By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
(Editor’s note: In observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, a new First Cast story will not appear until Tuesday, Jan. 21.)
Dustin Connell's preferred way to fish is with a good bit of water between him and the nearest dry land mass. However, he proved on the 2019 MLF Bass Pro Tour that offshore isn't the only place where he can excel.
Coming off a lackluster sophomore campaign on the Bassmaster Elite Series, the 29-year-old pro from Alabama finished 8th in the final BPT points standings. He logged top-10 finishes in three events and never ended up lower than 53rd in the 80-angler field.
"I was very, very happy with the season," he said. "It was a new format for me and I had to adjust to that, and I also had to slow my fishing down. I don't mean bait-wise, but I literally had to just throw my trolling motor down in some tournaments and catch what was in front of me.
"I like to fish out deep and I tried to make that happen, but eventually I told myself that if I had to go and outfish some of these guys up shallow, then that's what I'd do."
He finished in the money in six of the eight regular-season derbies, qualified for all four MLF Cup events and easily made the Redcrest championship.
"I was really proud of the way I adjusted. In some of the tournaments, after the first two hours I was at the bottom of the pack. I totally flip-flopped what I was doing and ended up coming back and making the cut."
Patterns Still Ruled
Although Connell caught a lot of shallow-dwelling bass last year, he rarely junk-fished. That style is anathema to the way he likes to operate.
"I cannot stand not knowing where my next bite is going to come from," he said. "I hate going down the bank and waiting for a bite. My style is to find groups of fish – 20 percent of the fish live shallow year-round and the other 80 percent move in and out. I don't like fishing for the 20 percent.
"A lot of times when I was fishing shallow, there was still a pattern to it, whether it was docks or whatever. I don't mind catching them shallow and I learned a bunch last year and gained a lot of confidence."
He prefers venues where there are a lot of bites to be had over stingier bodies of water where they're few and far between.
"I hate those places where the fishing's really tough because so much of it comes down to pure luck. Like when we went to the Sabine River on the Elite Series, it was tough to even catch a keeper. Guys would catch a 3 1/2-pounder and make the cut on one bite.
"I like going to the slugfests and trying to put the pieces together and figure out what 'the deal' is. If I go to a lake where I get two bites all day, I can't put anything together. I just have to go out and fish."
Less Hard-Headed Now
In his rookie season on the Elite Series in 2017, Connell won the event at Ross Barnett Reservoir and finished 12th in the points. The following year, he dropped off to No. 50 in the final Angler of the Year standings as he struggled badly through the middle portion of the campaign.
"My first year on the Elites I couldn't be stubborn because I didn't know any of the lakes," he said. "The second year I'd been to all of them but one and I tried to force stuff to happen, and it never happened.
"I feel like I'm fishing more comfortably now and not being stubborn. Ninety percent of fishing is mental – a 10-year-old kid can go out and make good casts. Some guys are a lot better than I am mechanically, but I feel like I'm getting into that stride and just showing up and fishing what's there."
He has experience at the majority of the stops on the 2020 BPT schedule, but he feels like he's progressed far enough mentally that the stubbornness that cost him in 2018 won't re-emerge. His newfound ability to change with the conditions should sustain him, as it did last year.
"Just adapting on the water saved my whole season. Some of those tournaments could've been really bad – like all the way at the bottom."