By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

If the last two days of competition at the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes have revealed anything about Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour, the final 10 minutes of any round involving elimination qualifies as must-see live stream.

Also, never count out Dustin Connell.

For a second straight day, a fish caught in the closing moments – today, it was the final 10 seconds – swung the outcome for anglers vying to advance to the next round while Connell mounted another furious late-day rally to catapult himself up the leaderboard.

As 40 competitors – 20 qualifiers from Group A and 20 more from Group B – went at it in the Knockout Round for 10 spots in Sunday’s Championship Round under mostly sunny skies with warming water temperatures, today produced the two biggest fish ever caught in MLF competition. It also produced a dramatic ending that saw Jared Lintner secure a spot in the finals as he landed a 2-pound, 10-ounce bass (his biggest of the day) just as his boat official was starting the final 10-second countdown.

“I still don’t believe it happened like that,” Lintner said. “I’ve fished a lot of tournaments in my life and I can honestly say that’s the first time in my whole life where I caught a significant fish on my last cast. My whole life! It was pretty wild.”

Lintner’s catch moved him into 9th place, bumped Michael Neal to 10th and knocked Mike Iaconelli down to 11th after he’d started the final period in 3rd place. Neal’s 29-13 total today was four ounces more than Iaconelli, who was one of six anglers to catch 20 fish on the day.

During the MLF NOW! online broadcast, Iaconelli celebrated as though he had advanced to the final, only to find out minutes later that Lintner’s catch had pushed him out of the top 10. A visibly frustrated Iaconelli uttered two expletives as he secured his PFD for the ride back to the launch ramp and did not participate in the end-of-day on-stage interview program.

While Neal had a four-fish flurry between 3:14 and 3:25 p.m. to earn his spot in the finals, Connell’s third-period barrage has set the bar pretty high for future late-day comebacks. Buried in 30th place after the second period, Connell was 9-02 out of 10th and more than 24 pounds behind leader Takahiro Omori.

He caught a couple fish early in the third, then went more than an hour without a fish. At 2:31, he landed a 3-12, touching off a nine-fish sequence that took him to the top of the leaderboard. He punctuated his climb with a 9-04 brute at 3:13 that would’ve taken big-fish honors if Brett Hite hadn’t caught a 9-12 this morning. Those are the first two 9-pounders caught in MLF competition.

Connell’s rally pushed his total to 49-10 (14 fish), including 41-05 in the third period, the second-best single period total this week to eclipse Jeff Sprague, who was in or near the lead all day. The Texan caught a day-best 24 fish and wound up 2nd with 42-14, while Omori finished 3rd with 40-09 (16 fish).

Here’s a rundown of anglers who advanced to the final round of competition:

1. Dustin Connell: 49-10
2. Jeff Sprague: 42-14
3. Takahiro Omori: 40-09
4. Randy Howell: 38-04
5. Alton Jones Jr.: 33-08
6. Jordan Lee: 33-02
7. Anthony Gagliardi: 32-01
8. Edwin Evers: 31-09
9. Jared Lintner: 31-00
10. Michael Neal: 29-13

The scene for the final round tomorrow will shift to Lake Garcia, a remote 3,150-acre lake about an hour east of Kissimmee. The venue change is being made to accomodate the start of practice for the Lake Toho FLW Tour. Garcia hosted two rounds of competition at the 2019 MLF World Championship. Omori and Edwin Evers both competed in that event and will be back tomorrow gunning for the first Bass Pro Tour victory.

Connell is wishing the final round was back on the Kissimmee Chain and that the weights weren’t zeroed. That way he could build on the momentum and confidence he’s gained the past two days. Even with the shift to Garcia, he’s thrilled to have a shot at the first Bass Pro Tour title.

“I wish we could go back to Kissimmee because dang, it was fun this afternoon,” he said. “As far as my confidence goes, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, I have to stay level-headed. I’m excited, but I’m also realistic about it.”

As the third period began today, his realistic chances to advance were starting to dwindle. Earlier in the day, he returned to the area in Lake Kissimmee that produced his afternoon rally Friday.

“There were a couple boats in there, but it was terrible,” he said. “I didn’t get any bites there today.”

After two periods, Connell had caught three fish for 7-11. He caught a couple more early in the third, but around 2:30 he asked his boat official how far from the top-10 cut he was. The official told him the deficit was 12 pounds, triggering him to make one final move.

“I had one spot where I thought I could catch big ones,” he said. “I couldn’t go catch small fish. I needed big ones.”

