April 9, 2011 by Gary Mortenson
MURRAY, Ky. - Well, they did it again. After winning the 2009 and 2010 FLW College Fishing Southeast Regional Championships as well as the inaugural 2010 FLW College Fishing National Championship, it appeared that there was nothing left to accomplish at the collegiate level for University of Florida teammates Jake Gipson and Matt Wercinski. But not wanting to simply rest on their laurels, Gipson and Wercinski did something that may not ever be duplicated in the history of college fishing - they went out and won back-to-back national championship titles.
To be sure, it's an accomplishment for the ages.
"This is what your dream about," said Gipson. "And to pull it off, it's just a great feeling. To win the first ever national championship was something very special because nobody can ever take that away from you. But to win it a second time, especially with how little we had going in practice, it's pretty amazing. Some of my friends told me this year that we could do it. But honestly, I didn't think it was possible. I thought that we might be able to get back into the top five. But to win it again, I'm not sure it's even sunk in yet."
And quite frankly, in the end, the contest really wasn't close. Although the Gators leapfrogged from fifth place to first during the second day of tournament action on Kentucky Lake, they only clung to a 1-pound, 11-ounce lead. But by the time the final weigh-in had concluded, the University of Florida had won the title by nearly 4 1/2 pounds - an impressive feat to say the least.
So what's the secret to their success?
"We're best friends, we fish hard and we're a well-oiled machine," said Gipson. "The key is that we work really well together. We both fish from the front of the boat. Matt's left-handed and I'm right-handed so we can stand shoulder to shoulder when we fish. We also rarely fish the same bait. I might tie on a certain type of bait looking for a big bites and Matt might just be targeting keeper fish with another bait entirely. We just work really well together."
However, if truth be told, the Gators didn't have a ton of confidence heading into the most important event of the season.
"We had a terrible practice and I think we only caught one keeper the whole time," Gipson said. "So on that first day we just decided to go fishing and try to have fun. Luckily for us, on the first day we pulled up to an area and caught three fish right away and that gave us confidence for the rest of the week."
According to the Gators, they targeted bass using a two-pronged approach.
"We're able to find an area where we could catch fish early in the morning and that freed us up to run around the rest of the day trying to find new water," said Gipson. "We basically spent the morning targeting rip-rap off fairly steep banks where the fish were moving up to feed. I'd throw a Strike King KVD Sexy Shad and Matt would target fish on the outside with a Zoom Baby Brush Hog. Later in the day, we'd target secondary pea gravel points. Matt would usually throw the same bait and I'd switch up to a Strike King 1/2-ounce green pumpkin jig."
For their first-place efforts, Gipson and Wercinski received $50,000 cash, a Ranger 177TR with a 90-horsepower engine wrapped in school colors for their school's bass club and $25,000 for the University of Florida - for a total prize package valued at $100,000. However, as an added bonus, the duo received an automatic berth into the Forrest Wood Cup - one of the most prestigious bass-fishing championships in the nation boasting a top prize of $600,000 - which is scheduled to be held Aug. 11-14 on Lake Ouachita in Hot Springs, Ark.
While most college anglers would be in awe of fishing against some of the nation's best pros, Gipson and Wercinski said they are excited to have yet another shot at a Forrest Wood Cup title.
"It was really nerve-wracking the first time around," said Gipson. "And I'm definitely going to spend more time using my practice days better to try and figure out a better strategy. Just to be back at the Cup is going to be an awesome experience. But I'd love to do a lot better than last year."
Wercinski - who will fish on the co-angler side while Gipson fishes against the pros at the Cup - said he can't wait to get back as well.
"Last year I didn't catch a fish so I'm looking for a bit of redemption," he said.
In the end, the Gators acknowledged that this week has been a dream come true in almost every way imaginable.
"This is about as exciting as it gets," said Wercinski. "How could you not be excited to be standing up here as champions?"
"We put in a lot of hard work and a lot of effort, so this means a lot to us," said Gipson. "We just had an amazing week. And a very fortunate week as well."
