It’s usually not hard to find Dustin Connell in a Major League Fishing bass tournament.
He’s the one who positions his boat far offshore while others are pounding the banks.
Connell is an off-shore specialist who has taken the pro fishing world by storm. He won three stages on the Bass Pro Tour in 2022, including the last two on the schedule.
In the process, he challenged the long-held assumption that largemouth and smallmouth bass prefer shallow, cover-filled haunts.
“Eighty percent of the bass spent the majority of the year off-shore,” said Connell, who is from Clanton, Alabama. “ There’s that one or two months when they’re on the banks to spawn.
“But the rest of the time, they’re off-shore, and that’s where I like to fish for them.”
Connell is a master at using electronics, especially forward-facing soar, to keep track of the real-time movement of bass.
He played video games as a kid, but the ones he plays now in his boat are for much higher stakes.
We’ll follow his journey from life as a country boy in Alabama to one of the most successful bass pros in the nation–a trip made possible because of his dedication to using high-tech electronics to find bass.
Dustin Connell is at home in the driver’s seat of a bass boat, surrounded by multi-colored screens of fish-finding electronics (photo by Garrick Dixon/Major League Fishing)
The Discovery of High-Tech Fishing
Connell has always been a good bass fisherman.
From when he was seven and rode his bike to ponds and lakes near his Alabama home to the days when he and his brother competed in tournaments, he showed a passion for catching big largemouth.
Even during his days at the University of Alabama, he studied the game and became one of the nation’s top collegiate fishermen.
But he still searched for something to set him apart.
“I knew, to separate myself, I had to get off the beaten pack, to do something different,” he said. “I had to understand electronics to learn what these fish do most of the year.
“So I spent long hours in the boat dedicating myself to fishing offshore.”
Connell used sidescan to find isolated boulders, laydowns, brush piles, and rock piles. He also used sonar units to pick up changes in bottom contour, ledges, weed lines, and little ditches and channels.
And he discovered a whole new world.
“On these clear-water reservoirs, these were untapped fish,” he said. “For years, catching suspended fish was a mystery.
“We’d use jerkbaits that would suspend. But we really didn’t understand what the bass wanted.”
That changed when front-facing sonar came on the scene. That electronic device showed the real-time movement of fish and led to game-changing discoveries.
“With the invention of forward-facing sonar, I am way more efficient,” Connell said. “I can see my targets and know how they react.
“I know the fish are there; it’s just a matter of finding a way to get them to hit.”
That’s not to say that Connell has abandoned shallow water. There are tournaments in the spring that require being near the bank. But for Connell, that’s out of necessity, not preference.
“I don’t like spawn tournaments,” he said. “I don’t like going down the bank and maybe finding one on a bed in a pocket and hoping it will be there the next day. I don’t like that slow pace.
“I would much rather be offshore where I can find a pattern and run around. I consider myself a very good pre-spawn and post-spawn fisherman.”
Open water and big bass are a good combination for Dustin Connell (photo by Garrick Dixon/Major League Fishing)
Patterning the Bass
The use of modern electronics allows Connell to establish reliable patterns.
He often uses his side scan to locate suitable fish-holding habitats–underwater stumps, isolated boulders, deep weed lines, dropoffs, roadbeds, etc.
Then he uses his Lowrance Active Target to see how bass relate to those places.
One of his favorite baits is a suspending jerkbait. He also likes to use drop-shot rigs with plastic baits that he can put right in the face of the bass.
He uses his Active Target to see which depth range the biggest fish use. From there, he can travel to other places on the lake with similar habitats, fish in a similar depth zone, and catch bass.
“At Mille Lacs (a tournament he won in 2022), I knew the biggest smallmouth were out there in 15-20 feet of water,” he said.
“Most of the other fishermen in the field were fishing shallower. They caught fish. But not as many big ones as I did.”
But perhaps the most memorable time Connell used forward-facing sonar came in 2021, when he won the Redcrest, the Bass Pro Tour championship, at Lake Eufaula in Alabama.
After he felt he caught enough bass in the knockout round to qualify for the championship round, he ran around for the remaining 45 minutes of fishing and marked every off-shore brush pile he could find.
He returned the following day and fished those brush piles with his Active Target and suspending jerkbaits.
He caught 12 bass weighing 36 pounds, 12 ounces, and won $300,000.
“I would have caught some fish, but I would not have won this tournament without my Lowrance Active Target,” he said.
