FLW is looking forward to getting back on the water once it’s safe to come together and fish tournaments again. In the meantime, we’ll be offering a little retrospective on some of the all-time greats who’ve fished with FLW through the years.
In this case, we’re visiting the top 10 highlights in the career of David Dudley, FLW’s all-time leading money winner and only four-time FLW Tour Angler of the Year. You won’t find a pro with a more complete FLW resume than Dudley. He’s won just about everything, and it’s tough to argue against giving him the title of FLW’s greatest of all time.
About David Dudley:
Hometown: Lynchburg, Va.
Career earnings with FLW: $3,804,409
Career FLW wins: 7
Career FLW top 10s: 44
FLW Cup appearances: 21
Here are 10 highlights from Dudley’s career in more-or-less chronological order:
1. Joining the Tour
Though Dudley was competing at a high level with B.A.S.S. as early as 1994, he didn’t join the FLW Tour full time until 1997. He showed the kind of early success and consistent improvement you’d expect from a budding star.
Dudley earned his first top 10 in 1997 at Kentucky Lake, finished in the top 10 in the Angler of the Year standings and the FLW Cup in 1999, added two more top 10s in 2000, and won more than $100,000 in a season for the first time in 2001, when he finished second at Lake St. Clair. Dudley would’ve been one of the favorites at the Cup on Lake Champlain in 2001 had the event not been cancelled in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
Then, in 2002, Dudley held a major coming-out party at the Ranger M1.
2. Records smashed at the 2002 Ranger M1, and the chainsaw ordeal
At age 26, Dudley earned his first major victory with FLW at the Ranger M1 event in 2002 on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. For Dudley, it was a mammoth win, not only because it paid $700,000, but because it set him on a course to surpass every milestone and set numerous records throughout his career.
Among the storylines to come out of that tournament was Dudley’s effort to access a remote backwater about 90 miles from takeoff. He spent part of practice scouting it from the bank and then using a chainsaw to clear brush and trees that were blocking the entrance. In the process of removing the final log, Dudley broke his chain and then dropped the chainsaw’s bar in the water while trying to change it out. Dudley returned on day one, only to jam the chainsaw’s bar in the log again, which forced him to abandon the area.
On the final day, anticipating high water that could make it easier to get into the backwater, Dudley launched his boat armed with two chainsaws – he’d bought a backup the night before. He gambled, ran to the backwater pond, sawed his way in with just two and a half hours to fish and caught a stringer worth $700,000.
An article that ran on the FLW website after the tournament did a pretty solid job of putting the win in perspective. Here’s an excerpt:
In four quick days, David Dudley has finally scored his first big-time victory, joined the million-dollar pro anglers’ club and rewritten the record books for the entire sport of bass fishing. The fishing machine from Manteo, N.C., already had an enviable tournament resume coming into the 2002 Ranger M1 with six FLW Tour top-10 finishes – including a $100,000 runner-up at the 2001 Forrest Wood Open – three EverStart Series top 10s and a fifth place at the first Ranger M1 in 1999. But victory had eluded Dudley – until today. To put it mildly, he picked a whopper of a tournament to win his first one. Not only did Dudley set the record for the largest cash prize ever won in a freshwater fishing tournament, his $700,000 in M1 winnings launched his total FLW Outdoors career earnings total to $1,007,100, putting him into the exclusive million-dollar pro angler club. Only one other angler, Darrel Robertson of Jay, Okla., has earned over a million dollars in his FLW Outdoors career. (Robertson, not coincidentally, won the 1999 M1 and cashed in $600,000.) Not only that, Dudley is just 26 years old. So what’s he going to do with all that cash? “I’m going to build a church with most of it, in Lynchburg, Va.,” he said. “Other than that, I don’t really know what’s in store for the future. I want to start a family with this money."
3. Becoming a Cup champion
Just 19 months after winning $700,000 at the M1 event, Dudley went to another tidal fishery – the James River – and claimed an even bigger trophy by winning the 2003 FLW Cup (then called the FLW Tour Championship).
Despite difficult high-tide conditions, Dudley was able to scrape and claw his way to first place on a clean-bottom flat by throwing his Rabbit Dog spinnerbait. On the final day, he was the only pro to catch a limit, which earned him the W by just a few ounces over Oklahoma’s Harmon Davis, who weighed in only four bass.
The win paid Dudley $500,000, making him the all-time leading money winner with FLW – a title he’s never relinquished. (Also, check out some of the names in this tournament roster.)
