April 15, 2012 by Gary Mortenson
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Heading into this Sunday's final day of National Guard FLW College Fishing National Championship competition, Ryan Patterson said that he was merely "a small-town kid from Kansas living a dream." By the end of today's weigh-in, Patterson's "dream" turned into one of the most stunning and improbable realities in the history of college fishing. Because his partner and brother ran into eligibility issues leading into the team event, Patterson was forced, per national championship rules, to fish the tournament completely by himself. But in the end, it didn't matter.
Hoisting a tournament-best 18 pounds, 1 ounce on the scales during the final day of competition, Patterson managed to out-gun tournament leaders and odds-on title favorites Matt and Jordan Lee of Auburn University to walk away with the most coveted prize in all of college fishing.
Everyone - including his fans, friends, family, competitors and pundits - were left in a state of both awe and disbelief after Patterson was declared victorious. It was truly one of the most amazing moments in the history of FLW College Fishing, a fact that was not lost on the solo champion.
"Today was just one of those days. I didn't think I had a chance to win," said Patterson, who was clearly emotionally drained by the entire turn of events. "I'm sitting here trying not to tear up right now. It's just been an amazing experience. I'm excited and really proud of the way I fished this lake. It's something I'm going to remember for a long time."
Patterson admittedly had quite the rollercoaster ride to the championship title. In addition to facing 24 of the top teams in the nation all by himself, Patterson had to contend with a number of missed opportunities which almost cost him the victory.
"I only brought in four fish on the first day and today, with about three minutes left, I broke off a 5-pounder at the boat," Patterson said. "Right then, I looked at my cameraman and said, `I just lost $100,000.'"
However, by the end of weigh-in, that fish became nothing more than an afterthought. Patterson actually wound up winning the event by more than 2 pounds by recording an amazing, two-day catch of 46 pounds, 15 ounces.
"I got lucky and got some key bites all week," said Patterson, who was mobbed by friends and family shortly after final weigh-in. "I picked five or six areas that had big fish on them and I just ran back and forth to those places all day long - looking for the big bites and for those areas to replenish themselves."
Patterson said that he targeted bass with a combination of Yum Money minnows in a herring color, Zoom flukes in a Disco Violet color and Megabass jerkbaits. He specifically honed in on saddles on the back of the main-lake islands and isolated cover on barren points.
In addition to winning the $100,000 first-place prize package, which included $50,000 cash, a Ranger 177TR with a 90-horsepower engine and $25,000 for Kansas State University, Patterson also netted an automatic berth into the 2012 Forrest Wood Cup - one of the most competitive bass fishing championships in the nation, slated for Aug. 9-12 on Lake Lanier in Duluth, Ga., and boasting a top prize of $500,000.
"To have the chance to fish in the Forest Wood Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's been my childhood dream," said Patterson. "I couldn't be more excited. Hopefully I'll take that Cinderella vibe all the way to the Forrest Wood Cup."
In the end, Patterson said he couldn't have asked for anything more - with the possible exception of being able to share the moment with his brother, Brandon.
"It just shows you that anything can happen," said Patterson. "I was nervous the whole time but I managed to pull it off. I'm just so happy right now. But I really want to take my hat off to the guys at Auburn, Clemson, Kennesaw State and Virginia Tech. They're really great anglers and great guys as well. I made a lot of good friends this week and want to thank everyone who made this a special event. And I'd also like to say one more thing, `This one's for you Brandon.'"
Clemson snares second place
Although the Clemson University team of Andy Wicker and Harold Turner led the tournament on day one and rallied hard on day three, they couldn't overtake Patterson by the time the final weights were counted. As such, the duo had to settle for second place with a total catch of 44 pounds, 11 ounces.
"I feel good for our team, but I just wish we could have won the whole thing. I really wanted to win this tournament badly," said Turner. "But in the end, I have no real regrets. We fished as hard as we could, we fished cleanly and gave it our all. It was huge just to make it this far. But I'd by lying if I said we didn't want to win. This is a tough one to swallow."
"It was great having my whole family here," said Wicker. "And it was awesome to get into the top five. But once you're in the top five, there is only one place you want to finish - and that's first."
