March 19, 2013 by Gary Mortenson
(Editor's note: FLWOutdoors.com managed to speak to David Dudley by phone while he was out on the water during a routine crappie fishing outing before the Beaver Lake FLW Tour event.)
With over $3.2 million in career FLW earnings, an astounding 37 top-10 finishes, four FLW Tour wins, a 2003 Forrest Wood Cup title and three FLW Tour Angler of the Year awards already in his back pocket - including back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012 - it's pretty much a given David Dudley will go down in history as one of the greatest anglers of all time.
In fact, for the better part of a decade, it seemed as though Dudley could do no wrong - turning in one stellar performance after another en route to earning a sea of accolades, accomplishments and tournament-fishing hardware virtually unmatched in the industry.
However, this season, things have not gone quite according to plan for the current resident of Lynchburg, Va. Surprisingly, the reigning AOY champion currently finds himself in 80th place overall in the year-end standings after uncharacteristic 65th-place and 104th-place finishes during the opening two events of 2013. So, what's wrong - if anything?
While it's demonstrably unfair to overanalyze an angler's struggles over a small sample size spanning just two events, this isn't just any angler we're talking about. No, we're talking about David Dudley - viewed fairly or not as an impregnable fortress of confidence, principled outspokenness and unlimited fishing skill and savvy.
Anyone who knows Dudley knows that he does not take losing lightly - whether it's competing at the Forrest Wood Cup, participating in a friendly poker tournament or firing up an informal racquetball match with some of his fellow anglers during one of his rare moments of "relaxation" before the start of the next Tour event.
And, not surprisingly, Dudley continues to make it quite clear that he is far, far from satisfied with his results to date.
"I can pretty much say that this year (stinks) so far," said Dudley. "I hate the way my season has gone; what else can I say? When you go from winning the FLW Tour Angler of the Year two years in a row to finishing the way I did during the last two tournaments, it's hard."
Although Dudley wasn't happy with his performance on Lake Okeechobee during the first event of the season, he said he was downright distraught by the time the second FLW Tour stop had concluded on Lewis Smith Lake.
"When I left (Lewis) Smith Lake my heart hurt so bad; it felt like I'd just broken up with my high school sweetheart or just lost my favorite hunting dog," said Dudley. "I know where I am talent-wise and when you're not (living up to that), it hurts. I'm aching badly right now.'
So how doesn't the "Manteo Machine" account for his recent struggles?
"For me, the hardest thing to fight off is when you get to the top, how do you continue to motivate yourself to do better? I always say, `never be satisfied,' but I think I've kind of fallen into that trap. I get motivated when people talk smack to me. Put a challenge in front of me and I'll (respond). Put me in second place and see what happens. So my main challenge is to get motivated again. I've got to step up and do better."
To be sure, Dudley's early season struggles began right out of the gate on Lake Okeechobee. However, because the "Big O" is a rather unique fishing environment (a place where one cast and one double-digit fish can propel you atop the leaderboard at any one given moment) Dudley said he wasn't overly concerned with his 65th-place finish there. Mind you, he wasn't happy about it either.
"The way I look at Okeechobee is that it's an up and down lake. You can take some of the greatest anglers in the world and you'll see that of their worst finishes, a lot of them happen on Lake Okeechobee," said Dudley. "For me, I've had some good finishes there and some horrible finishes there. I basically call Lake Okeechobee a `luck factor' lake. Look at the top-10 finishers on that lake during any one given season. You'll see some people you'll know but a lot of names you'll go, `Who?' There is so much luck involved on that lake that it drives me insane. You'll get John Doe who catches maybe five or six 2-pounders and then, all of sudden at the end of the day, catches a 10-pounder. Now he comes back to weigh-in with 19 pounds and he beats David Dudley. But did he really fish better than me? I don't think so. This year on Okeechobee I caught a lot of fish but I never got that big bite. So that pretty much sums it up for me."
While Dudley was able to shake off his Florida finish to a certain extent, his performance that following month on Lewis Smith Lake clearly has been a lot harder to digest. And, as a result, it spurred on quite a bit of good, old fashioned soul searching.
"I think I know where I went wrong. I was out of shape. I hadn't been fishing enough. It was my own fault," admitted Dudley. "I knew what I had to do there and I just didn't do it. If you're a marathon runner, you can't expect to be able to compete if you don't practice. And I think that was my problem. So what am I doing now? I've been out on the water fishing every day since that Smith Lake tournament - well, almost every day. And that's what I have to keep on doing. I need to get back in shape."
Although the Castrol pro is known for setting his personal assessment bar higher than most, Dudley is also a realist - acknowledging that he's fairly pessimistic about his prospects of climbing back into the AOY race given the remaining FLW Tour schedule.
"I don't really like the rest of the season (schedule)," said Dudley, arguably one of the most candid and outspoken members of the FLW Tour. "With the exception of Beaver Lake, the (remaining) tournaments are going to be graphing tournaments. So I don't like where we're going and I don't like the time of year we're going (to those venues)."
While Dudley understands that his own chances of a three-peat are remote at best given his difficult start, that doesn't mean he doesn't have a strong opinion on the shape of the race as it stands now.
"If things stay relatively the same as they are now and Andy (Morgan) and (Brent) Ehrler are battling at the top for the angler of the year race on Lake Chickamauga (in June), you can mark this down: The race will be won on the boat draw," said Dudley in no unequivocal terms. "If Andy gets a better boat draw, he'll win; and the same with Ehrler. The reason is that there are only about 30 good fishing holes on the entire lake and everybody is going to be competing for one of those spots. So whoever gets the best boat draw is going to be in (the driver's seat) to win AOY."
Although he is still seen by many as a veritable fishing machine, and rightfully so, Dudley has demonstrated this season that he is also very human.
"It's not like I have a secret formula or anything," said Dudley, arguing that he's going to have to continue to put forth his best effort and do whatever it takes to turn the season around. "Honestly, I've just got to keep my head down and keep fishing. It's that simple."
While the FLW Tour field is undoubtedly relieved not to see Dudley sitting atop the standings for a third straight year, the news is not all good for his fellow competitors. Because you see, Dudley finally has found what he's been searching for all season - a brand new challenge.
And we all know what that means ...