“I watched every single fish I caught (on his Active Target screen) come out of the brush piles and eat my jerkbait.”
Dustin Connell will tell you that strategy plays a big part in bass tournaments. He went against standard thinking at Cayuga Lake in 2022, and it paid off (photo by Garrick Dixon/Major League Fishing)
A Safe Gamble
Sometimes, you just have to go against the grain to find success in a bass tournament.
Going into a tournament on Cayuga Lake in New York in 2022, Connell knew everyone would be chasing largemouth bass.
“We have all seen the history of Cayuga and how it produces big largemouths,” he said. “But I knew it had some big smallmouths, too, and I went into practice with no preconceived ideas.”
That quickly changed when he had a dream practice day. His first bite was a 6-pound smallmouth. He promptly added smallies that weighed 5 pounds, another two that weighed 4 pounds, and one smaller fish.
He caught all of these fish within an hour.
Needless to say, Connell decided to go for smallmouth and didn’t have much competition for his fish. He ended up winning the event going away and celebrated his choice of not following the crowd.
“The smallmouth were suspended in 20 to 25 feet of water,” he said. “They were just cruising down grass edges. The outside edge was like a highway.
I saw them on my Active Target. I had to make a perfect pitch with my drop shot rig to catch them, but they would hit. I caught a bunch of 4- and 5-pounders that week.”
Dustin Connell (right), shown with his teammate Logan Smith, advanced his learning curve about bass fishing when he competed for the University of Alabama fishing team (photo by Gary Mortenson/Major League Fishing)
Most students go to college to study matters pertaining to their career path.
Connell did, too, but in an unusual way. While earning a degree in business marketing, he also studied bass fishing.
He was on the University of Alabama fishing team and saw what it was like to compete at the big-time level.
He was up to the task. Connell won Angler of the Year honors during his days at Alabama, paving his way for a professional career.
“College fishing gave me a chance to go to bigger lakes–Okeechobee (in Florida), lakes in Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee,” he said.
“I learned a lot. I’ve seen a lot of fishermen who are great on their home lake, but they get lost when they’re out on the road.
“I wanted the experience. I learned to become versatile. You have to be able to do it all if you want to find success at the pro level.”
Dustin Connell has learned to fish aggressively with a jerkbait when trying to get a reaction bite (photo by Garrick Dixon/Major League Fishing)
Looking for a Reaction
Most fishermen take a slow, patient approach when fishing a suspending jerkbait.
“It’s jerk, jerk, pause,” Connell said of the technique most fishermen use. “Sometimes they’ll let it sit there as long as seven seconds before they jerk again.”
Not Connell. Even in cold water, he often will fish that bait aggressively, trying to trigger a reaction strike.
He remembers one tournament when that approach paid off handsomely.
“We were at Lake Fork, and it was cold–the air temperature was 32, the water temperature was 48,” he said. “I was fishing that jerkbait as fast and erratically as possible to get the bass out of the timber.
“Even though they were sluggish, I got a good reaction bite.”
That wasn’t an isolated incident. Connell has experienced many times when he has used fast retrieves to get a jerkbait to dart erratically and pull bass out of brush or timber.
In fact, he will use a jerkbait into summer to elicit reaction strikes.
Dustin Connell instructs young anglers on how to use electronics to find bass (photo by Garrett Davidson/Major League Fishing)
Tips for Beginners
Connell recommends that beginners take bass fishing one step at a time.
“You have to dial in that shallow-water bite first,” he said. “Choose a lure you like using, perfect that, then put that in your mental filing cabinet, and move on to the next method.”
Before long, Connell said, anglers will have several techniques in which they have confidence.
“At some point, whatever you don’t like fishing is what you should be working on,” Connell said. “Never stop learning.”
That’s a Wrap
More than anything, most fishermen need to work on their off-shore game.
You don’t need to buy an expensive forward-facing sonar unit. Start with any type of fish finder and see how the bass position themselves in different situations. Then experiment with lures to get them to hit.
Start with a drop-shot rig or a suspending jerkbait. Pay attention to the depth the bass are using, and concentrate on getting your bait to that zone.
Some jerkbaits today come with dive bills to get them to suspend at deeper zones. Experiment with different models.
Before long, you may become hooked on offshore fishing and its many advantages.
Tight lines, and let us know in the comments if you’re a bank beater or an offshore angler!