The Clemson team said that it mostly targeted points that showed evidence of schooling fish. Unfortunately, the schooling bass were particularly spooky and finicky and made for a tough bite all week.
"We tried to stay on those points and wait until they bit," said Turner. "If they would have schooled up more, I think we would have done a lot better."
Turner said that the team used a combination of swimbaits, flukes, Zara Spooks and shaky heads to land the majority of their catch.
"We had home lake advantage and that definitely helped us," said Wicker. "I felt bummed out yesterday (because we lost the lead) but I think we came back strong today and made (Patterson) earn it. So, overall, we fished well. We just couldn't pull it out in the end."
For their efforts, the team netted $10,000 in prize money.
Kennesaw State nets third
Although Thomas Frink and Justin Marlow brought out the "rally mullets" in an effort to give them every possible advantage during today's competition, the Kennesaw State University team could only leapfrog from fourth to third place on the final day of competition. But in the end, their sense of humor - as well as their sense of style - scored plenty of points with the fans and made them one of the hands-down crowd favorites.
"It's been an awesome experience," said Frink, who sported a hideously awesome red-haired mullet wig while weighing in his team's total catch of 43 pounds, 7 ounces. "Making the top five was unbelievable. I had a blast all week. It's the best college fishing tournament I've ever fished."
The duo said that they relied heavily on the Alabama rig in the finals, netting six of their fish on that bait alone. They also used a Double Fluke and drop-shot equipped with a Robo worm to help land the rest of their catch.
"We really had to adjust today," said Frink. "We stopped on three new places and caught a fish at each one. For the most part, everything went all right for me."
Not so for partner Justin Marlow.
"It was a real grind out there for me today," said Marlow, who boasted an equally distressing wig onstage in the finals. "I didn't catch anything. And I feel bad because this was (Frink's) last tournament and I was really trying to do whatever I could to help him get that title. And I kind of feel like I let him down a little bit. But fishing in the national championship was definitely an awesome experience. I learned so much from the guys. It was just a great opportunity."
For their efforts, the team netted $5,000 in prize money.
Auburn drops to fourth
Heading into the finals, it appeared that the wind was at the backs of day-two leaders Matt and Jordan Lee of Auburn University. Unfortunately, that wind proved to be a little too much - literally and figuratively - on the final day.
"I'm not sure what happened today," said Jordan Lee. "The wind picked up and I'm not sure if we struggled because of the wind or because our areas just ran out of fish. I wish we had more spots to run to today but we didn't. And I think that really hurt us."
Jordan's partner and brother Matt acknowledged that the day didn't go as scripted.
"We obviously didn't catch that 18-pound bag we'd talked about," said Matt Lee. "The first two days we had a real flurry of activity and caught a lot of bass quickly, but today that didn't happen. It was really a struggle out there for us. We thought that if we kept running enough points, eventually they'd bite. But today that wasn't really the case."
In the end, the Auburn squad had to settle for fourth place overall with a total catch of 43 pounds, 3 ounces.
"We wanted to win, but overall, this has been a great experience," said Matt Lee. "It's so tiring and so great at the same time. It's really so tough even just to get here."
"We're definitely happy to get here," said Jordan Lee. "The other teams in the top five were all great fishermen. And the 25 teams that got here are the best in the nation. So to be included with that group is a real accomplishment in and of itself."
Virginia Tech rounds out the top five
After recording a total catch of 39 pounds, 9 ounces, the Virginia Tech team of Caron Rejzer and Wyatt Blevins found themselves exactly where they started the day - in fifth place.
"We had a better day than yesterday but it was still pretty tough out there," said Rejzer. "We just didn't get the big bites we're looking for. But overall it's been a great tournament. After three years, I finally made the finals of the national championship, so I'm happy about that. Making the top five was a win in my book."
"We caught two striped bass today instead of largemouths and that really didn't help us too much," joked Blevins. "But we won the Ranger Cup and got an all-expense-paid trip to Choke Canyon. We also won the Plano (tackle prize package) so we're pretty happy about that. This was my last tournament and we had a lot of support from friends and family. So it was a good way to go out."