Insider: Everything you need to know for REDCREST - Major League Fishing Insider: Everything you need to know for REDCREST
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March 11, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Fantasy Fishing

It’s championship season. And while the anglers who take to Lay Lake March 14-17 will duke it out for the Bass Pro Shops REDCREST Powered by OPTIMA Lithium trophy and $300,000 first-place prize, Fantasy Fishing players will have plenty at stake, too — one will take home a major prize package courtesy of Tackle Warehouse. 

Filling out a fantasy roster feels a bit different for a championship event. For one thing, there’s only 50 anglers to choose from instead of 80, meaning there’s less margin for error if you want to finish atop the standings. With no points up for grabs, there’s no incentive for AOY contenders to simply fish to make the Knockout Round. There’s also a host of new names joining the top Bass Pro Tour performers, as the REDCREST 2024 field includes winners from the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals events, Toyota Series Championship, All-American and Abu Garcia College Fishing National Championship. Oh yeah, and Kevin VanDam is dusting off his Nitro to return to the fishery where he won the 2010 Bassmaster Classic. 

Throw in the fact that Lay Lake offers anglers the chance to take their pick between targeting Alabama bass or largemouth in a wide variety of habitat and this should be a fascinating tournament. Here’s everything you need to know to break it all down and assemble a winning team. 

How it will go down

A former REDCREST champion and five-time winner on the Bass Pro Tour, Dustin Connell will get to compete on one of his favorite fisheries in Lay Lake. Photo by Phoenix Moore

Normally, anglers have a decent idea how an event will unfold before ever launching their boats for practice. But pre-tournament chatter suggests a wide range of patterns and techniques could be in play on Lay. 

While not huge by national tournament standards, the 12,000-acre lake is diverse, with a riverine upper end and more reservoir-like lower portion. It features offshore structure, shallow wood, emergent and submergent vegetation. Add in a recent rainstorm and a warming trend that figures to have fish on the move, and Coosa River local Dustin Connell believes all of the above could be in play. 

“I think this tournament could be won anywhere,” Connell said. “The weather’s changing, these fish are moving in and out, they’re wanting to get up there and spawn. If a guy moves around on the lake and picks out a little section — that’s how this tournament is probably going to be won: There’s going to be a section of the lake that’s probably going to be really, really going off.” 

The first question competitors will have to answer is whether they want to primarily target largemouth or Alabama/spotted bass. The former are larger on average — fellow Alabama native Greg Vinson noted that it’s not uncommon to see 6- to 8-pounders caught out of Lay each spring — but the latter will probably be more prevalent and easier to target in groups, which could suit the event’s every-fish-counts scoring format (with a 2-pound minimum weight). 

That said, with fish transitioning and weights zeroing after the two-day Qualifying Round and then again after the Knockout Round, it’s highly unlikely an angler will be able to ride the same school or spot to a high finish. Vinson believes it will take a mixture of the two species to win. 

As for techniques, there should be plenty of fish to be caught shallow, especially in water willow and other emergent grass. Other anglers might choose to run offshore cover like brushpiles. We could see a few brave the roaring current below the Logan Martin dam.  

Then there’s the suspended fish, forward-facing-sonar X-factor. The hottest technique in tournament fishing wasn’t a huge player in the last major event held on Lay — a 2023 Elite Series stop — but that event occurred in mid-May. This being 2024, it wouldn’t be a surprise if a few anglers at least try to ‘Scope bait-chasing bass.

The locals

Dalton Head (right) earned a spot in REDCREST after he and University of Montevallo teammate Peyton Harris won the 2023 Abu Garcia College Fishing National Championship, then Head topped Harris at the Toyota Series Championship. Photo by Cobi Pellerito

There won’t be an angler rostered more frequently than Connell, and for good reason. Not only did he win REDCREST in 2021 and start the 2024 season strong with a victory at Toledo Bend, he’s lived along the Coosa River his entire life. The five-time Bass Pro Tour champion now resides in Clanton, Alabama, about 30 minutes from takeoff at Beeswax Park. He’ll know better than anyone how Lay’s bass behave amid various conditions. 

Connell isn’t the only Coosa River local in the field. Vinson lives in nearby Wetumpka, Alabama, and has plenty of experience on Lay through the years. And while Dalton Head, the first ever collegiate angler to compete in REDCREST, is the least experienced of anyone in the field, he might have the most up-to-date knowledge of the lake. Head, who now attends the University of Montevallo in Moody, Alabama, grew up in the area and has been fishing Lay since he was 9 years old.

The usual suspects

He’s back! Despite retiring from national touring competition last year, Kevin VanDam will compete in REDCREST. Photo by Phoenix Moore

The only thing missing from Jacob Wheeler’s astounding Bass Pro Tour résumé is a REDCREST triumph. He’s riding high after winning Stage Two at Santee Cooper, and he’s virtually guaranteed to be in the mix — for three years in a row he’s finished among the top four. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if this is his time to break through. 

Along those same lines, Alton Jones Jr. has been consistently excellent the past few years, especially in championship events. He finished second in REDCREST 2023 before winning General Tire Heavy Hitters last April. Ott DeFoe and Matt Becker have proven themselves as worthy roster stalwarts, too. DeFoe hasn’t started the season as well as he’d like, but with shallow fish and current both in play at Lay, he should be in his element. 

This week, a couple anglers no longer competing on the BPT return to the list of perpetual favorites. Like Wheeler, Jordan Lee is only missing a REDCREST trophy from his awards collection, and he’ll be fishing in his home state. Then there’s VanDam. The GOAT retired from touring competition after last season, giving him seven months to focus solely on adding a fifth championship trophy to his name — on a fishery where he’s done it before. No chance I’m leaving KVD off my roster. 

Sneaky selections

Could Keith Poche pull off another win by catching bass out of heavy current? It’s not out of the question at REDCREST. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Group A:

Keith Poche — Will Davis Jr. won last year’s Elite Series event in large part by targeting spotted bass below the Logan Martin Dam. If there’s fish to be caught in the turbulent tailrace again this week, Poche is the best bet to make it happen. His Bass Pro Tour win on Lakes Douglas and Cherokee in 2023 came fishing a hard-to-access spillway. And even if the tailrace isn’t the place to be this time of year, there’s lots of grassy backwaters where Poche will be comfortable. 

Todd Faircloth — Faircloth has a strong track record on the Coosa River, although it’s been a while since he last competed there. He finished third in the 2010 Classic and 12th in 2002, also held on Lay. He also notched an eighth-place finish in a 2009 Elite Series event on Lake Jordan. He could be a nice contrarian pick.

Group B:

Jesse Wiggins — Wiggins should probably be in the “usual suspects” group. Outside of Wheeler, no one has been more consistent over the past few years. Across his last 16 BPT events, Wiggins has 11 Top-20 finishes, 8 Top 10s (including four in a row) and a win. 

Emil Wagner — If spotted bass turn out to be the winning fish, Wagner could be tough to beat. The reigning All-American champion is one of the best in the game at using his electronics to target spots, which could bode well for the every-fish-counts format.