For my partner, Colten Hutson, and me, fishing the National Championship is the end of a long qualifying road. We won a qualifying event at Lake Texoma in late February 2015 to earn a berth in the Southern Conference Championship on Grand Lake in Oklahoma. I graduated in May 2015 with a degree in industrial safety and a minor in leadership. Qualifying for that Conference Championship before I graduated is why I still get the opportunity to fish the National Championship this season, but getting over the hurdle wasn’t easy.
A weather change greeted us the first day of the Conference Championship. Luckily, as locals, we were able to use our knowledge of Grand Lake on day one to catch four keepers for a little more than 10 pounds, which had us in the top five. On day two we were able to fish more the way we wanted and brought in a limit that bumped us to second place and secured a berth in the National Championship.
Winning the National Championship is every serious college angler’s dream. Fifty-four of the best College Fishing teams in the country get to duke it out for a shot at a national title and a chance to fish the Forrest Wood Cup.
This will be my third college championship, but only my first on the FLW side of things. Getting this opportunity to fish as a collegiate angler is an honor and a privilege. The support we receive from our school and local sponsors makes us want to represent them the best we can. At the end of the day, it’s not about Colten and me; it’s about those letters we wear across our chest: “UCO.” The University of Central Oklahoma made it possible for us to compete at this level, and we can’t thank the school enough.
As for the actual competition, Lake Keowee seems to fall out of our comfort zone. That deep, clear water is intimidating to us Okies, but we feel like we’ve done our homework and have an opportunity to be in contention come the final day.
A championship for the school and an opportunity to fish the Forrest Wood Cup could be a springboard into a professional career. I think every college angler has the dream of fishing for a living, and if I told you that wasn’t my dream I’d be lying. This could be the first step.
Again, we want to thank our university and all our sponsors because without them we wouldn’t be able to travel around the country chasing our dreams.
In the championship phase of any sport, to some extent each competitor asks himself the question, “What does this mean to you?” Truth be told, for most of us the answer is, “This means everything,” but that response has become cliché and is often left with untied ends. Therefore, we must explore what “everything” is.
For the contestants, there are only two outcomes in a championship event. There’s a winner and there’s a loser. It will be no different at the 2016 FLW College Fishing National Championship. Alec Piekarski and I will either win, or we will lose. That’s everything. Only one team will be able to hold the champion’s trophy at the collective end of a three-day war between collegiate anglers, emerging with the victory after completing a task seemingly weighty enough to flood and sink a bass boat. There’s no advantage or disadvantage on day one; every team starts equally. It doesn’t matter where you came from or how you qualified. Every outside influence has to be separated from championship week. That’s everything.
Being invited to the National Championship means that we have been given a gift, and our gift is an opportunity to prepare and perform at a level that no one else can, to hear the words that make all the difference: “You are the 2016 FLW College Fishing National Champion!”
Lake Keowee poses a daunting task to a couple of shallow-grass, Wisconsin-bred fishermen, forcing us to adapt to an East Coast, nomadic spotted bass environment with which we are not yet comfortable. But this is everything, and anything short of winning will be a failure. To admit that another team prepared and performed better than we did is intolerable. That’s everything.
For any angler who gets to compete in it, the National Championship shows that he has made it to the final test in the world of College Fishing. Every one of the fishermen knows how much dedication and hard work it took to advance to this final stage in tournament fishing. Their place in the championship match proves that they have overcome all of the challenges and changing conditions of previous tournaments.
As a competitor in the FLW College Fishing National Championship, I realize and appreciate that I’ve achieved many of the short-term and long-term goals I set for myself, and that I’m within reach of my ultimate dream as a participant in the sport of college bass fishing. My most challenging goal is to excel at the next level of tournament fishing, and travel across the country competing against other professional anglers. Meanwhile, I hope to pursue a career as a mechanical engineer and take part in the design process of various fishing products after graduation. Participating in the FLW College Fishing National Championship might also provide my fishing partner, Brett Stanek, and me with the opportunity to create business relationships with reputable companies in the fishing industry.
Unfortunately, Brett and I were unable to engage in pre-practicing for this tournament. We both are majoring in two branches of engineering, and most of our time lately has been consumed by homework assignments and studying for exams. Our biggest challenge, then, will be overcoming our unfamiliarity with Keowee. This doesn’t mean we haven’t been preparing for the National Championship as much as possible; we’ve just been doing it without actually being on on the lake.
We’ve worked together and spent countless hours studying the contours of the lake, creating contacts, researching possible patterns and acquiring knowledge on equipment adjustments. We’ve done all of that over the past few months in order to determine the best strategy for every situation we might find. I feel confident that we’ve prepared properly for the tournament without actually having been able to visit Lake Keowee.
Qualifying for the FLW College Fishing National Championship is one of the biggest accomplishments of my fishing career. In my book, that sense of achievement you feel when you can say you were fortunate enough to join some of the best teams in college fishing in arguably the most prestigious college tournament is second to none.
Of course, my ultimate aspiration is to become a professional angler, as no doubt is the case for almost everybody else in the National Championship. But for now, I’m taking it tournament by tournament and trying to perform my best at each.
Since the Conference Championship on Carlyle Lake, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the championship. Its importance is huge to me. The chance to prove myself in front of the entire fishing community is not something I take for granted. With a Forrest Wood Cup berth on the line, the stakes become that much higher.
Winning this one could seriously change a guy’s life. Those incentives, and knowing that all of our friends and families back home are pulling for us, make the desire to win that much stronger.
