November 23, 2009 by David A. Brown
SANFORD, Fla. - Turkey day is just around the corner, and the University of Florida's Jake Gipson and Matthew Wercinski are giving "thanks" that five bass "gobbled" their baits and stuck a big "feather" in their caps at the National Guard FLW College Fishing Southeast Regional Championship on Lake Monroe.
Now that we have the holiday metaphors out of the way, let's look at how the Gator duo won the tournament. Gipson and Wercinski took the lead for the University of Florida on day one with with 12 pounds, 12 ounces and then added 9-9 on day two. Their final-round score was 7-12 for a three-day total weight of 30 pounds, 1 ounce.
UF's go-to bait for most of the tournament was a Zoom Magnum Speed Worm fished on a 6/0 heavy-gauge hook with a clear, plastic screw-lock weight. On days one and two, ripping the worms across the tops of grass beds proved most effective, but today found the fish in a foul mood, and they just didn't want to chase the fast-moving presentations.
"We had been catching our fish really shallow around matted grass," Gipson said. "When the sun was out (on days one and two), the bass would get under those mats and it was purely a reaction bite on top. But today it was cloudy, so I think those fish were out roaming, and they weren't willing to come up and eat that topwater (presentation)."
Downsizing to Texas-rigged Zoom Baby Brush Hogs was the final-round strategy. Gipson and Wercinski found most of their day-three action in a hole at the mouth of a creek. Although both anglers fished the same baits, Gipson started catching fish early, while Wercinski had to tough it out for several hours before finding his keepers.
"It was the mental game for me today because I didn't have a fish until after noon," Wercinski said. "It was rough."
Gipson described the fundamental elements of his University of Florida team's success: "There were two keys - the first was to keep our heads down and keep fishing. Every day, we caught a fish with less than an hour to go, so we had to keep plugging away.
"The other thing was teamwork. The first day, I had my limit early and I was helping (Wercinski) get his limit. I was rigging stuff for him, keeping him in the front of the boat and staying out of his way so he could catch them. The second day, we reversed roles. He had a limit early, and I didn't have my limit until a half-hour (before the end of fishing time). We just kept helping each other out."
For their efforts, the UF anglers won $25,000 for their school and a Ranger 177TR, wrapped in their school colors, with a motor for their bass club. Gipson and Wercinski, along with all of the top five teams, will fish for the University of Florida in the National Guard FLW College Fishing National Championship April 10-12, 2010, in Knoxville, Tenn. The winning team at the national championship will qualify for the prestigious 2010 Forrest Wood Cup.
Gipson said that his team's victory and the prize boat will provide a great boost for the UF bass club that he and Wercinski founded: "We started this club a little over a year ago, and it has grown quite a bit. This is really going to help us out a lot."
Auburn's Parker and Baker finish in second
They had the heaviest weight (8-4) and the only limit of day three, but in the end, Auburn's Shaye Baker and Dennis Parker couldn't overtake the Florida team, and the Tigers settled for second with a total weight of 27-11. On days one and two, their weights were 9-13 and 9-0.
For the first two days, Baker and Parker caught most of their bass in a spring-fed creek where clear, shallow water required stealth presentations with weightless Texas-rigged finesse worms and Fat Albert grubs on 10-pound fluorocarbon line.
"We caught one fish in the main lake, but we had nine keepers between us yesterday and seven between us on the first day," Baker said. "We wanted to go back in the same creek today and give it a shot because we knew there were still some fish in there, and every ounce counts."
Fortune favored Baker, and he stuck three keepers in short order, but Parker's luck lagged a little. Baker said he had not intended to fish the entire creek, but they ended up having to fish it all the way to the end, where Parker found his first keeper. He bagged his second on the way out of the creek, and then Baker recalled a certain tree with all the right features, including the memory of producing a fish in practice.