And another interesting tidbit from a classic FLW article:
If you throw out his worst tournament, Alabama’s Wheeler Lake, the Manteo Machine (at that time Dudley lived in Manteo, N.C.) finished no worse than 33rd place all year long on the FLW Tour and finished the season second in points. Let’s not forget that Dudley also won the first EverStart Northern Division tournament of the season at Minnesota’s Lake Vermilion in June. In July, Dudley also had his first child, a son. His wife, Angela, said, in the understatement of the day: “Oh yeah, it’s been an incredible year.”
4. Blowing away the field on Okeechobee
Some pros never seem to figure out how to stay on top after a Cup win, but Dudley did. He piled up top 10s throughout the early 2000s and found himself back in the winner’s circle at Lake Okeechobee in 2007 at an FLW Series Eastern Division event (considered a Tour-level tournament).
At Okeechobee, Dudley’s four-day total was more than 8 pounds better than the second-place finisher’s weight, and he bettered some of his fellow top-10 finishers by an insane margin of more than 30 pounds. On the final day, when two anglers checked in weights of only 2 pounds and 2-1, Dudley weighed in 18 1/2 pounds.
5. Guarding the winning spot on Loudoun-Tellico
FLW has seen some remarkable ledge-fishing tournaments over the years, and most of them have involved massive limits caught during electronics wars on places like Kentucky Lake and Pickwick.
In 2008, however, Dudley won a different style of ledge-fishing tournament on the Tennessee River at Fort Loudoun-Tellico by camping on a single spot and chucking a deep-diving crankbait, a 10-inch worm and a jig.
The spot was so magical that Dudley had to play “guard dog” to keep other competitors off it. On the second day, in particular, when Dudley first took over the lead, he caught his fish in a matter of minutes, then pulled out a crappie jig, put on a straw hat and spent the rest of the day fishing for white bass to pass the time and protect the spot.
Art Ferguson took over the lead on day three (weights were zeroed back then), but Dudley managed a comeback on the final day thanks to some key adjustments, such as shelving the crankbait in favor of the worm and jig.
The crankbait pattern was interesting, though, because it showed off Dudley’s ability to continuously add tools to his arsenal. Dudley used a deep crankbait to make the top 10 at the 2007 Cup on Lake Ouachita, and then to win at Loudoun-Tellico.
Here’s a Dudley quote from the winning pattern article at Loudoun-Tellico that sums up the point:
“This win means a lot to me because I did it in a way that used to be my biggest weakness – deep cranking. In the last two years, I’ve learned a ton about deep-water fishing, and now it has become my obsession. I love it because it has the potential to deliver exactly what happened today – a big win.”
6. AOY No. 1
By 2008, Dudley was already widely considered one of the greatest bass fishermen in the game. He’d already won the championship and led all anglers in career earnings. In 2002, 2003 and 2007, he finished in the top 10 in Tour standings.
Really, all he needed to drive home the point of his greatness was an AOY title.
It came one month after his win at Fort Loudoun-Tellico, when Dudley sewed up AOY by just one point over Brent Ehrler. Dudley’s first AOY campaign included the win and, if you add in the $17,000 he earned for finishing 14th at the Cup, earned him another $188,000.
7. The two-win season
Only 11 pros have ever won two Tour-level events with FLW in one season, and Dudley was the eighth pro to do so when he won twice in 2012. The first win came at Beaver Lake in April. The second was the season finale at Lake Champlain, where Dudley opened with the biggest limit of the event and never took his foot off the gas en route to victory.
Dudley’s track record at Champlain is impressive, but this was a huge tournament for him. In holding off his good buddy Jacob Powroznik, who finished second, Dudley also finished one spot ahead of J-Pow in the Angler of the Year standings – first place.
It was Dudley’s second AOY win in a row, which brings us to …
8. Back-to-back AOY wins
Through 2009 and 2010, David Dudley was in a slump. Well, not really, but by his standards, at least, they were down years. He finished 64th and 36th, and he failed to make the 2009 Cup. This, after winning the 2008 AOY title.
Things turned around in a big way in 2011 and 2012, when Dudley became the first pro to win back-to-back AOY titles on the FLW Tour, a feat that has been repeated only once by Andy Morgan in 2013 and 2014. When he won AOY in 2012, Dudley became only the second pro to win three AOY titles, joining Clark Wendlandt. Morgan later reached the milestone, too.
There’s more to the story of Dudley’s AOY wins than simple redemption. The economic recession that gripped the United States in the late 2000s was especially challenging for Dudley, who has openly discussed some of the hardships he and his family had to weather during that period – things like watering down the milk to make it last longer, and selling tackle to make ends meet. Winning those AOY titles on the heels of such a difficult period, while dealing with the kind of stress that such a situation incurred, is remarkable. But it’s also totally Dudley. No one has ever been such a fierce closer, or as capable of performing under pressure, than the Virginia pro.
