Sunday, March 17, 2024

2024 Bass Pro Shops REDCREST Powered by OPTIMA Lithium on Lay Lake Day 3: Cornell Leaps into Lead!

Dustin Connell won the Knockout Round with 18 bass weighing 52 pounds, 14 ounces. Photo by Garrick Dixon.

Mitchell Forde

BASS PRO TOUR Press Release

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The Knockout Round at Bass Pro Shops REDCREST Powered by OPTIMA Lithium turned into a no-holds-barred melee. It didn’t matter whether anglers were chasing spotted bass with forward-facing sonar, beating the bank or dissecting current, the bite caught fire across Lay Lake, with the top spot on SCORETRACKER® and the weight needed to qualify for Sunday’s Championship Round fluctuating all day as a result.

Ultimately, Dustin Connell wound up atop the leaderboard with 18 scorable bass for 52 pounds, 15 ounces. Connell, who lives in nearby Clanton, Alabama, bailed on the main-lake area where he caught most of his fish during the Qualifying Round, instead opting to run up the river and fish beneath the Logan Martin dam. He started slow, spending the first two periods below the cut line, before making an adjustment and boating 10 spotted bass for 29 pounds even in the final period. He finished just 1 ounce ahead of Gerald Spohrer

Meanwhile, after 39-1 across two days proved enough to qualify for the Knockout Round, it took nearly as much Saturday alone to earn a spot in the Top 10 and a shot at the $300,000 first-place paycheck. Nick Hatfield claimed the 10th and final spot with 38-14, 1-8 ahead of BFL All-American champion Emil Wagner. University of Montevallo angler Dalton Head narrowly missed extending his dream event another day as well, finishing 12th.

With weights once again zeroing overnight, all 10 qualifiers in the stacked Championship Round field will have a chance to win the single-day sprint for the trophy. MLFNOW! will provide live coverage of all the action starting at 7:15 a.m. CT. 

Full results can be found here.

Connell committed to old-school current fishing

Connell has emerged as a vocal proponent of forward-facing sonar, and for good reason. The technology played a role in each of his five previous Bass Pro Tour wins, including Stage One on Toledo Bend.

But this week, on a lake he grew up fishing without modern electronics, he’s making it a point to try and win old-school. 

“I don’t want this tournament to get won, on my home lake, ‘Scoping,” he said. “I’m going to do my best to save it.”

Connell believed his best chance to find bass in the same numbers as those anglers using live sonar would be in the turbulent tailrace at the upper end of this week’s playing field. Finding the morning bite slow there surprised him; he was the last angler in the field to post a scorable bass.

“That first period was just brutal,” Connell said. “There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to get some bites here and there, but the speed at which I was going to get a bite was just slow. I mean, it was just dead.”

Knowing he needed to make a move to keep pace with the cut line, Connell resisted the temptation to run to the lower end of the lake, instead moving about 10 miles downriver to a current seam shortly after the start of the third period. It didn’t take long for the decision to pay off.

During a 32-minute flurry from 1:37-2:09 p.m., Connell used a Rapala CrushCity Freeloader on a scrounger head to haul in seven scorable bass and leap from outside the Top 10 into the lead. Not even getting his line tangled in his clip-on microphone could slow him down.

“I pulled up on a place and stomped ‘em, right off the rip,” Connell said. “And then I was like, OK, we’re good.”

Flow vs. ‘Scope

Lay Lake continues to showcase its diversity, with five distinct patterns producing spots in the Top 10. However, Connell believes the championship will boil down to a battle between anglers fishing current up the river and those using forward-facing sonar to chase schooling spotted bass at the lower end of the main lake.

The Knockout Round results support that assessment. Connell wasn’t the only angler in the river to catch fire late. Ron Nelson, who hunkered down in a honey hole just beneath the Logan Martin dam spillway, also started the third period outside the Top 10. Like Connell, he stacked 10 scorable bass on SCORETRACKER® in the final 2 1/2hours, climbing all the way to third. Spohrer did all his damage in the current, too.

While those three ended up claiming the top spots in the Knockout Round, that might have had something to do with the fact that the most proficient anglers using forward-facing sonar caught their weight early before intentionally backing off the throttle. Michael Neal, Cole Floyd and Jacob Wheeler all spent much of the day in the top five. Neal has looked particularly in tune with the roaming fish, leading after Day 1 of qualifying and after each of the first two periods Saturday.

“I feel like I’ve pretty much led the tournament all the way through even though I haven’t technically been at the top of the leaderboard, just because I’ve quit every day,” Neal said. “But tomorrow, there’s no quitting. We’re going to burn it to the ground.”

Connell acknowledged that Neal and company will be tough to beat. He also noted that the generation at Logan Martin dam is scheduled to change Sunday, which might reposition his fish. 

Still, he’s “all-in on the river.” Predicting it will take more than 50 pounds to hoist the trophy, he doubts he can catch as many fish as his lower-lake competition but hopes to make up for it with a bigger average.

“I’m trying to catch big ones,” he said. “I want to catch big spots. That’s why we come here.”

Another variable that could favor Connell’s approach is having less company nearby. Neal, Wheeler, Floyd, Hatfield and Alton Jones Jr. are all scanning the same section of the lake, often within sight of one another. While a few of the anglers who occupied that same zone during the first three days of competition missed the cut, the fish have to be feeling the pressure.

Meanwhile, Connell didn’t see another angler near his Saturday afternoon spot. Even if someone else has stopped by, he said, the dynamic nature of river fishing means the fish probably won’t be caught with the same presentation.

“I’m in a section of the river I don’t think is getting a lot of pressure,” Connell said. “And tomorrow, the water schedule is supposed to change some, so it’s going to change the whole deal. It’s going to mix up a lot of things.”

Connell admitted that there’s a chance he’s being too stubborn. But whether it’s because he’s already experienced a REDCREST win, taking home the trophy at Lake Eufaula in 2021, or because of his many memories catching spotted bass out of Coosa River current, he doesn’t just want to add another title to his résumé. He wants to do it his way.

“It’s very sentimental to me to have a chance at a major, major tournament at one of my home waters that I’ve always fished, but I worry if I’m being too stubborn or not,” Connell said. “So, it’s back and forth. I don’t mind going down there and ‘Scoping, but it would mean way more to me if I won it doing what I’m doing.”

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