April 21, 2013 by Gary Mortenson
ROGERS, Ark. - They thought they blew an opportunity of a lifetime. Heading to weigh-in on the final day of the 2013 FLW College Fishing National Championship, University of Louisiana-Monroe teammates Paul Clark and Brett Preuett could only think about what might have been if they'd been able to land that fifth fish. Sure they had their chances. But in the end, they realized that only bringing four fish to the scales would almost certainly doom their prospects of winning the greatest tournament of their young careers.
And then their weight was announced - 12 pounds, 4 ounces. In an instant, the three-day, 40-pound, 3-ounce haul by the Warhawks suddenly vaulted them into the lead with only two teams standing before them and the title. As luck and fate would have it, both remaining teams - Angelo State (4 pounds, 8 ounces) and the University of Alabama (4 pounds, 7 ounces) - finished with a whimper.
Due in large part to a Herculean effort on day two - where ULM brought a whopping 17-pounds, 6 ounces to the scales to leapfrog from well outside the top 10 to the third qualifying position heading into the finals - Clark and Preuett were now champions.
And rightfully so. After surviving a brutal day of fishing on Beaver Lake, a body of water which shut down bites across the board on the final and most crucial day of competition for most teams, ULM will now go down in the history books as 2013 FLW College Fishing National Champions.
Not surprisingly, the team couldn't have been more elated with the unexpected and most joyous outcome.
"I might have a heart attack and you might have to call and ambulance," said Preuett, who was left nearly speechless after winning the title. "I really didn't think we had that much weight."
"We knew we had a couple of good fish, but we're fishing for that fifth fish for like three hours. I told Brett that if we got that fifth fish, we could win this and if we didn't, we weren't going to win the title. We really thought we only had something like 10 1/2 pounds. Right now, I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
Making victory that much sweeter was the fact that the team overcame a series of crucial missteps on the final day.
"I was so upset because we lost a couple of good fish," said Preuett. "Then we went three hours without a bite and I wound up breaking my rod in half. We really had some bad luck at the end of the day and I kept telling myself, `That's just fishing.' But I knew if we lost the title because of that fifth fish it was really going to hurt. I was just hoping that a team was going to (run away) with the title so we didn't have to feel bad about only bringing in four fish."
Fortunately for ULM, that didn't happen. In the end, the team won the title by a margin of 9 ounces - meaning that every single catch all week long was crucial.
"It was really tough out there today," said Preuett, a resident of Pineville, La. "During the last hour we caught five 14-inch fish (one inch short of the minimum allowed), lost a good one and broke my rod. So yeah, we didn't expect this."
ULM said it began the day targeting largemouth with a combination of Alabama rigs and Wiggle Wart crankbaits. But when that didn't work out as planned, the team decided to change gears.
"We figured something out at the end of the day and started fishing the back of coves," Preuett said. "Then we switched over to fishing a Shaky Head."
"I broke out a Shaky Head and started fishing it on (light) line," said Clark. "And that's when I caught my biggest fish of the day."
In the end, it turned out to be just enough. For their efforts, the team walked away with a $30,000 prize package as well as an automatic berth into the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup, to be held Aug. 15-18 on the Red River in Shreveport, La. Clark will fish in the Cup as a boater and have a chance to fish for a top award of $500,000. Preuett will fish as a co-angler in the contest.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Preuett and Clark - both Louisiana residents - are well versed at fishing the Red River, the site of the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup.
"I only live an hour and a half away so I'm going to be spending every weekend for the next three months (practicing) on the Red River," said Clark, who currently resides in Monroe, La. "It's going to be an opportunity of a lifetime."
In light of all the ups and downs over the past week, Clark's teammate seemed to sum up the entire experience perfectly.
"I'm just glad we're here," said Preuett. "It's been one heck of a ride."
UNC-Charlotte nets runner-up prize
In fishing, with every story of jubilation there is also one of heartache. And today, the heartache rested squarely on the shoulders of Shane Lehew and Adam Waters of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Although the team started the day in fifth place, it appeared that their day-three catch of 13 pounds, 5 ounces, the largest of the finals, would be enough to propel them to the title. Alas, it was not meant to be.
"You always want to win, but we got second place in the national championship and we caught a really good bag. So you can't ask for much more than that," said Lehew, whose team finished with a three-day total of 39 pounds, 10 ounces. "We had a couple of 2-pounders that I wished we could have culled, but we fished to win. So I'm proud of our team."
While most teams traversed large sections of Beaver Lake in search of their quarry, the 49ers stayed relatively close to the marina. And it almost won them the title.
"We fished probably no more than 400 yards from Prairie Creek marina," said Lehew of Charlotte, N.C. "We're primarily targeting rocky bluffs and two main points. We're fishing an A-rig and a swimbait mostly, sitting in 25 feet of water. The fish were mainly coming out of 15 feet. Like I said, it was a good day. We were 2 1/2 pounds behind (the leaders) so we knew we had to make up some ground. But we probably caught 15 keepers at least today. In fact, we caught more keepers today than any of the previous two days. So it was a good day - except that we didn't win."
