TOWER, Minn. – Tournament by tournament, lake by lake, 28-year-old David Dudley just keeps establishing himself as one of the best, most consistent pro anglers on tour. The last time he won, at the 2002 Ranger M1, he used a chainsaw to cut his way into the richest-ever payout in competitive bass fishing, $700,000.
There were no chainsaws Saturday in the final round of EverStart Series Northern Division competition at Minnesota’s Lake Vermilion, but a defibrillator might have come in handy after Dudley’s heartstopping defeat of Mark Zona by 1 ounce to win the Pro Division.
“I was more nervous today than I was at the M1,” said Dudley, a fishing guide from Manteo, N.C.
As well he should have been. For a moment during Saturday’s tense weigh-in it appeared Dudley and Zona were going to tie. But as Dudley watched his fish on the scale, his weight bobbed up and down, finally settling on 14 pounds, 7 ounces – 1 ounce more than Zona’s 14-6. Dudley won by the weight of a few drops of water and collected $10,000 plus a new Ranger boat in the process.
“That more than likely will make the ride home a little bit longer,” said Zona, a native of Sturgis, Mich., who won $10,000 for second place. “It’s 12 hours, but it’s going to seem like two days.”
Dudley said he battled a tougher day of fishing in the finals. While Lake Vermilion coughed up five-bass limits all week, including Saturday where all the pros caught limits, the quality smallmouth spawning bite that anglers feasted on the first two days dissipated. Dudley spent a lot of time moving around the lake searching for new fish. And he caught some.
“I had to expand on my area to get the win,” he said. “But the key was looking for giant boulders.”
Dudley focused his watermelon and green-pumpkin Zoom Super Fluke on smallmouth relating to the biggest boulders he could find along Vermilion’s rocky bottom. The tactic garnered him about 30 fish total, but it was his biggest bass, a smallmouth around 4 pounds, that pushed him over the edge.
“Yesterday, I had a blessing in disguise. This big fish came and blew up on my Spook and I missed it,” he said. “I went back and caught her today. If she would have taken the bait yesterday, I would have caught her then and I would have never won.”
Zona also targeted smallmouths early with tube baits, but he switched over to Senkos and jigs on a largemouth pattern he’d been saving for the finals because his early limit “had three rats in there.”
“I went to the back of a few bays looking for largemouth, and my hands just got shredded,” he said. “I had one magic dock where I caught about 10 good fish.”
Even so, Zona knew it was going to be tight at the finish. He has seen it happen before. At the 2002 EverStart Championship, Zona held a tie for the lead but ultimately finished in third place after Koby Kreiger weighed in last and almost a pound heavier.
“Well, I guess I’m used to it by now. I did everything I could. When they bit, I caught them,” he said. “It was a great week. The top 10 was stacked with talent, and I knew you were going to have to throw a pretty good jab to get them.”
Rest of the best
Finishing third in the Pro Division and collecting $9,000 was Art Ferguson III of St. Clair Shores, Mich., who weighed in 13 pounds, 9 ounces.
“The first couple of days, I fished for spawning fish,” he said. “Then the last couple of days, I tried to get some release fish out (near Fortune Bay) and tried some other things. I had a great practice and it was a great week.”
Fourth place went to day-three leader Kreiger, who weighed in 11 pounds, 4 ounces and collected $8,000.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” said the pro from Okeechobee, Fla. “But David and I roomed together last night. I told him that if I didn’t win it, I wanted him to.”
Fifth place and $7,500 went to the only Minnesotan in the finals, Jim Moynagh of Carver. He caught 11 pounds, 3 ounces.
“I was glad to see Minnesota host one of these things,” he said. “It wasn’t such a long drive for me.”
Rounding out the top 10 pro finishers are Jim Tutt of Longview, Texas, (sixth place, $6,500) with 10 pounds, 11 ounces; Kevin Vida of Clare, Mich., (seventh, $5,500) with 9-5; Ricky Doyle of Keeseville, N.Y., (eighth, $5,000) with 9-0; Dion Hibdon of Stover, Mo., (ninth, $4,500) with 7-13; and Tony Defilippo of Lake Ann, Mich., (10th, $4,000) with 7-10.
The winning attitude
Dudley, who credited his friend Kreiger for much of his success over the past two seasons, said he isn’t finished winning yet.
“I’ve accomplished two of my five goals,” he said, referring to his EverStart and Ranger M1 victories. “I also want to win an FLW tournament, the FLW Championship and FLW Angler of the Year (Dudley is currently second in FLW points with one tournament to go).
“If I was to tell you I’ve had a great year, I’d be lying to you. If I was the best and won every tournament throughout the year, I could say I was having a great year. All I can tell you is that I’m fishing well and putting myself into a position to win. I’m not satisfied yet. That’s all I’m saying.”
And that’s why he’s called the Manteo Machine.
Almost to a one, every angler loved the Lake Vermilion bass fishery. The waterway likely set tournament records for number of limits caught (they’re being verified), and tales of hundred-bass days were not uncommon throughout the week.
Hibdon, who’s no stranger to bass fishing anywhere, had this to say about Vermilion: “I probably had one of the better bass-fishing days I’ve ever spent on the water that first day. I caught well over a hundred fish. I’ve been fortunate enough to come to Minnesota a few times over the years, and these people really know how to take care of their fish. It’s just phenomenal. I think there’s a fish on every rock. And I think a lot of states could learn a few lessons from Minnesota because it thrives on keeping its fisheries in good shape.”
The next EverStart Series tournament is an Eastern Division contest at Guntersville Lake in Guntersville, Ala., June 11-14. The next Northern Division tournament will be held at the Detroit River in Trenton, Mich., July 23-26.