LSU Shreveport snares runner-up spot
Although the LSU-Shreveport team of Zach Caudle and Joe Landry did everything they could to wrest the title away from the University of Florida, in the end, they came up a tad short. But to be sure, it wasn't for lack of effort. After recording double-digit stringers all three days of the championship for a grand total of 37 pounds, 2 ounces, the duo managed to walk away with second-place overall and $20,000 in prize money - not bad for a couple of college kids.
"Overall I'm satisfied. We fished hard, we're very consistent, we didn't lose a fish all week and we finished in second place every day," said Landry. `I just wish we had a chance to compete against these guys more often. Jake and Matt are great fishermen. And they earned it. We would have had to have caught 16 or 17 pounds today to beat them so you have to give them credit. We're really happy we wound up catching what we did. Really, everything went as well as it could for us all week."
The LSU-Shreveport team, which probably had the most vocal fans by far of any other team in the finals, said they walked away from the championship with a host of memories and invaluable experiences.
"We're just super excited," said Caudle. `We won $20,000 and that's just awesome. We also learned what it's like to fish with so much pressure. You really have to learn to handle the stress when you're fishing in a championship like this. I just feel really lucky right now."
"It's just another chapter in our fishing careers," said Landry. "We also have to credit a lot of our success to our family and friends. Those guys, a lot of them, were out on boats watching us the entire tournament. And that meant a lot to us as well."
The LSU-Shreveport duo said they targeting bass adhering to sloping banks with chunk rock using a combination of Zoom Speed Craws, Jewel finesse jigs and Strike King red-eye shad.
"We just had a great time out there," said Caudle. "It's an experience I'll never forget."
Auburn nets third place
After finishing in third place during last year's national championship, Shaye Baker of Auburn University wanted nothing more than to compete once again for a championship title. In the end, he got his wish and once again, he finished the championship in third place - a stellar feat to say the least.
"It would have been awesome to win but it was great getting back into the top five," said Baker. "It's really been a blessing to have been a part of this again. I've been part of this sport from the beginning (in 2009) and that's pretty special to me."
"We had a good run and we gave it all we could," said Baker's partner Jordan Lee. "And we saved our best day for last."
The Auburn University team said that throughout the week they landed the majority of their catch by targeting bass almost exclusively with a mini B-Bug crawfish imitation bait. However, in the end, the team's total weight of 36 pounds, 3 ounces left them a little less than 2 pounds out of second place.
But for their efforts, the team walked away with $10,000 in prize money.
"It was just a great experience," said Lee. "Hopefully I'll be back next year."
N.C. State snares fourth place
Although they started the day in fifth place and squeaked into the finals by a less than 1 pound, the N.C. State University team of Ben Dziwulski and Kevin Beverley managed to move up to fourth place overall by the end of the finals, despite missing some key bites for the third day in a row.
The team ultimately parlayed a total catch of 28 pounds, 13 ounces into $10,000 in prize money as well.
"It was a struggle out there today," said Dziwulski. "We missed a couple of opportunities but that's pretty much been the story for us all week."
However, although they weren't able to walk away with the tournament title, they did achieve some satisfaction in knowing that they improved upon their 2010 national championship performance.
"Last year was awful for us," said Dziwulski. "We were in seventh place after the first day but then we caught zero fish on day two. And we decided this year we weren't going to let that happen again. It definitely felt great to be fishing in the finals and to put some fish in the boat today. Hopefully we'll be back next year."
CNU finishes fifth
On the final day of competition, the Christopher Newport University team of Joe Wilkerson and Ryan Ingalls finally ran out of magic. Although they were one of the smallest schools (student population 4,793) and probably least well-known colleges in the entire championship, they turned in a performance worthy of any school in the nation. However, in the end, their total catch of 25 pounds, 8 ounces was only good enough for fifth place.
"It was a tough tournament," said Wilkerson. "We had two really good days of fishing but unfortunately, today we laid an egg."
Although they struggled to with only one fish in the finals, the team said the championship was an invaluable experience.
"This is really awesome," said Ingalls of competing in the finals. `It was definitely really exciting. We tried as hard as we could but we struggled today. But in the end, I think our finish should at least bring some good awareness for our school."
For their efforts, the team walked away with $10,000 in prize money and the respect of college anglers throughout the nation.
Meet the 2011 FLW College Fishing National Championship teams
National Guard FLW College Fishing rankings