For their hard work and determination, Lehew and Waters took home $6,000 in winnings.
"Overall it was a good week," said Waters of Denver, N.C., whose team managed the only five-fish limit in the finals. "It was a lot of fun. We had a great time and we made the top five of nationals. So you really can't complain."
Auburn nets third
As the only school to qualify for the finals of the national championship every single year since the inception of FLW College Fishing, Auburn University once again made its mark. But like the previous teams (third place in both 2010 and 2011; and fourth place in 2012) Auburn couldn't quite bring home the ultimate title. But that hardly diminished the accomplishments of this year's squad of Jordan Lee of Cullman, Ala., and Shane Powell of Dothan, Ala. Using a total catch of 34 pounds, 3 ounces, Auburn landed in third place overall, winning $3,000 in the process.
"It's been a great three years for me," said Lee. "I made it to the finals of the national championship three years in a row. We didn't win the title today, but that's how it goes."
To be sure, it was a frustrating day for many teams in the finals, including Auburn.
"Today was rough to say the least," said Powell. "The (operative) word was `slow.' There was no rhyme or reason to what the fish were doing. The lake changed again today. And you would just pull up to something and hope to get lucky. We caught four fish on three different lures. It was a grind out there, just one of those days."
"It was tough," echoed Lee. "Nothing was working at all. Our fish just completely shut down. And I think I know why. The reason was because as the water warmed up to like 60 degrees, the fish started to come up to bed. And they were just thinking about spawning and really didn't want to eat. The lake was really in a transition phase so it was really tough to get a bite. I probably made 2,000 throws and only had a chance to set the hook maybe three times today. And that's frustrating. We didn't even have a fish in the boat until 11 a.m."
The team tried a combination of A-rigs, jerkbaits, Wacky rigged worms and flipping techniques but could only muster a final-day catch of 7 pounds, 4 ounces.
However, despite their frustrations, both Lee and Powell acknowledged the accomplishment of beating out hundreds of teams to qualify for the finals.
"Today was rough to say the least," said Powell. "But it has been a fun week and we have nothing to be ashamed of."
"We're not very familiar with this lake and we still smoked them on the first day and had a pretty good day yesterday," Lee said. "And our school made it to the finals for a fourth straight year. So we're proud of that."
Crimson Tide falters in finals
After leading the national championship over the first two days of competition, University Of Alabama teammates Dustin Connell of Clanton, Ala., and Logan Johnson of Jasper, Ala., finally met their match. And, like many of the teams, their biggest foe turned out to be Beaver Lake itself.
"Man, this might have been the toughest day of fishing in my life," said Connell.
After landing nearly 30 pounds over the first two days of competition, Alabama couldn't even muster a 5-pound bag during the crucial final day of tournament action - a fact which pretty much derailed the team's chances at a title.
"When you have so much on the line and there is nothing you can do about it, it's really discouraging," said Connell, who acknowledge that his team pitched an A-rig pretty much all day to little or no avail. "We had to grind it out all day long. We tried new water but just couldn't make it work. We also lost three or four fish, so it was really disappointing. I'm glad we led the first two days, but it's my last college tournament and I really wanted my first college win."
While the team's disappointment was obvious, Alabama did walk away with $3,000 in winnings as well as the knowledge that at least for two days, nobody in the nation did it better.
Angelo State grabs fifth
Although Angelo State teammates Ethan George of San Angelo, Texas, and Josh Seale of Breckenridge, Texas, qualified for the finals in second place, the duo seemed to suffer a similar fate as Alabama. Only able to bring a final-day catch of 4 pounds, 8 ounces to the scales, Angelo State dropped to fifth overall in the standings.
"To sum it up, the true Beaver Lake showed up today," said George, whose team registered a total catch of 32 pounds, 9 ounces. "And there wasn't a lot you could do about it."
The team said that the key to its struggles was the fact that its largemouth bite completely dried up.
"Only spotted bass bit today," said George. "We're on a big-fish pattern. We're using big baits but we didn't catch a single largemouth. And that hurt us. It was a grind all day long."
The team said it targeted drain systems in channels off the main lake using a combination of deep-diving crankbaits, swimbaits and football-head jigs.
"We're fishing in about 30 feet of water looking for those deeper drains with rock, wood and shade," added George. "But looking back, we wouldn't have changed up anything we did today. We fished the way we needed to fish to win."
In the end, the team said it had few regrets.
"The last three days have been amazing," said Seale. "Today was disappointing. But you can't go fishing three straight days in a Ranger boat and be too disappointed. Our school got some great exposure. We had a lot of fun. And we made it to the finals of the national championship. And not too many teams can say that."
Ultimately, Angelo State netted $3,000 in winnings.
For a complete list or results, click here.
Coverage of the FLW College Fishing National Championship, hosted by the Rogers Convention and Visitors Bureau, will be broadcast in high-definition (HD) on NBC Sports Network when "FLW" airs June 9 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET. The Emmy-nominated "FLW" television show is hosted by Jason Harper and is broadcast to more than 564 million households worldwide.