By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

David Dudley relishes his time at home these days.

He’s able to tend to his 168-acre farm, which includes a 2 1/2-acre pond named Spirit Lake that he has stocked with catfish and bass and allows members of the Lynchburg, Va., community to fish, provided they follow a few simple rules printed on a green metal sign posted on the bank.

“No kid – no fishing,” the sign reads.

That’s right. Adults are welcome to fish the pond seven days a week, from dawn until dusk, under the condition they’re accompanied by a child 15 years or younger. Dudley says he’s made some pretty cool memories on the banks of Spirit Lake. He’s witnessed people, young and old, hook and land their first fish. He’s had youngsters approach him to show off photos of fish they caught at his pond.

“One guy showed me a picture of what he said was a 9 1/2-pounder,” Dudley said. “I know it wasn’t that big, but to him it was and that’s what matters.”

He knows how many catfish he’s put in the pond – 156 – and he’s given names to the pond’s three biggest inhabitants. There’s Moose, a 65-pound blue catfish. Then there’s Bacon, who Dudley estimates to weigh 45 pounds. Lastly, Pork Chop is thought to be in the 35-pound range. Dudley has even put a $50 reward up for anyone who catches Moose and takes a photo of the fish.

“He’s probably got 10 hooks in his mouth from people trying to catch him,” he said.

Working on the farm, which also serves as the home to his family’s One Body In Christ Ministries, also has allowed Dudley to give his mind a break from the rigors of the FLW Tour, which will see its regular season conclude later next month at Lake Champlain, where Dudley will attempt to capture his record-setting fourth Angler of the Year title.

“It serves as a distraction from the season,” he says. “I’m able to decompress here.”

The first six FLW Tour events were packed into the first 19 weeks of the calendar year, but it’ll be 53 days (nearly eight weeks) between the end of the most recent event at Lake Chickamauga and the season finale at Lake Champlain. While some would rather just stay on the tournament-every-three-weeks cycle, Dudley isn’t bothered by the long layoff.

“I reckon it’s okay,” Dudley said. “It works out good for me because this is the busy time around the farm. I can get things done instead of being on the road the whole time. This is catch-up time.”

Fourth Up North?

Dudley will arrive in Plattsburgh, N.Y., next month trailing John Cox by one point in the race for the AOY title. They’re far from the only contenders, though. Buddy Gross trails Cox by 16 points. Joseph Webster is in fourth place, 24 points back, while Scott Martin is fifth, facing a 33-point deficit.

That Dudley finds himself in the mix for a fourth career AOY title is no surprise to the former top-ranked angler in the BassFan World Rankings. In the six years since his last AOY title, he hasn’t missed a Forrest Wood Cup and his average points finish has been 20th. Still, he expects more from himself.

“When you’ve been to the top, you know you have the talent and you can be the best in the world,” he said. “When you don’t perform at that level, it psychologically plays with you. You know you can be better and want to be better, but it’s hard to figure out why you’re not. I get mad at myself because I know I’m capable of more.”

Despite his steady performances, he admits he heard people wondering if he still could contend for wins and AOY titles.

“People were still staying, ‘What’s wrong with Dudley,’” he said. “I wanted to say ‘Shut up.’ I’ve made the championship 20 out of 22 years. What do you mean, what’s wrong? I guess it’s almost like a complement.”

The bottom line is: After winning more than $3.5 million with FLW and capturing seven tournament wins over more than two decades, Dudley’s competitive fire isn’t flickering one bit. At 43, he considers himself a “young veteran” who badly wants to become the first angler with four FLW Tour AOY crowns to his name. He’s currently tied with Andy Morgan and Clark Wendlandt, who both accumulated three AOY titles apiece before departing the Tour after the 2018 season.

“The competitive nature in me doesn’t like being in a tie game with anybody,” Dudley said. “I want to set myself apart from them.”

To do that, he’ll need a strong showing at Champlain, which has been good to him over the years. In seven FLW Tour events there since 2002, his worst finish is 75th (2009). He finished 7th there in 2002, 4th in 2016 and he capped off his 2012 Angler of the Year campaign with a victory at the fishery that straddles the New York-Vermont border and features burgeoning populations of largemouth and smallmouth. He couldn’t think of a better place to chase yet another AOY crown.

“I love Champlain, but as long as they end the year with a northern fishery not named St. Clair I’m fine with it,” he joked, referencing his struggles at Lake St. Clair, where he finished a career-worst 151st in the 2018 season finale.

He said Champlain’s layout and features are easy to digest, which allows him to simplify his game plans.

“I can read and put logic behind that lake,” he said. “At some lakes, like St. Clair, logically I can’t put things together. Champlain is cut up enough to where this point intersects a channel and they should be on the upside of the point or something like that. Oneida is the same way. Other fisheries that are just flat as a pancake and you just cast around, those just drive me nuts.”

Mr. Consistency

Consistency has been the hallmark of Dudley’s season. He’s posted only one top-10 finish – Cox has three, including a win – yet is in a virtual tie at the top of the points standings. He says the key to that consistency has been his decision-making.

At the season opener at Sam Rayburn Reservoir, for instance, he opted to fish in areas where he felt a big stringer was more likely instead of places where he’d be grinding it out for keepers. He caught 24-03 on day 1 to set the tone (for the tournament and the season) and his decision ultimately led to a 13th-place finish.

At Lake Toho, his experience fishing for Florida-strain largemouth combined with a little patience again led to a 20-pound stringer on day 1, which paved the way for a 21st-place finish.

“My experience on Florida waters taught me to be patient and let them come to me instead of going to them,” he said.

His only hiccup so far came at Lake Seminole, where he finished 74th. It was still a top-half-of-the-field showing, but he felt like he rushed things.

“I wasn’t patient enough on day 1,” he said. “I was around lot of sight-fishing fish and I wasn’t patient enough to stick around and work on the bigger ones. My second mistake was not looking over the whole lake. After the tournament, I found out where the hot area was and I’d never gone there.”

He didn’t pout or let the poor finish fester as he followed it up with three straight top-25s, including a fifth at Chickamauga two weeks ago.

“I’ve had a different attitude this year,” he said. “I used to have the phrase ‘Never Be Satisfied’ on my jersey and this year I got sick and tired of doing well when I knew I could do better. This year, from the get-go and the first day of the season when I caught 23 pounds, it’s been a motivation.

“The last six years, I’ve been getting checks and racking up good finishes, but this year it was like, ‘I know you’re better than this, David. You’ve proven yourself. Just go do it again.’”