(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the 2015 October/November issue of FLW Bass Fishing magazine. To read more compelling articles from FLW Bass Fishing magazine each month, become an FLW subscriber member.)
If you look at it in competitive terms, April 17, 2015 was a disappointing day for Joseph Zapf.
He was fishing the FLW College Fishing National Championship on Lake Murray, and he knew that his College Fishing career would be over when it came time to put up his tackle and head for the ramp. He and his brother, Andrew, had had a miserable opening round, coming in with only four fish that weighed 6 pounds, 13 ounces. As day two wore on, reality set in: this would be his last time competing as a member of the Ramapo College team.
It had been four years since the Whipanny, N.J., angler had opted to stay in his home state for college, choosing Ramapo solely based on its newly formed bass fishing club.
“I kept telling people I wanted a school where I could fish, and it was the only one in the state [with a fishing team] at the time,” Joseph says.
Ramapo is a postage stamp of a school nestled in the town of Mahwah, near the border of New Jersey and New York and about 30 miles from New York City. It enrolls 5,000 students, but Joseph says most are local commuters. And while there are plenty of small bodies of water nearby, it’s hardly the first place one would think of as a fishing destination. Yet Joseph milked everything he could from the opportunity.
The club was only a year old when he joined, but with partner Jeffrey Voss, he managed to finish second in his first College Fishing tournament on Lake Champlain in June 2011. The duo did one better the next time out, winning the Northern Division event at 1000 Islands on the St. Lawrence River a month later. Then in the fall, they made it a two-win season with a victory at the Northern Regional at Sayers Lake in Pennsylvania.
Joseph and Voss made four top 10s in 2012, including ninth at the National Championship on Lake Murray and fourth at the Northern Conference Championship on Virginia’s Philpott Lake.
In 2013, the Zapf brothers became fishing partners when Andrew enrolled at Ramapo. The result was a win at Smith Mountain Lake in their first tournament. They would finish 10th in the Northern Conference Invitational that year and added a pair of top 10s in 2014 to get back to the National Championship.
In four years, fishing with his two partners, Joseph tallied 10 top 10 finishes and had as many victories (three) as he had finishes outside the top 10. He made the National Championship four times.
Yet, despite all of that success, he never got a chance to fish the final day of the championship in his first three tries. And after the Zapf brothers’ day-one performance on Murray, Joseph knew his goal of doing so – and winning a National Championship in the process – would go unfulfilled.
If you look at it in general, however, April 17, 2015 might have been Joseph Zapf’s best day of fishing.
Idling out of SCE & G North Recreation Area at Dreher Shoals Dam, the brothers decided to go for broke and try some new water. In doing so they came upon a point with schooling fish, and it was game on from there.
“We had a blast that last day,” Joseph says. “We just sat on that one spot, and every so often the fish would push the [blueback] herring up on that point. You could see their backs coming out of the water.”
The Zapf brothers are no strangers to good days. They’ve been fishing the streams of the Adirondacks, the Finger Lakes of New York and Lake Champlain for most of their lives. Their passion for the sport led them to the New Jersey Bass Federation youth club, and eventually to FLW Bass Fishing League events.
There on Lake Murray, between the bursts of schooling action, the brothers had time to joke and reflect. Joseph had seen a lot of change in his four years. What started out as a couple of guys getting together to fish had blossomed into one of the more successful college clubs in the region, if not the country, with five boats and more than 20 members on the team in 2015.
They talked of how Joseph, a graduate, planned to try his hand at the FLW Series when his job at an accounting firm allowed, and about what was in store for Andrew, now a senior, in what remains of his college career.
Their conversation would routinely be interrupted by explosions in the shallows. The windows of opportunity afforded by the bass were small, and if the brothers didn’t get a cast in instantly they’d miss them. The fish hit often enough, though, and besides numbers there was quality, as Andrew caught the biggest bass of his life that day – 7 pounds, 4 ounces.
When it came time to head to weigh-in and call it a career for Joseph, the brothers had put together the second largest bag of the day – 19-06 – to jump up to 19th place. It would mark the worst finish of Joseph’s career, but that’s not what he’ll focus on.
“To make the championship all four years; to fish the last two years with my brother …,” he says, “it’s been a fun ride.”