As expected, arguably the best bass fisherman ever made a big charge at the tour rookie who held the lead going into the delayed final round of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite Monday at Barnett Reservoir near Ridgeland.
But even Kevin VanDam couldn’t overcome the huge lead 26-year-old Dustin Connell had amassed over the first three rounds of the weather-plagued tournament.
In just his fourth Elite tournament, Connell held off the hard-charging VanDam with a final day limit of 12 pounds, 15 ounces and a four-day total of 64-13 to win the $100,000 top prize.
The bottom line: A 5-pound, 6-ounce lead was just too much.
“I knew that if I just put up a solid limit, in these conditions, it would be hard for anyone to catch me,” Connell said.
His greatest fear, he said, was that the storms that forced postponement of the final round on Sunday, would impact the upper river areas where he had built such a big lead with consistent catches of 19-12 on Thursday, 16-11 on Friday and 15-7 on Saturday. He was relieved to find the river was still fishable after committing to the long run Monday morning.
Tougher, but fishable.
“Today was definitely harder because of that weather system,” Connell said. “I really had to work for my fish, but thankfully I was able to catch two key fish this morning on a frog in a small pocket — locations that were critical for me throughout the week.”
Different lures had produced earlier in the tournament.
“I caught probably 25 fish on a swim jig on Thursday," Connell said. “But Friday was a turning point of this tournament. I didn't have a fish before 10:30 because the Pearl River water rose and got muddier, slowing the pattern.
“I decided to go back and flip all of the same stuff, and I caught another 16 pounds in a short while. At that point, I knew I could win.”
VanDam started quickly on Monday, boating four fish extremely fast before struggling to find a fifth bass to fill his limit. Then he started culling, but he just ran out of time.
“I finally got one big bite, but it was too late,” VanDam said, referring to the 5-pound, 6-ounce bass that was the biggest fish caught by the final 12 anglers who had advanced into the final round.
VanDam has won four Bassmaster Classics among his 23 career Bassmaster wins, seven Angler of the Year titles and has over $6 million in career earnings. More significantly, he has finished in the money is 241 of the 297 events he has entered.
But the most important stat Monday was that Connell has his first Bassmaster victory.
“Man, this is great,” he said, hugging the trophy. “A dream come true.”