Strong adjustments in the final day made all the difference for the Alabama native.
Lewis Smith Lake in northern Alabama, better known simply as Smith Lake, was the site of the Bass Pro Tour's third event of the season. Stage Three was a stark contrast to the first events of the season hosted in Louisiana and Texas, as the weather was much nicer and the fish were more plentiful, although not quite as big.
But, the action was great as each day of the tournament featured plenty of spotted bass that the lake is known for and some quality largemouth bass mixed in. The event featured some dramatic finishes to close rounds and many heroic comebacks, leading to one of the most star-studded final 10 anglers in recent memory.
Defending REDCREST champion Dustin Connell was victorious after catching 33 bass for 71 pounds, 2 ounces on the final day.
The first day of the tournament saw Jacob Wheeler dominate once again. He was placed in Group A and started the event with 30 bass for 57-1 to take an impressive 26-pound lead into the second day. He targeted suspended bass in deep water with the help of his forward-facing sonar and a Rapala Jigging Rap.
He dominated again the next day that his group fished and won the round. Winning his group allowed Wheeler to advance straight to the Championship Round after a two day tally of 80-13.
In Group B, Todd Faircloth took the early lead after one day of fishing with 18 bass for 36-10. He rode a strong morning bite to become the daily leader. When the group returned to the water two days later, Tennessee angler Michael Neal caught 21 bass for 44 pounds to rocket to the win in his group with 69-12 over both days of fishing. Like Wheeler, he targeted suspended bass with his forward-facing sonar and caught them with a drop-shot and "Damiki Rig" as he joined Wheeler as an automatic qualifier in the final round.
The remaining 38 anglers battled it out for one day, with the top eight anglers advancing to the final round. After days of sunny skies and generally calm conditions, the wind picked up heavily during this round and anglers were able to catch many bass with moving baits like jerkbaits, crankbaits, and chatterbaits.
The pro who figured out the puzzle was Alabama angler Randy Howell, with 18 bass for 41 pounds on the strength of a vibrating jig and jerkbait. Also advancing were Edwin Evers, Wesley Strader, local favorite Jesse Wiggins, Dustin Connell, Ott DeFoe, Jordan Lee, and Brent Ehrler.
Ehrler made the cut with a dramatic catch in the final 10 seconds of the day. He was able to get the fish inside the boat just in time to bump Shin Fukae from the eighth and final spot to advance in the event.
Due to the threat of inclement weather, MLF officials moved the tournament up an hour for the final day. Wind, rain, and lightning were in the forecast and it was evident that the bite would be much different.
Dustin Connell capitalized on a solid early bite near the dam as moving water had fish positioned and grouped up feeding on baitfish. His move to the area down lake happened mid-tournament and was the most critical adjustment he made all week.
"I started the tournament fishing in Lost Creek fishing a wacky rig around docks, but I hate fishing that way and knew it wasn't the way to win the tournament," he said. "I found an area during the last hour of the Knockout Round and slid in there and caught 20 pounds in a half hour. That allowed me to make a jump in the standings to make the final day."
The Championship Round was more of the same and he caught them early and often on a drop-shot and "Damiki Rig" in deep water for bass suspended and eating shad and blueback herring.
"It was one of those days you dream of," he said of the win. "Everything came together the last two days, and I couldn't ask for anything more."
The regular season of the Bass Pro Tour takes a break as the next two events include the 2022 REDCREST on Grand Lake in Oklahoma on March 23-27, followed by Heavy Hitters on Lake Palestine, Texas, a few weeks later.
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