He made a 10-minute run to a spot he’d found in practice, a shell bed in about 10 feet of water.

“I had four bites there in practice and they were all 3 1/2 to 4 pounds,” he said.

He idled over the spot today and saw a bunch of marks on his electronics, so he backed off and peppered it with a Texas-rigged 10-inch plum-colored Mondo worm made by Googan Baits. It triggered a fish-every-cast frenzy that included no fish smaller than 2-01. Under the traditional five-fish tournament format, Connell would’ve logged a 26-06 stringer. He said it was the fishing equivalent of being in the zone that athletes in other sports talk about.

“This is a game by yourself,” he said. “You’re out there playing the game and you can’t ever give up, especially in this format. I knew that I had to pull up on the right spot and I had to get the timing right. I found that spot when it was cloudy and it wasn’t right. Today, it got sunny and calm and they moved up on it. They were there.”

At the same time Connell was finishing up his climb to the lead, Lintner was scuffling with the cut line. In the last 15 minutes, he was in, then out, then in again to stay.

“My official told me I needed a 1-06 or something to get back in (the top 10),” he recalled.

That prompted him to make a short move to a stretch where he’d caught a few fish earlier.

“I went over there thinking there had to be one more,” he said. “I fished through it and nothing.”

With a minute to go, he started down a line of lily pads. His official warned him that he’d be giving him a verbal 10-second countdown as the period wound down.

“I was looking at my GPS and it said 3:29 and 40 seconds,” Lintner said. “So I pitched my bait out along the edge of the pads and one eats it right away. It came up and jumped and I swung it in the boat like 12 feet in the air.”

He unhooked the fish, which weighed 2-10, just as the official was beginning the 10-second countdown. A buzzer-beater bass.

“It was about as close as you can get,” he said.

The fish capped off a 17-fish day that totaled 31-00. He said he caught fish steadily throughout – five in the first, five in the second and seven in the third, all but one of which came on the Jackall TN-70 lipless crankbait in the spawn tiger or HL gold hues.

Major League Fishing/Garrick Dixon
Photo: Major League Fishing/Garrick Dixon

Jeff Sprague turns loose one of the 24 bass he caught today in the Knockout Round.

“The wind had picked up and there was a ripple on the edge of those pads and that made a difference,” he said. “What’s shocking about the whole thing is I caught a few today and the other day, but I’ve had no big bites.”

His biggest fish after three days is a 2-11 (twice). He’s hoping to surpass that in the finals.

“It’s going to be exciting,” he said. “I’ve never been over there to Garcia, but I assume it’s like any other Florida lake, so I’ll have a bunch of grass and reed-fishing stuff tied up. If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be.

“It’s kind of surreal,” he added. “I’m really excited. With this format, I have never been more mentally or physically exhausted after a day of competition in my life. I’m sore.”

After his late-day push clinched him a berth in the finals, Neal was kicking himself for vacating a productive area in the first period.

“It shouldn’t have been as interesting as it was on my end,” he said. “It’s nice that you control your destiny in this, but I felt dumb knowing I left that an area in the first period to look for greener pastures.”

His desire to look elsewhere was understandable after he caught two fish in the first period and was in 26th with 3-01. He didn’t fare much better in the second, catching two more for 4-07.

“My first and second periods went so badly I was like, ‘Whatever happens happens,’” he said. “I didn’t get worked up because just to move up from the bottom was plenty good for me.”

The area in Lake Kissimmee he came back to in the third period was a big gap in some lily pads. When he returned, he fired a SPRO Aruku Shad 60 lipless crankbait around and hauled in 13 fish for 22-05 in the last 2 1/2 hours. The 2-pounder he landed at 3:25 clinched his berth in the final and was his biggest fish since a 2-07 earlier in the period.

“The last five minutes was very stressful,” he said. “I knew I was in and up until then I hadn’t thought about it. Then I’m watching Lintner flip that fish in the boat in the last second. I knew it would take one more fish by someone to knock me out.”

Tomorrow, he’s hoping to knock off the other nine finalists.

“I feel like you have one shot to be the first champion – there’s only one of those ever – and for that to be my first career win at the pro level, that would solidify my whole career,” he said.

Major League Fishing
Photo: Major League Fishing

Brett Hite made some history Saturday with this 9-12 brute, the biggest bass caught in MLF competition.

Speaking of solid, Sprague caught nearly 20 pounds in the first period today and never looked back as he combed offshore grass in Kissimmee with a lipless crankbait.