"For whatever reason, that tree just looked right in practice, and I said, `That's the magic tree,'" Baker recalled. "So we idled 400 yards (from the creek mouth) to this one tree, Dennis throws up there about three times, and on the third cast, about halfway back to the boat the fish hits, and he put it in the boat. That was his third fish and our limit."
Parker pointed to team spirit as the key ingredient to Auburn's success: "Shaye really carried me today. I was getting discouraged - I had one break off early, and I had a couple others that wouldn't commit (to the bait). On the first two days, I had my limits by 9 o'clock, so today I was starting to get down and second-guessing myself. Shaye just kept building me back up and telling me, `Just keep doing what we're doing. We know there's fish in here, so just keep your head down.'
"Every time, I'd push a little harder. This is our fourth day fishing (including practice), and it really helps if you have a partner that's willing to carry you like that."
Auburn's Rodgers and Peek advance to third
Starting day three in fifth place, Auburn's Richard Peek and Caleb Rodgers had only one way to go, and they took that upward direction, gaining two spots for a third-place finish with 20 pounds, 2 ounces. The Tigers bagged three keepers on the final day for 5-14. They had 7-4 on day one and 7-0 on day two.
Day three's prolonged period of overcast conditions worked in favor of this Auburn team. Days one and two had clouds with scattered periods of sunshine. Today saw gray skies from the launch until midday.
"We've needed cloudy weather all week - that's what we planned for, and that's how we practiced," Peek said. "We actually had it this morning for an extra hour or two. We had two better bites and got them in the boat, but once the sun came out about 11 a.m., our bite died down."
Peek and Rodgers fished a Skinny Dipper swimbait on a weighted 5/0 wide-gap hook and a Texas-rigged Zoom Chigger Tail Worm in the Bama Bug color. They flipped the worm and swam it across the tops of lily pads and hydrilla. When they found holes in the vegetation, they let the worm drop into these openings to further tease the bass.
Peek said that his team had two more shots at good fish, but the nature of their tactics inherently claims a few fish.
"We hooked two more good ones that were way back in the lily pads, and we couldn't pull them out."
UCF represents for fourth
With infectious enthusiasm, no doubt spurred by tremendous support from a very vocal audience of their fellow Knights, the University of Central Florida's wildly popular team of Dustin Lauer and Matthew Norman managed just three fish for 1-15 on day three and retained their fourth-place position with a total of 19-5.
Targeting hydrilla and bulrushes on the lake's west side, the UCF anglers caught their fish on frogs and flukes.
Lauer said the day's calm conditions hurt their efforts: "It was a nice day - a little too nice. We actually needed a little more wind movement and a little bit of rain to kick that bait up and get the bass biting. We were kind of banking on that."
The hometown crowd went nuts when Lauer and Norman weighed the largest bag of day two - 10 pounds, 10 ounces - and rose three spots from seventh to make the top five. The UCF anglers got no less love on day three, despite a slow day. Thanking their supporters, both anglers expressed pride in carrying the UCF banner this week and promised to do so at the championship in Knoxville.
"We worked so hard - this lake is tough," Lauer said. "We're going to go Knoxville and fish our hearts out and represent our school."
Young Harris struggles, finishes fifth
It was a tough day for Clint McNeal and Brad Rutherford of Young Harris College, as the anglers slipped two notches to finish fifth with a total of 19 pounds, 2 ounces. The anglers started the tournament by placing fourth on day one with 9-0 and rose to third on day three with 8-14. McNeal caught a single bass weighing 1-4 on day three.
The anglers had fared well by throwing topwaters and flukes at schooling fish on days one and two, but they could not find such activity in the final round. With today's wind much lighter than the previous two days, Rutherford surmised that the baitfish were being herded into the areas where they had previously found schooling bass. Without the food concentration, the predators were not forming their feeding groups.
McNeal said he was thankful for his one fish: "That fish came five minutes before we had to come in. We stopped on one last place and hit it just to try, and it paid off. We were worried that we were going to come in with a goose egg."