And then, there were two. But those two did not want to face one another in the FLW College Fishing National Championship fish-off – dubbed the Battle of the Champions. A day prior, the teamwork and kinship shared by Chris Blanchette and Hampton Anderson enabled the University of South Carolina anglers to best 53 other teams in the National Championship on Lake Keowee.
Today, less than 24 hours after securing their school’s second consecutive College Fishing national title, Blanchette and Anderson found themselves fishing in separate boats on Lake Russell, with only each other as competition.
Anderson came out on top with a five-bass limit of 10 pounds, 1 ounce, while Blanchette caught four keepers for 6-6.
“This was the way to settle it, but I really needed my partner in the boat today,” Blanchette says.
“I didn’t want to fish against him, but that’s how it had to be settled,” adds Anderson.
For his fish-off victory, Anderson earned a berth in the Forrest Wood Cup, Aug. 4-7 on Wheeler Lake in Huntsville, Ala. With every Cup competitor guaranteed $10,000 and a shot at the $300,000 top prize, that’s a potentially life-changing opportunity.
“Obviously, my goal is not to finish in the 10-grand range, but that is a great feeling to have this opportunity,” Anderson says. “I’m going to give it all I’ve got and see what I’m made of.”
Blanchette says he’s truly happy for his teammate, but his inner competitor could not deny his clear disappointment.
“I wanted to go [to the Cup] pretty badly,” he says. “One of us was going to be disappointed regardless. I guess it works out better because he’s a deep-water fisherman, and it’s going to be the middle of August on Wheeler Lake.”
Notwithstanding the inescapable joy of victory, Anderson says the immediate transition he and Blanchette had to make forced a certain emotional postponement.
“Winning the National Championship was incredible, but right after that, we’re getting into opposite boats, loading up our stuff and getting ready to go against each other,” he says. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. We haven’t had time to think about it. Neither one of us has had time to look at our phones
“As soon as we were done with the National Championship, we went straight to get the boats ready [they fished from Ranger Z521s provided by FLW]. We got up this morning at 4:30 for the seventh day in a row to fish all day. So neither one of us has had time to even think about what’s going on.”
Nevertheless, Anderson and Blanchette both realize how much the week’s events mean to their fishing careers.
“Holding up our fish on the last day of the National Championship was pretty awesome, being able to look out there at hundreds of people,” Blanchette says. “You know it’s going to be close, and then when you see the last team weigh and you know they don’t have it – that was incredible.
“That’s what you always hope for,” he continues. “You climb through the ranks in the juniors, high school, the club level, the state level, and then to bring it in at the National Championship, that really shows you’re ready for the next step.”
For Anderson, a huge show of support by family and friends made the week’s achievements all the more sweet. During the National Championship’s final hour, a sudden streak of productivity left a memory he’ll not soon forget.
“In the last hour, Chris caught a good bed fish that culled, and two casts later I caught a largemouth over 3 pounds,” Anderson recalls. “We definitely didn’t know if we’d win it, but that let us know that we were in the hunt, and that’s all we wanted – to go in feeling good and knowing that we were in contention.
“It took both of us as a team, and it was just an awesome moment.”
Both anglers took different approaches to the fish-off. Anderson mostly caught spotted bass on crankbaits and shaky heads around laydowns inside pockets. He dialed in a largemouth bite late in the day and upgraded to his winning weight.
“I didn’t really know what was going on out there, so I just stayed close to the ramp and just went fishing as long as I could,” he says.
Blanchette targeted largemouths with Yamamoto Senkos and a ChatterBait. Despite the letdown, he says he’s not beating himself up, because he entered the fish-off with a mindset based on profound advice he received prior to the National Championship.
“A friend of mine said, ‘Man, you’re a really consistent angler, but there’s one problem: You don’t go for the win enough,’” Blanchette says. “He said, ‘You have to learn to swing for the fences when you have to instead of just trying to be consistent.
“During the National Championship, when we were fishing for the bigger fish, in the back of my mind, I was saying, ‘This is it. We’re going for the win.’ That’s the mentality I had today. Sometimes it bites you, and sometimes you win.”
One big fish turned his day around and told him he was on the right track. However, a couple of missed opportunities at quality keepers derailed his hopes.
“I have no regrets. I really had the chance to win today, but it just didn’t work out for me,” Blanchette says. “At least I came in second!”
So, what does the future hold for the newly crowned national champions? Blanchette, a senior management major, intends to continue working at his current job as an office manager for a construction and restoration company in Columbia, S.C. He’s also eying a potential career in professional fishing.
“I’d like to fish the FLW Tour,” Blanchette says. “With the job I have now, I have a good amount of flexibility, so I’m probably going to stay there after college and just fish and work.”
A senior finance major, Hampton’s also interested in making a living on the water. He’ll soon pursue his captain’s license – a requisite step toward becoming an offshore fishing captain.
Turning his attention to the biggest event of his career, Anderson is eagerly anticipating his Forrest Wood Cup debut.
“I think I’m really going to like Wheeler,” he says. “I love fishing deep in the summertime, so I can’t wait to get out there in practice and see if I can find ’em.”
Blanchette was impressively graceful in defeat.
“I wish it was me, but I’m really proud of him,” he says. “I think he’ll do really well.”
Whatever the Cup outcome, two anglers bound by competitive spirit will forever remember a mid-March day on Lake Keowee.
“This definitely ranks at the top of my memories,” Anderson says. “Neither one of us will ever forget that.”
Even though competition divided them for a day, history will forever remember Chris Blanchette and Hampton Anderson as a championship team.