Finding "true north" might be among the most overlooked successes of Dustin Connell’s rookie Elite season, but it’s among his proudest.
His win on Ross Barnett was huge, as was making seven cuts in nine events, but Connell, 27, of Clanton, Ala., had never fished up north. That was a concern in his hopes of reaching the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship as well as the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic, yet his finishes on the four northern fisheries were key in reaching both the aforementioned as well as winning the Bassmaster Elite Series 2017 Rookie of the Year title.
“To come out my first year and do good up north is a big accomplishment for me, because I had never been there before,” he said. “It just feels good to end the year on a really good note.”
On the final day of the season in Minnesota, Connell needed a decent climb and a precipitous fall from leader Jamie Hartman to win ROY. The chips fell exactly as Connell needed, giving him the title by one point.
“It wasn’t a bad little week,” Connell said. “That is pretty crazy, but I was so happy for it. Jamie, he had a good lead coming in and I knew he would have to slip, and sure enough, that happened.
“I had to work my butt off to get that Rookie of the Year. That was one of my goals starting out this year. I wanted to win Rookie of the Year – you want to win Angler of the Year – but there’s some pretty stout rookies this year, some great fishermen. Jamie’s a great fisherman. Jesse Wiggins. Mark Daniels. All those guys.”
Those four stood out from the 2017 rookie class of 11. Connell had 764 points to take 12th overall in the AOY standings. Hartman, who went back and forth with Connell for the lead much of the season, was one point and one place back. Daniels scored 723 points to finish 18th overall, and Wiggins had 657 for 37th. All will be fishing the Classic.
Top-notch showings on the four northern fisheries put Connell in position for the ROY. After making cuts in the first two events at Cherokee Lake (37th) and Okeechobee (26th), Connell barely missed at Toledo Bend with a 56th. His win on Ross Barnett and 24th on Sam Rayburn put him in the top 10 in AOY points, but a slip at Lake Dardanelle (85th) knocked him back to 17th.
Connell sailed north into uncertain waters but excelled, taking 21st on the St. Lawrence and 22nd on Lake Champlain. He squeaked inside the cut at Lake St. Clair (49th) then was middle of the pack on Mille Lacs (24th), but it was just enough.
“This is my first professional year of fishing,” he said. “I didn’t come from FLW. I fished local tournaments, so really traveling to these lakes I’ve never been before and doing good was huge for me.”