Best seat in the house

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Bassmaster Marshal Lee Means
Dustin Connell, Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite at Ross Barnett Reservoir Champion, on Day 2

Marshal details day with Dustin Connell

By Bassmaster Marshal Lee Means, exclusive to Bassmaster.com

When I first saw the 2017 Elite Series schedule had Ross Barnett Reservoir on it, I was transferred back in time to reading Ray Scott's book, "Bass Boss." I recall he was in his hotel room in Jackson, Miss., when he conceived professional bass tournaments.

I'm a sales rep for a company called OluKai, and I cover Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Jackson is home to several accounts, and I figured I could sign up to Marshal this week's Elite and schedule in some work visits.

The first day of the tournament, I was honored to ride with the legendary Gary Klein. Klein methodically fished the same stretch of lily pads for about 95 percent of the day, and where he had all five of his keeper bites. I had met Gary during the 2015 Classic Expo in South Carolina, and it was inspiring to see a true pioneer of the sport in his element.

That afternoon, I received a pairings text from B.A.S.S. with my pro's name and telephone number. There was my same area code: 205.

In April of 2015, news spread through our home state of Alabama that a young man had just won a Southern Open, but he unfortunately would not be fishing in the Classic because he had not entered the other Southern Open tournaments.

The second morning I had a sense of relief to be in the boat with a fellow Alabamian, and excited because he was currently sitting in sixth place with almost 20 pounds. Dustin Connell's enthusiasm was contagious as he knew he was going to catch 'em. The wind was calm early, and it took us 27 minutes to make the run from Pelican Cove to his first spot in the Pearl River. At a furious pace he began swimming a jig near blow downs in hopes of capitalizing on the shad pattern that had paid off the day before.

By 10:45 a.m., Dustin had picked up and dropped the tolling motor on over 40 different spots, thrown four different lures, and with zero fish in the box the wheels were starting to fall off. I could see his brain moving in a million different directions when he looked over at me and said, "If you think long, you think wrong."

He turned the boat back up river and went back to one of his original spots. Boat traffic was intense as guys were running and gunning all around us. Dustin took a deep breath and picked up a punching rig with a 1.5-ounce tungsten weight, punch skirt and a matching color Net Bait Paca Slim. He flipped it into the middle of a mat and immediately swung his first fish into the boat. We moved to another mat he had previously fished with a swim jig. He punched the mat and boated another keeper, flipped right back into the mat and boated his third keeper all within 20 minutes.

"We figured em out! They haven't left, they're just holding tight under these mats!" he said.

Like a seasoned pro, I watched Dustin flip and pitch, picking apart his shoreline mats. Within an hour Dustin filled his limit. What started as a dismal first 4 hours of fishing had quickly turned around. The day's pattern was clear, but among the 60 or so other pros boats I saw flying past us, it appeared that Dustin was the only angler who had figured this pattern out. As we made our way further up the river, Dustin began to cull fish and gain precious ounces to his livewell.

When he caught and culled with a spotted bass, I couldn't help but smile -- spotted bass hold a special place in the heart of any angler who has fished the Coosa and Alabama River. That spotted bass didn't get to ride in Dustin's livewell for long. He flipped into a mat and I watched him set the hook, but nothing happened. He was bowed up and for several seconds he didn't move. Then out of the matted jungle the biggest and ugliest fish Dustin would catch all day exploded and swam angrily beside the boat for what seemed like for an eternity. Dustin and I screamed for joy as that post spawn monster flopped around on the floor of his boat. For the rest of the day about six spectator boats followed Dustin and cheered him on as he caught and culled a few more fish.

I've been a Marshal a few times now. I've heard it said that you tend to cheer on the pro you're with, especially when he's doing well. I have to say that is true. And I'll add that when you get to Marshal with a young man who grew up 30 minutes down the road from you, that desire to see them succeed is intensified. As an Auburn man, I have never cheered for and wanted to see someone from the other school (Alabama) win so badly. You made our State proud. I wish you a long and successful career, Dustin.

Tight lines!