Rookie Dustin Connell of Clanton, Ala., holds his trophy and celebrates his victory Monday in the Bassmaster Elite Series event on Barnett Reservoir. Credit: James Overstreet/Bassmaster

RIDGELAND — Tour rookie Dustin Connell didn’t just win the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament Monday at Barnett Reservoir, he did so by holding off the bass fisherman considered by most as the best ever.

Connell, 26, a much-sought spotted bass guide on the Coosa River near his home in Clanton, Ala., held off the hard-charging Kevin VanDam to claim the $100,000 top prize.

Connell caught his smallest five-fish limit of the four-day rain-delayed event on Monday, 12 pounds, 15 ounces, to finish with 64 pounds, 13 ounces.

That was more than two pounds better than VanDam, who caught 16 pounds, four ounces to finish with 62 pounds, 10 ounces. It was the third straight day that VanDam bettered Connell.

The difference was that on Day 1, Connell caught 19-2 while VanDam had but 10-15. Connell was sixth after Day 1; VanDam wasn’t in the top 50.

As other pros struggled in the horrendous windy conditions Friday and Saturday, Connell stayed steady and built a 5-pound, 6-ounce lead entering the final round, which was pushed back 24 hours by a bad line of thunderstorms on Sunday.

In the end, Connell’s lead — 5½ over a third-place VanDam — was just too much.

“Today was definitely harder because of that weather system,” Connell said. “I really had to work for my fish, but thankfully I was able to catch two key fish this morning on a frog in a small pocket — locations that were critical for me throughout the week.”

VanDam started quickly on Monday, boating four fish extremely fast before struggling to find a fifth bass to fill his limit. Then he started culling, but he just ran out of time.

“I finally got one big bite, but it was too late,” VanDam said, referring to the 5-pound, 6-ounce bass that was the biggest fish caught by the final 12 anglers who had advanced into the final round.

VanDam has won four Bassmaster Classics among his 23 career Bassmaster wins, seven Angler of the Year titles and has over $6 million in career earnings. More significantly, he has finished in the money is 241 of the 297 events he has entered.

The most important stat at the weigh-in Monday was that Connell had his first Bassmaster victory.

“Man, this is great,” he said. “A dream come true.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.