“The fish were coming and going and using it to stage before going in to spawn,” he said. “In practice, where I got some bites to clue me in, the bites were farther out. Throughout the week, they stayed out there on the deeper edge. This morning, I made a pass down it and didn’t get bit. With the warm night we had, that told me they had moved in, so I moved in shallower and just ran with it.”

He spent a good portion of the day within sight of Omori, who was following the same pattern.

“There were key areas within the area,” said Sprague, whose big fish was a 4-08. “We had a lot of help in there. I had dialed in a few high spots where the fish wanted to be.”

The first period did not go how Hite had hoped – until the end. That’s when he tangled with a true Florida giant that turned into the biggest fish ever caught in MLF competition. The 9-12 was the last fish on the ScoreTracker in the first period and gave him some hope that his fortunes were turning around.

“I’d just moved spots to the area I started in on day 1,” he said. “It had been getting better – I fished there the last two hours on day 2 and caught some nice ones. I had gone to my limit area first thing and lost three so I made a move around 9:20 and got there with 10 minutes left. With five minutes left, I caught the big one and I thought, ‘Oh boy, this will be the deal.’”

Then the wind died off and the clouds dissipated, and fishing got tough, he said.

He caught five fish the rest of the day – all on the Z-Man EverGreen JackHammer vibrating jig – that weighed 6-10 and wound up 25th.

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “It was a good tournament. The conditions were really tough. We dealt with a week of cold fronts and water temp starting at 55 that got into the mid 60s today, finally. The guys fishing the FLW Tour are going to be in good shape. Those fish have not been showing up, but all it takes is two days of 70-degree weather and boom.”


> Day 5 stats: Period 1 – 138 fish, 246-02; Period 2 – 142 fish, 265-03; Period 3 – 193 fish, 367-00; Total – 471 fish, 878-05 (1.86-pound average)

Weather Forecast

> Sun., Feb. 3 – Mix of Sun and Clouds - 76°/61°
- Wind: From the NW at 10 to 15 mph

Day 5 Results – Knockout Round

1. Dustin Connell -- 14, 49-10

2. Jeff Sprague -- 24, 42-14

3. Takahiro Omori -- 16, 40-09

4. Randy Howell -- 20, 38-04

5. Alton Jones Jr -- 19, 33-08

6. Jordan Lee -- 20, 33-02

7. Anthony Gagliardi -- 18, 32-01

8. Edwin Evers -- 20, 31-09

9. Jared Lintner -- 17, 31-00

10. Michael Neal -- 17, 29-13

The following anglers missed the cut and will not compete in the Championship Round.

11. Mike Iaconelli -- 20, 29-09 -- $6,000

12. Bobby Lane -- 20, 27-03 -- $6,000

13. Andy Montgomery -- 12, 24-08 -- $6,000

14. Dave Lefebre -- 15, 24-05 -- $6,000

15. Mark Daniels -- 13, 24-02 -- $6,000

16. Ott DeFoe -- 16, 22-14 -- $6,000

17. Greg Hackney -- 14, 22-11 -- $6,000

18. John Murray -- 12, 21-15 -- $6,000

19. Terry Scroggins -- 10, 21-07 -- $6,000

20. Ish Monroe -- 8, 20-13 -- $6,000

21. Brent Ehrler -- 10, 20-12 -- $6,000

22. Gerald Spohrer -- 11, 19-15 -- $6,000

23. Marty Robinson -- 15, 19-14 -- $6,000

24. Adrian Avena -- 8, 19-01 -- $6,000

25. Brett Hite -- 6, 18-06 -- $6,000

26. Chris Lane -- 11, 16-14 -- $6,000

27. Jacob Wheeler -- 11, 16-11 -- $6,000

28. Jason Christie -- 6, 16-00 -- $6,000

29. Randall Tharp -- 8, 15-04 -- $6,000

30. Jacob Powroznik -- 8, 15-00 -- $6,000

31. Fletcher Shryock -- 7, 14-15 -- $6,000

32. Jonathon VanDam -- 5, 13-07 -- $6,000

33. Mark Davis -- 7, 12-11 -- $6,000

34. Brandon Palaniuk -- 8, 12-07 -- $6,000

35. Alton Jones -- 7, 10-06 -- $6,000

36. Gerald Swindle -- 5, 10-05 -- $6,000

37. Aaron Martens -- 4, 9-02 -- $6,000

38. Brandon Coulter -- 4, 6-07 -- $6,000

39. Zack Birge -- 4, 5-03 -- $6,000

40. Kelly Jordon -- 3, 4-06 -- $6,000