Venue: Lake M, a flatland reservoir
Water: 49 degrees, clear
Weather: 41 degrees, cloudy, strong north wind
Pro: Dustin Connell, 27, Clanton, Ala. a second-year Elite Series pro, Connell competed on the University of Alabama’s bass fishing team, won the 2015 Southern Open on the Alabama River and then qualified for the 2017 Elites via the 2016 Southern Opens.
Sure, you likely have been using a baitcaster longer than Dustin Connell has been alive. Still, this Elite Series rookie has already won an Elite Series event, besting the likes of Kevin VanDam, and is just getting started. This kid has crazy instincts and the soul of an old angler. Follow his lead when you hit the lake this month and you’ll be glad you did.
6:48 a.m. It’s cold, damp and windy when Connell and I pull into Lake M’s deserted launch area. The wind is blowing 15 mph out of the north, and pro and journalist both don cold-weather gear. “This cold, nasty weather really sucks, but I’ll have to make the best of it!"
7 HOURS LEFT
7:05 a.m. We launch the Triton. Connell checks the water temp: 49 degrees. “The lake looks clear, which is good. Forty-nine and clear is perfect jerkbait water, but I do much better on jerkbaits when it’s sunny; the fish can see them from a much greater distance. I’m not a bank beater; my usual strategy is to idle around and watch my electronics for isolated cover and structural irregularities that are holding fish offshore. Jigs, jerkbaits and swimbaits are my go-to winter lures. Besides offshore humps, channel swings, rocks and brushpiles, I’ll probably hit some docks.”
7:15 a.m. While idling away from the ramp, Connell locates an offshore rockpile. He pulls several ALX rods from storage and pauses to equip an umbrella rig, brand unknown, with five generic swimbaits on 1/8-ounce heads. “U-rigs are awesome in winter! We can’t use ’em in Elite Series tournaments, but I’ll probably throw one today.” He also ties on a 5-inch Basstrix swimbait on a half-ounce head, a chrome shad 6th Sense jerkbait and a half-ounce 6th Sense jig (Okeechobee craw with green pumpkin NetBait Paca Chunk trailer). “These baits are my winter standbys. I don’t do much cranking this time of year.”
7:30 a.m. Connell makes his first casts of the day to the rockpile with the umbrella rig. “I’d like to catch a big fish early to take some pressure off!”
7:35 a.m. He casts the jig to the rockpile and works it down an 18-foot dropoff. “This spot is set up perfectly for winter bass. Here, they don’t have to exert much energy to make a major depth change.”7:45 a.m. Connell runs a half-mile uplake to a clay point. A bald eagle watches from a shoreline tree as he slow rolls the rig around the structure. “I bet that eagle knows where the fish are!”
7:51 a.m. Connell runs a quarter-mile farther uplake, idles between two main-lake points and locates a submerged hump; it’s 8 feet on top, drops to 25 on the sides and is loaded with snaggy brush. He enters waypoints for the structure on his GPS. “I like to idle around and get a feel for how a spot like this lays, then leave and let it rest awhile before coming back and fishing it. This hump looks awesome; I marked several good fish on it.”
6 HOURS LEFT
8:05 a.m. Connell moves 100 yards downlake to a long point. He goes to cast the jerkbait across the structure, gets a major backlash and begins stripping line off his reel. “Just as well; this’ll give me an excuse to strip this 15-pound line off my reel and change out to 10, which is what I should be using for jerkbaits.”
8:09 a.m. Back in the game, Connell tries the jerkbait on the point but can’t score a strike.
8:16 a.m. Connell moves back to the offshore hump and tries the jerkbait. He’s fishing it with aggressive snaps interspersed with pauses.
8:19 a.m. He switches to the jig, hangs it in submerged brush, breaks it off and rerigs with an identical lure.