Saving fish — it’s a dicey strategy, but one that paid off in a big way for University of Louisiana-Monroe’s Thomas Soileau and Hunter Freeman who completed the wire-to-wire Red River win at the YETI FLW College Fishing National Championship presented by Lowrance C-Map Genesis with a three day total of 42 pounds, 8 ounces.
In discussing their days one and two catches of 14-7 and 12-4, the ULM anglers made mention of a backup spot they were holding in reserve in case the wheels came off the wagon. After two rounds of successfully working a couple of backwater areas, they found themselves scratching on day three and decided it was time to uncork the good stuff.
Located toward the lower end of Pool 4, their ace in the hole was a large backwater lake with a residential dock and a small paved boat ramp in the back. This scenario sharply contrasted the stump fields, vegetation and shallow points of the spots where they spent their first few days. Those spots — about 5 miles farther downriver — had treated them well the first two days, but today yielded only three small keepers.
The move paid off quickly, as Freeman’s third cast drew the ire of a 5-pounder that immediately transformed their day. About 15 minutes later, Freeman caught another big one on a nearby seawall and the two anglers hugged it out on the front deck.
They’d cull up with one more small keeper in the backwater and upgrade a final time on their run back to the check-in. That gave Freeman and Soileau a day-three weight of 15-13 — the event’s heaviest catch — and sealed the victory with a 7-pound, 6-ounce margin of victory.
“I had confidence, but I had no expectation of leading all three days,” Freeman says. “My biggest deal coming into this thing was finding enough stuff to stay consistent over three days. I thought that being consistent over three days would be the key to doing well.
“I really thought the first day that someone would have 16-17 pounds. I honestly told Thomas when we left from down south on day one that we’d probably be in seventh or eighth place. The second day was tough, but we caught over 12 pounds and we were still leading. Today, I was expecting to have to catch a big bag, because I figured they were biting.”
The ULM anglers boated two of their smaller fish on a Carolina-rigged Zoom Baby Brush Hog and one on a 5/16-ounce spinnerbait with gold and silver willow leaf blades. Notably, the latter fish came unbuttoned just as Freeman boat flipped it and the 2-pounder landed in the cockpit.
The two 5-pounders both bit a 1/2-ounce football head jig with a black and blue Strike King Rage Craw. This bait scored big during pre-practice and gave Freeman confidence in the spot.
“Three and a half weeks ago, on that same stretch where the seawall is, I caught one almost 6 pounds doing that same lazy cast, just bombing it,” Freeman says. “So, to catch that one today; it was just our time.”
Soileau says he and Freeman hit their reserve spot with modest expectations, so leaving with 10 more pounds in their livewell was a pleasant surprise.
“We had those three fish, so we were just trying to get two more keepers in the boat, because we thought it was so tough,” Soileau says. “We were just fortunate to get two big bites in there.”
Freeman and Soileau will face one another in tomorrow’s fish-off. At stake is a berth in the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Ouachita. Both anglers say they feel comfortable stepping out of the team format and into individual competition.
“I’ve never had to do it with this much on the line, but I’m just going to go fishing, have fun and whatever happens, happens,” Soileau says. “I’m sure Hunter is going to do the same. He’s looking forward to it, I’m looking forward to it. We’re just ready to have some fun tomorrow.”
Top 10 teams
1. Thomas Soileau and Hunter Freeman – University of Louisiana-Monroe – 42-8 (15) – Ranger Z175 with a 115-hp Evinrude outboard
2. Cody Huff and Garrett Enders – Bethel University – 35-2 (15) – $5,400
3. Nick Hatfield and Corey Neece – Tusculum College – 34-5 (15) – $4,200
4. Nicholas Czajka and Jack Hippe III – Adrian College – 30-14 (15) – $3,000 + $1,000 Ranger Cup
5. Charlie Deshazer and Jackson Ebbers – University of Nebraska – 30-9 (15) – $2,000
6. Hunter Malmay and Robert Jones – Northwestern State – 28-3 (15)
7. Cody Batterson and Chase Serafin – Adrian College – 27-4 (15)
8. Nick Montilino and Brock Spencer – Murray State – 27-2 (15)
9. Michael Dunn and Henry Colberg – University of Pittsburg – 26-4 (14)
10. Gabriel Dubois and Brandon Heizer – University of Missouri – 25-3 (13)