By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
Dustin Connell arrived on the Bassmaster Elite Series scene like a firecracker in 2017. He not only snatched the Rookie of the Year title and hoisted a blue trophy for his win at Ross Barnett Reservoir, he displayed a calmness about him that belied his age (28).
Connell’s bass fishing logic was forged while fishing Logan Martin Lake along with the reservoirs on the Coosa River in Alabama (Lay, Mitchell, and Jordan). While his rookie campaign and sophomore season proved versatility is one of his strengths, chasing spotted bass is his specialty.
Staying Close to Home
Connell believes that spotted bass prefer to be near deeper water all year long.
“Especially in the summer and winter months, I feel like the hotter or colder the water is, the more they want to be around depth,” he said. “It’s more stable down there for them. It’s their safe zone, where they live at.”
Not only does the depth offer comfort, so does the break in the bank that creates the channel bend. Connell reasons that when holding fort, the bass don’t have to swim a long way to get food.
“If the river or the water drops or rises two or three feet, they can move vertically," he said. "They don’t have to swim off of a flat 80 yards to find food. Every fish over three pounds is going to be near some kind of deep be it a deep bank or channel swing."
In the spring, channel swing banks offer a safe area where spots can roam around and wait for the conditions to get right to spawn, Connell says. They’ll slide up on nearest pocket or flat they can find, do their deal, and go back.
Where the river hits the bank is key, too, but the composition of the bank doesn’t matter much to Connell – or the spots. Channel bends with wood on them or any object offering cover will always be superior to a straight, muddy channel bend bank. After all, there’s nothing on a mud flat or bank to hold spotted bass there.
It’s no secret, Connell will fish current any chance he can.
“With a channel bend bank, it’s carved out and naturally deeper because the current hits the bank and washes it out,” he said. “The current washes bait through the area making it an easy ambush place.”
Connell believes that the channel bend is the lifeblood of the lake. If an angler were to follow it into deeper water, they’d find where the shad, gar, catfish, drum and crappie are. Those fish are there for a reason and that’s why he’ll stop and fish such areas knowing that bass are likely to be in the same neighborhood.
Fish the Juice Wisely
Many anglers who are used to relying on their electronics to find fish and then park on top of them. Connell advises against parking in the middle of the channel swing, as it could spook all of the fish nearby.
One of the biggest mistakes that Connell sees is that anglers sit too close to the bank.
“If you’re sitting in a channel swing that’s located in 18 feet of water, try to stay out and target those bigger fish in deeper water instead of just going after the shallow fish,” he said.
Instead, Connell works his way from the beginning of the channel swing.
“They use those flats off of these channel bends especially when they are starting to spawn,” he said.
For Connell, the ideal area to target spots during the spring is where there’s a deep channel bend with a flat that is washed out and has gravel rock on it.
“You’ll always see fish on that spot because early in the morning and late afternoon, they’ll roam around on that shallow flat and you can catch them on that,” he said.
After spawning, those fish typically return to the channel bend.
During the summer, he’ll target the bank adjacent to a channel bend, which is made even better if there is a big laydown washing off that bank and laying in the water as bass will almost always suspend in that tree. During both the summer and winter, Connell believes the best place to fish are those banks on the main channel bends of the main river.
During the fall, Connell says that spotted bass will move shallower because the water is more stable and as the shad are moving to the back of creeks the bass will follow them.
Knowing that the main forage he’ll need to emulate with his bait selection are crawfish, shad and brim, he’ll mix in a variety of baits throughout the year.
Most of the year, he’ll throw a ½-ounce skirted football jig up on a bank and let it freefall down.
“I just want to feather it down that break and figure out what depth they are holding,” he said. “By throwing that jig all the way around that channel bend, I’m able to comb the area because they’ll typically bite it.”
Connell most often drags his jig along the bottom until he retrieves it for another cast.
“On the way up, I’ll reel my jig up and kill it near the boat,” he said. “I’ve won several tourneys catching those fish that follow the jig upward and trigger them to bite.”
He’ll bite the tip off of a 4-inch Netbait Paca Slim craw and match the color of the trailer to the jig skirt. Brown and green-pumpkin are his favorite skirt colors, but will opt for a black/blue/purple mix when he’s trying to imitate a bluegill.
Knowing both gizzard and threadfin shad are in play, he’ll always have a jerkbait tied on as well. He’ll throw translucent colored jerkbaits in clear water while sexy shad excels in stained water, both thrown on 12- to 15-pound Seaguar Invizx fluorocarbon.
During the summer and into fall, topwater baits can be the ticket. He’ll primarily fish a 6th Sense Dogma walking bait, but will mix in a buzzbait at times.
“Big fish love eating a topwater," he said. “They catch the biggest fish out of any lure in your box.”
When fishing clear water, white, bone, or shad patterns excel while black gets the nod in heavily stained water.
During the winter, he’ll slow down regardless of what bait he’s fishing. Typically, spotted bass will suspend in the channel. Slow-rolling a ¾-ounce double willow spinnerbait makes perfect sense. Normally, the spinnerbait will have nickel and gold blades with a chartreuse white skirt, but dirtier water calls for painted blades and bulkier skirts.
He’ll also have a jig, drop-shot, or shaky head worm rigged up knowing they’ll be slow to eat during the winter and might need to be finessed into biting.