournament was off new stuff I found in the tournament.
“I was losing fish, too,” he said. “I should have had way better bags. Fish were coming off, I wasn’t fishing clean, I was making bad casts. It took everything to keep my head in it, every single thing went wrong.”
Still, even with it all going sideways at Table Rock, Head is now bound for the big stage at the home pond.
“It’s so surreal, I can’t believe I got the opportunity to fish in a tournament like this, on the home lake and everything,” he said. “I’ve been fishing Lay, legit, my whole life. I know this lake probably the best on the entire Coosa. It’s pretty insane that I get to fish for $300,000 on my home lake.”
It’s a huge reward for the effort he’s put into fishing, and Isbell says that drive isn’t going anywhere.
“He’s always wanted it,” Isbell said. “From the first time he got in the boat until now, he’s worked at it so hard. I’ve worked hard driving him. I might have gone a little Nick Saban on him, but we fished as hard as anybody whenever we got in the boat. His drive is off the chart, he loved it, and he wanted it. And he still wants it today as much as he did when he started.”
Isbell isn’t crowning him yet, but it sounds like he’s looking forward to seeing what Head can do on the big stage.
“He knows what to look for,” Isbell said. “I feel like he’s matured enough to keep his head in the game. I feel like he’ll have opportunities, let’s put it that way.”