Throughout his brief professional fishing career, 31 year-old Alabama pro Dustin Connell has shown that he can do many things on the water.
He qualified for a Bassmaster Classic and won two B.A.S.S. events before his 27th birthday, then moved to the Bass Pro Tour, where he turned up the heat even more. He won the Redcrest championship in 2021, and three events in 2022.
His most recent victory came at this year’s BPT season-opening tournament on Toledo Bend.
Connell’s most recent win came using the CrushCity™ Freeloader, which was introduced last year. He also caught some key fish and his largest on the CrushCity Mooch Minnow. That bait will not be introduced until this summer’s ICAST show, but he needed the one-two punch to seal the deal.
That puts him in the company of his CrushCity teammate and close friend, Jacob Wheeler, who last year prematurely showed off not only the Freeloader, but also the CrushCity Ned BLT.
After getting off to a fast start at Toledo Bend, Wheeler eventually finished 4th. For most pros, that would be an exceptional start, but these days the biggest surprises occur when the Indiana native doesn’t win. He’s finished in the top four in the last three Redcrests, and never worse than 4th in the AOY race in five years, with two AOY titles.
How Connell conquered the Bend
Connell described his victory as “an unbelievable feeling,” and said that “the motto for the week was ‘change.’”
That change took many forms: The bait moved around; the sun came in and out; and the wind shifted directions and intensity.
“The biggest key for me was moving around and keeping an open mind,” he said.
That paid off during the final round. He’d had a big first period on the last day of competition, but saw his lead slowly evaporate. Had he gone the wrong direction, he could have been crying the “what if” blues, but instead, he pounded out the largest single day catch of the event.
His 36 fish averaged over 3 pounds apiece, and he won by over 44 pounds. When every fish counts, Connell is consistently the one to beat. He also caught a 7 pound, 4 ounce bass during that late run with his Mooch Minnow.
The CrushCity Freeloader was his primary bait. He fished it on a VMC Hybrid Swimbait Jig ranging from 3/16 to 5/16 ounce. Keeping the swimbait up in the water column even when fishing in 30 feet of water was critical.
The bass were “flying high” near the surface, and he targeted them with his forward-facing sonar, chasing bait in comparatively calm areas.
The lake came up over 2 feet over the week before the tournament.
“On a 180,000 acre lake, that’s an insane amount of water,” Wheeler said.
The fish were scattered and Connell was able to follow them and cover ground with the Freeloader, which excelled even in dingy water. When things got tougher, or he found himself in clearer water, he switched to the yet-to-be-released Mooch Minnow, which is slightly smaller and more subtle.
Wheeler’s freeloader mastery
Wheeler, Connell’s road partner, employed a very similar plan, chasing scattered, suspended fish, or – more precisely – the baitfish that they were keying in on.
“It was all about being around bait,” he said.
He used the Freeloader on 3/16, ¼ and 5/16 ounce VMC Hybrid Swimbait Jig, depending on the depth and aggressiveness of the bass.
“Sometimes the fish were in 5 feet down over 40 feet of water and you had to keep the bait above the fish,” Wheeler said. “Lighter is usually better, but depending on the conditions I had to make changes.”
One other adjustment that he made consistently was to rotate through different colors of the Freeloader. In clearer water, Gizzard Shad usually performed best, while Pearl White got the call in dirtier water, and Albino Shad got substituted in to keep the fish honest.
One tweak that he made was to increase his leader size from his typical 8-pound test Sufix Advance Fluorocarbon leader to 10- or even 12-pound test. The fish were not line shy and the heavier line meant he didn’t have to retie nearly as much.
As for the mainline, Wheeler used his go-to spinning rod braid – Sufix Nanobraid in 8#.
Cheering each other on
Wheeler was happy to see his running buddy prevail.
“I’m a big time competitor but I also appreciate how great anglers play the game,” he said. “Dustin did it better than anybody else this week, and that pushes me to work harder and do better. We are like brothers. I hate taking ‘L’s’ but if it has to happen it might as well be my brother from another mother.”