For a rookie with a lead going into the final round of only his fourth Bassmaster Elite Series tournament, Alabama native Dustin Connell was calm as he assessed his chances — and the impending bad weather forecast — on Barnett Reservoir.
A big lead will do that for you, even if he isn’t sure just how much that lead really is.
“I’m happy to have a 6-pound lead, which on this lake will go a long way,” Connell said. “If the weather does hit, a 6-pound cushion will play to my advantage. At the very least, it’ll help me sleep tonight.”
The overnight leader after Friday’s second round, Connell added a five-fish limit of 15 pounds, 7 ounces for a three-day total of 51-14, far ahead of his nearest pursuer, fellow Alabama angler Keith Poche who had 15-6 Saturday and a total of 46-8.
For the record that’s a 5-pound, 6-ounce lead.
Weather continued to be a hot topic at the Academy Sports + Outdoors Elite, although the winds on Saturday were not as strong as had been forecast. Most conversation was on the approaching weather that will impact the final round. Strong thunderstorms and heavy rain — a near 100-percent change of both — is expected to hit the 33,000-acre lake at Ridgeland by mid-morning.
Bassmaster tournament director Trip Weldon said a decision on the final round would not likely be made until about 4 a.m. on Sunday. BASS rules allow two options:
* Start as scheduled at daylight and call the fishermen off as the storms near and have a shortened round.
* Postpone completely until Monday, when the launch will be at 6 a.m. with a weigh-in at 2 p.m.
Heavy rain could impact Connell, and a delay until Monday is a concern.
“I’m fishing up in the Pearl River,” Connell said. “And if we get heavy rain, the potential flood waters could wash out my spots. If that happens, I may have to revert to plan B and pick up a frog. I’m hoping we’ll dodge a bullet and be able to fish on Sunday.
“I’m trying to not focus on the what if’s right now, rather I’m focusing on what I need to do tomorrow to win, provided we get to fish. I have been flipping 35 to 40 spots with lots of vegetation this week. The water in that part of the river is starting to stabilize, and fishing seems to be getting better. If we can avoid the rain, I think I could catch the biggest limit of my week.”
Weather was also on Poche’s mind, and said a huge rain could make him completely change his plan.
“I really don’t know how this is going to end up,” he said. “I know I’m around some big fish, maybe even the winning fish, but several inches of rain will definitely change things — and if it does I will be starting over.”
Two VanDams are in the pursuit and are hoping for a full day’s fishing to give them time to chase down Connell. Uncle Kevin VanDam, a five-time Bassmaster Classic champion considered one of the best fishermen on the planet, ever, is third with 46-6 and nephew Jonathon VanDam is fourth at 45-15.
Kevin VanDam had Saturday’s largest bag, 18-7 and has climbed into the race after a disappointing start — a 10-15 on Thursday had him in the bottom half of the 109-angler field. A 17-pound bag put him back in contention on Friday and then Saturday saw him make a big move.
“I’m figuring out this lake,” he said. “I need a full final round though because I’m still a lot of pounds behind.”
Rounding out the Top 12: Brent Chapman (44-13), Mark Menendez (44-13), Fred Roumbanis (44-12), Matt Herren (44-4), Ish Monroe (44-2), Dave Lefebre (44-1), Bobby Lane (43-10) and Skeet Reese (42-11).
Due to impending weather conditions for Ridgeland, Miss., Bassmaster tournament officials are in regular communication with the National Weather Service. They will make a decision about the final round of competition by early Sunday morning.