Pre-practice was a bit different for my partner, Grant, and me due to the lack of time and money to make the 1,000-mile one-way trip to Keowee. Hours on end studying maps, researching and strategizing (when we should’ve been studying calculus) have made up our preparation. As the days wind down to our departure for South Carolina, the anticipation grows. Winning will be the goal, and if there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that we’re giving this one all we have and leaving it all on the water!
This will be my third and final National Championship. I’ve fished the last two at Lake Keowee and Lake Murray, respectively, and I’ve been looking forward to this event since Andrew Annuzzi and I won the Northern Conference Championship last September.
Having some experience on Keowee is definitely helpful, as it’s a tough lake to figure out if you’ve never fished it. Unfortunately for us, we hardly ever have an opportunity to fish for spotted bass, though I approach spots the same way I approach smallmouths. Hopefully our experience fishing for smallmouths will translate into success in targeting spots.
When I think back, I realize that FLW College Fishing has given me the best times of my college years. I’ll always remember the countless road trips with my best friends, doing what we love to do. My goal in this tournament is just to soak it all in one last time. Sure, it would be great to win one, but winning isn’t everything. At the end of the day, I want to be able to look back and remember what a great time College Fishing was for me. As long as my partner and I fish our hardest, I know we won’t have any regrets.
Most importantly, I want to say thanks to Kevin Hunt (College Fishing director) and the rest of the College Fishing staff who put in a tremendous amount of work and travel to give us these opportunities. The whole crew has been nothing but friendly and helpful, and I always look forward to seeing everyone. Thanks for putting bass fishing on the radar at the college level! I look forward to watching the program continue to grow.
The Lake Keowee National Championship will be my first. My partner, Andy Zapf, has fished Keowee once in the past, and I was able to spend a full day scouting the lake in late December. Although spotted bass are a “new” species for me, the lake itself seems suited to my style of fishing. I enjoy fishing deep, clear water and being able to use a drop-shot or shaky head whenever I am given the chance. With luck we’ll be able to take the tactics that we know and use them to figure out these spotted bass in the two days of practice we have before the tournament.
The experience leading up to my first National Championship has been amazing. We qualified for the Conference Championship at the first tournament of the year (in 2015) and went on to win the Conference Championship on the Upper Chesapeake. Our club is a close-knit group of anglers, and it’s gratifying to be able to travel and make great memories as a club. My goal going into the National Championship is simply to fish my hardest and fish clean. That’s all I can ask for. Win or lose, I’m grateful to be given such an opportunity.
I thank the entire FLW staff, especially Kevin Hunt, for all that they do to put these tournaments on for us. FLW has given us an amazing chance, and I’m glad I was able to be a part of this FLW College Fishing circuit. I’m already looking forward to heading back to the National Championship next year.
Qualifying for the FLW College Fishing National Championship was the pinnacle of my competitive fishing career. I was heavily involved in student government during my associate’s program, and I helped to arrange the paperwork for the club’s founder. I had never fished in an organized bass tournament prior to my first event on Smith Mountain Lake in 2013. Not having a boat of my own put a damper on my game, but even though my experience was limited to bank fishing, I was well-read on the sport. Helping to start the club seemed like the break I needed.
After enrolling in a bachelor’s program, I signed up for the team and had two opportunities to fish in 2013. Smith Mountain Lake was the opener. My partner and I finished low in the standings with one fish. Then we had a break on Lake Champlain and made the Northern Conference Championship by placing 11th in that event. My first year of College Fishing ended at the Conference Championship in 2013 when I finished day one with two fish and didn’t make the cut to the top 15.
The 2014 season proved to be key. I was assigned a new boater named Landon Paul, who is five years younger than me. He’s absolutely wild, a fishing madman. Half of the time when we’re fishing together I sit back in awe of Landon. We fished hard and missed the cut to the Conference Championship by 4 ounces on Chautauqua Lake. It was devastating.
The past year has been remarkable. I’ve seen my own skills improving as Landon’s co-angler. Landon and I finished 46th of 194 teams at the first FLW College Fishing Open on Kentucky Lake. For those who like math, that’s in the top 25 percentile. Overall we fished in the top 20 percentile of anglers during the 2015 season. Considering that it was my last year, I left nothing to question. We researched more and harder than ever. We developed new techniques. We adapted to changing conditions better. When the water changed at the Northern Conference Championship, we were able to change our game to fit the conditions and stay competitive.
Reaching the National Championship in my last year of contention is bittersweet. I seek more challenges and more competition. I wish I had one more year, but I don’t have that luxury. This has to be it. It’s all or nothing! This tournament is proof that I have grown as an angler, from backlashing a casting reel on every cast to maybe backlashing it every other cast. Joking aside, if I can work with my partner this one last time and come out on top I would lose it on the stage. I still don’t have a boat, and I bum rides in friends’ boats in return for gas money. A win would prove to everyone and most importantly to myself that I’m capable of great things. Making it this far has been huge, and I have no idea how I made it this far.
All I can say is that I have an excellent teammate, and I’m lucky to have drawn Landon as a boater in my college club. We make a good team. I usually catch a good fish, and then Landon has to one-up me and get a bigger one. This goes on all day, back and forth. Most of the time something happens: the water changes, the weather changes, we lose a key lure – but we can’t be bothered. We just go out and have fun. We’ve thrown our game plans out the window at every single event. We just like hanging out with our friends on the circuit and enjoy the experience. Making it this far is nothing short of a miracle. I think we’re going to do pretty well. We’re more than likely going to throw our game plans out the window at some point in the National Championship and just go fishing.
Summing it all up, this opportunity means more to me than I can put into words. Without FLW College Fishing I would have never been able to compete as an angler. This truly has been a life-changing part of my academic career.