In the April 2017 issue of FLW Bass Fishing magazine, Rob Newell profiled Dudley and recounted those challenging years. This excerpt from that article, with quotes from Morgan and Dudley, helps to frame the magnitude of Dudley’s accomplishment. It also reveals a major reason why he was able to pull it off:
“I’ve fished through some tough times,” Morgan says, “but how he was able to maintain focus on the water during that time and win like that is something that’s just inexplicable.”
Inexplicable, perhaps, but Dudley sees it all as part of real life.
“That’s how God tests your faith,” Dudley says. “He can build you up and tear you down, humble you, and it makes you stronger.
“I’m just not a quitter,” he adds. “When my back is up against the wall and all the chips are down, that’s when the determination wells up inside of me like some kind of adrenaline. Trust me, it’s not a position I put myself in on purpose, but when it’s fourth and long, I feel like it’s all on me to get a first down.”
It’s also fun to look back at what Dudley had to say about his third AOY title at the time when it happened.
From a 2012 web article:
“In 2008, I got a pretty big head because I started looking at my stats and thinking, ‘Wow, I'm pretty good.’ Then, in 2009, I did okay, but I faltered. After 2009 and into 2010, I realized I wasn’t doing something right. Typically, I never fish unless I have a tournament, but in 2010 I started bass fishing; going to lakes like Smith Mountain and Buggs Island. It’s like a runner who runs five miles. You can’t just get up and run a five-minute mile without training yourself. I realized that so I started training myself again.”
Finally, Dudley was incredibly dominant during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. He never missed a check. Including Cup events, his worst finish was 59th. His second-worst finish was 42nd. Other than those two events, he never finished lower than 24th, and he tallied seven top-10 finishes and two wins. He also earned more than $658,000 in FLW Tour competition. It was one of the most impressive streaks of success in the history of the sport.
9. AOY No. 4
Dudley’s 2019 season was again remarkable as he earned an FLW record fourth Angler of the Year title in what became the final season of the former FLW Tour. While most pros consider it a good season to even contend for AOY, and many go entire careers without winning it, Dudley proved that he’s nothing like “most anglers.” He’s a cut above.
In 2019, he closed out the season in classic Dudley fashion, showing once again that when the pressure is highest, he’s one of the best finishers of all time. In the final four events, Dudley finished 25th, 12th, fifth and seventh to reach 1,250 AOY points and hold off John Cox, Joseph Webster and Scott Martin, all of whom finished with more than 1,200 points apiece. That’s the most anglers to surpass the 1,200-point threshold since FLW expanded the Tour from six to seven events, and Dudley’s total was the second most earned in a season (Thrift earned 1,275 in 2017.).
By the time he’d wrapped up 2019, Dudley had boosted his career earnings with FLW to more than $3.8 million. Martin is second but a whopping $900,000 behind Dudley. Across all circuits, Dudley has won more than $4.1 million, which is second behind only Kevin VanDam.
More importantly, winning AOY in 2019 showed Dudley’s adaptability. He’s been at the top of the sport since before the “electronics boom” and has successfully managed his fishing career into the social media era. In fact, Dudley credits much of his success in 2019 to the introspection and motivation he gained by documenting his on-the-water performances on his YouTube channel David Dudley Outdoors.
Here’s the best way to summarize it: Dudley joined the Tour full time in 1997 and has earned nine top-10 AOY finishes, with the first coming in 1999 and the last in 2019. Few pros have performed at that level for more than two decades as consistently as Dudley has.
10. The Bass Pro Tour, and some extras
Dudley’s career has been full of milestones, on and off the water. He’s a tackle designer (the Perfection Lures Sure Hook Up Shaky Head), a favorite guest host for FLW Live streams, a successful YouTube star, a proponent of youth fishing (he allows anyone to fish the stocked pond on his farm, as long as they bring a child along), a charitable giver (he donated a substantial chunk of his winnings to build a church in Virginia), an entrepreneur, and an innovator whose methods, at times, have been unusual enough to help shape the rules of bass fishing.
Best of all for fishing fans, Dudley is nowhere near done. In the fall of 2019, FLW was acquired by Major League Fishing, setting up a new era that kicked off this spring. With the changes came some new faces in the FLW ranks and some shifting at the top. Dudley, as 2019 FLW Tour AOY, and Bryan Thrift, the 2019 FLW Cup champion, were invited to join the MLF Bass Pro Tour.
Though it’s the first time in more than 20 years that Dudley hasn’t competed at the top level of FLW’s tournament hierarchy, having the chance to compete for no entry fees is a fitting reward for FLW’s most successful angler.
Currently, Dudley sits in 27th place in the BPT standings, well on his way to another championship qualification and, most likely, a whole slew of future greatest hits.