The Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Opens season ends today and for some anglers a waiting game begins. It will be a short but important wait for Dustin Connell, who hopes to soon have a lifelong dream come true.
Connell is shooting for an invitation in the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series. The Top 5 pros in the point standings get invitations. That only happens after B.A.S.S. goes through the necessary details of making the list final.
That will take time, since the Southern Opens season ended much sooner than usual. Normally the season ends in October and nearer the deadline for accepting or declining the invitation.
"That can be good for some guys who need the extra time for finding sponsors," said Connell. "I'm ready though and feel good about it."
Going into the final day of the season Connell is unofficially in fourth place. Ahead of him are Jesse Wiggins, Mark Rose and Stetson Blaylock. Wiggins and Rose fished on Day 3 of the Southern Open finale at Douglas Lake. So did Mark Daniels, Jr., who is seventh in the point standings.
Connell completed a consistent season with a 19th place in the season opener. At Lake Kissimmee he caught 26 pounds, 2 ounces. Then he added another 27-12 at Smith Lake, with a 24th-place finish. He closed the season on Douglas in 15th place with 31-8.
Last year was somewhat bittersweet. Connell got wait listed for the first two tournaments of the season. He didn't make it in for the season opener at Lake Kissimmee. But he did in the second event held on the Alabama River. He won it and that buoyed his confidence in fishing at the B.A.S.S. level. That didn't last long, though, since he was unable to fish in the season finale.
Connell is young by anyone's standards at the age of 26. That's an ambiguous number when you take a look at his tournament experience.
Connell began tournament fishing at the age 12, when his brother James bought his first bass boat. He was 16 years old and the brothers fished night tournaments near their home of Clanton, Ala.
"I spent the first four years of my tournament career fishing nothing but night tournaments," he said with a laugh. "After that I never fished another."
What happened next earned the teens respect from anglers much older. The Connell brothers started winning local and regional events up and down the Coosa River system, from Logan Martin to Lay Lake and elsewhere.
Dustin graduated from Chilton County High School and enrolled at the University of Alabama. While there he fished from 2010-2012 on the Crimson Tide Bass Anglers team. During that time the team qualified three times for the Bassmaster College Series National Championship. In between Alabama dominated tournaments with Connell playing a leading role in the team's success. He graduated in 2012 with a marketing degree.
Connell moved back home and picked back up where he left off with James. Normally, a college graduate seeks a job in his chosen major and moves on to a regular job. Regular for Connell meant back to the bass boat.
"I went back to tournament fishing and have done it ever since graduation," he said.
"Where I live you can fish just about every weekend and earn up to $7,000 for a first-place finish," he said. "You do that four or five times and you're making a good living."
Doing that means winning the tournament. That's what the Connell brothers do on a regular basis. Last year they earned around $100,000 fishing tournaments within Alabama. The Alabama Bass Trail is one of the most lucrative for them.
Connell is not intimidated by what could unfold next for his tournament career.
"For my age I've been doing this a long time," he said.
"I'll also put it this way. On any given weekend I'm already fishing against some of the best bass anglers in the nation."
He mentions names like Russ Lane, Matt Herren, Clent Davis and Jaime Horton.
"Those guys fish local tournaments all the time," he added. "It's pretty close to the big leagues and highly competitive."
Connell is on the water when not competing in tournaments. He guides on the Coosa River and fishes for practice to keep his mind sharp.
"I've been on the water for the past 22 days in a row," he said after Day 2 of the Southern Open on Douglas.
Although the Opens season is over for Connell he'll be ready for the news when it comes from B.A.S.S. Hopefully it will be good news.