October 15, 2011 by David A. Brown
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - If anyone ever needs a template for tournament success, just check out Ryan Watkins and Andrew Upshaw's winning performance at the National Guard FLW College Fishing Texas Regional Championship, presented by Mercury.
From the tournament's beginning they talked about keeping their heads down, focusing on their game and not sweating what anyone else was or was not doing. This was their message when they led day one with 21-5, when they slipped to second a day later with a smaller bag of 14-11, and when the final weigh-in saw them sack up a huge limit of 26-6 that set a new record for the largest single-day catch in a College Fishing regional.
In the end, their potent combination of work ethic, self-confidence and productivity delivered a convincing win with a three-day total of 62-6 and a winning margin of 9-11. Consider also these stats: Watkins and Upshaw caught limits all three days, they were the only team to break 20 pounds and their third and first-day catches were the event's heaviest two bags.
"We've been in this sport a long time and we've competed against a lot of great anglers," Watkins said. "We know that moments like this are few and far between. The feeling is unexplainable and I'll just thank the lord above for giving me this blessing."
Throughout the event, Watkins and Upshaw caught their fish on crankbaits. Their day-one fish preferred a custom chartreuse/blue sexy shad model, while a Strike Pro Big Bubba lipless crank in crawfish pattern did the trick. In the final round, a Strike King Series 3 crankbait in sexy shad tempted the winning fish.
"The fish were changing every day," Watkins said. "They moved up, they moved out and just paying attention to what the fish were doing, we knew we had to change baits because there was so much pressure (on the lake), we had to do something different. We just kept chunking and grinding and it worked out for us.
"We lost a lot of fish before we got started (catching), but we looked at each other and said `We have a lot of faith in the man upstairs,' so we just kept chunking."
Watkins said that he and his partner fished three main areas. One was a ledge in four to six feet with rock beds, another had brush with a depth range of four to 12 feet and the third was stretch of bank in two feet with scattered rock groupings. All produced, but Upshaw said the hard stuff proved most rewarding.
"The story of the day was rocks," he said. "We found the isolated rock beds off the bank and that was the best thing. In the fall, these fish start to feed; they're getting reading for winter. Rocks give them a lot more area to go feed because the baitfish move across these rock beds and the fish can sit there between the rocks and ambush their prey.
"A brush pile can only hold maybe one or two fish, but you can put a whole lot more fish on a rock bed than a piece of wood. The fish replenish better because the deepest part of the lake was right near (our spots)."
Aggies Shafer and Brown rally for second
Hometown team Andrew Shafer and Weston Brown got off to a strong start with a day-one weight of 18-9 that put Texas A&M in third place. Day two saw the Aggies struggle to find consistency but they managed to hold their position with a bag weighing 14-14. Today, Shafer and Brown roared back with their best bag of the tournament - a limit of 19-4 that pushed them up one notch to finish second with 52-11.
Shafer summarized the makings of his team's big finish: "I would say persistence and (continuously) pounding the spots. We slowed down a lot and just fished flawlessly today. Yesterday, we missed some bites but today we just fished (clean). We concentrated and we knew what we had to do.
"We knew we had to get at least 20 pounds to have a shot (at winning) and that was our goal all day. We got close to that."
Like day two, Shafer and Brown caught all of their final-round fish on plastics - shaky heads with finesse worms and Texas-Rigged Zoom Speed Craws. Around 8 a.m., the latter produced a kicker that went about 6 1/2 for Brown.
"Once we got that big one in the morning, we thought that might have a shot at it," Brown said. "We knew we needed a couple more big ones. We got our last big one with 20 minutes left to fish."
Bates and Collins slip to third
Two days of consistent quality - 19-0 and 19-15 - would put Texas A&M's Kyle Bates and Cody Collins in first place after day two. Both days, Bates boated big kickers of 9-12 and 6-7, but Somerville's generosity dried up today and the anglers from Aggieland managed only four fish for 8-6 and dropped two notches to a third-place finish.
Misfortune arose early as Collins made a cast with his most productive crankbait and snagged a gill net that would rob him of this key lure.
"I think that really played on our minds, but it didn't affect our fishing that much," Bates said. "We had caught a lot of fish on that bait the previous two days, but today, our spots had just been beaten up and I just don't think there were any fish in the area anymore."
Bates and Collins spent their final day fishing a flat bordered by deeper water. They were banging crankbaits off the brush piles, as they had done for two days. Bates said that, despite the minimal action, they decided to live or die by their game plan.
"That may be one of my weaknesses - I'm kind of stubborn. It worked for two days before; I thought it would work today. We didn't want to waste any time making a risky move and have it completely fail, so we stayed conservative and pretty much did what we had done the two previous days."
LSU finishes fourth
Moving up from sixth place on day one, LSU's Timothy Morris and Richard Murdock entered the final round in fourth place. After a tough day in which they caught four keepers for 9-12, they ended fourth with 39-1.
Morris said that he and his partner caught their keepers on Luckycraft and Excalibur square bill crankbaits around rocks. Today, they found that the Excalibur's wider wobble was most effective. Showing a battered bait to the crowd, Morris explained that the chipped paint and haggard appearance came from close contact with the hard environment.
"This bait used to be a square bill, but now it's a round bill," he joked.
Murdock noted that he and his partner had found their best bites in the first couple hours of days one and two. Day three presented a lean morning and they struggled.
"We've been relying on the really early bite and it just didn't happen today," he said. "It was slow all day. We noticed it was getting close (to the end), so we picked up a shaky head and some other lures. We caught a few shorts on a deeper diving crankbait. We tried some other lures, but we weren't 100 percent successful."
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi takes fifth
Jacob Heath and Kennedy Schwartzburg, of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi caught three fish that weighed 7-15 and ended in fifth place with a tournament total of 36-1. The anglers have made the Texas Regional three years in a row, but this was their first top-five finish.
"We had one goal coming in here and that was to make the National Championship and we achieved that goal (with a top-five finish)," Heath said. "We could have zeroed today and we would be walking out of here with smiles on our faces, pumped up, heads held high. We're ecstatic right now."
Schwartzburg said that medium-diving crankbaits in two to four feet of water produced the majority of his team's fish. Today, the lack of wind put a damper on that plan. Heath, who fished a jig part of the day, described a dramatic moment with their biggest fish of the day.
"I pitched a jig at the fish and he missed it so I pitched it in there again and hooked him," he recalled. "I fought the fish to the boat and when (Schwartzburg) netted it, the jig popped out of the fish's mouth right when he scooped it."