March 6, 2014 by Gary Mortenson
SENECA, S.C. - At the 2013 FLW College Fishing National Championship, a little known ULM team comprised of Paul Clark and Brett Preuett stunned the collegiate bass-fishing world by taking home the tournament title and out-fishing a number of powerhouse universities in the process, including Auburn, Alabama and UNC Charlotte to name just a few. Cut to the 2014 national championship where the latest incarnation of ULM, Nick LaDart and Brian Eaton, were attempting to do their university proud and turn in the best performance they could as defending national champions.
As it turned out, they did just that during Thursday's opening-round session on Lake Keowee - and a whole lot more. Bolstered by a total catch of 16 pounds, 9 ounces, the University of Louisiana-Monroe team of LaDart and Eaton steamrolled to the top of the leaderboard and gave their alumni something else to cheer about. As the inimitable Yogi Berra once said, "It's deja vu all over again."
And the team couldn't have been happier - or more relieved.
"We're under a lot of pressure today," said Eaton. "We're the defending national champions but for us, personally, this is the first time we've qualified. So yeah, there was some pressure to perform. Everybody knows our (school's) name now. So we knew we couldn't blow it. It's definitely exciting to be where we're at. Because after practice yesterday, I really didn't we'd be able to come back with 16 pounds. So yeah, we're happy."
However, that didn't mean it was easy. With fierce winds, frigid temps and generally miserable conditions dominating today's landscape, the ULM team had to put their heads down and brave the conditions - as well as the pressure - in order to grab the top spot in the tournament today.
"We had five bites all day long - three spots and two largemouth," said LaDart. "And it took us all eight hours to get them. We just kept running back and forth to five or six areas trying to stay out of the wind."
The duo said they concentrated as much as possible on following the baitfish around - as Lake Keowee is stocked full of blueback herring, the prime forage for bass in these waters.
"The key is following the bait around because if there's bait there, you can definitely find some fish," said Eaton. "That doesn't mean those fish are easy to catch. But you need to find that bait to have a chance. We probably ran 30 or 40 miles today and caught our fish on three different baits at a bunch of different depths. We're all over the place. We caught fish anywhere from the bank to 35 feet."
"And with the blueback herring, those fish are moving every day," added LaDart.
Given Friday's forecast, which is calling for steady, cold rains throughout much of the day, the ULM team knows it's not going to be easy to duplicate today's haul.
"Every day is going to be different here, so you really have to adapt," said Eaton. "It's going to be tough to produce that weight again, but if we just get the right bites, I think we should be all right. I know the weather is going to change everything tomorrow. But at least we figured out something late in the day so I think we know the areas where the bigger fish are."
However, LaDart said the team can't simply rely on their current fishing hotspots if they are going to have a chance to hoist the tournament trophy come Saturday.
"I really think we need to expand upon the areas we already have to win," said LaDart. "As of right now, I think it's going to be hard to keep our spots a secret."
While the team was understandably pleased with their performance, the duo said the pressure hasn't really abated.
"Sometimes you'd like to be the hunter instead of the hunted," said Eaton.
CSU Monterey Bay nets second
Over the past few years, it was no secret that West Coast teams have generally had a poor track record when it came to FLW College Fishing National Championship bass-fishing competition. However, today, the Cal State University-Monterey Bay team of Matthew Diaz and Sebastian Resendiz decided to finally do something about it. Using a total catch of 15 pounds, 6 ounces, Diaz and Resendiz served notice to the rest of the field that the West Coast is back - and a force to be reckoned with going forward.
"It was a good day, I'm happy. Fifteen pounds is a good. And if we can back it up tomorrow with a 9- or 10-pound bag we should be in really good shape," said Diaz. "We figured out something in the last hour of practice and that really helped us. There were definitely some boats in our area today but we're doing something totally different than the rest of them."
But like most teams, CSU had to grind it out all day long in order to come back with the totals they did.
"It was basically one bite here, one bite there all day," said Diaz. "We caught a couple first thing in the morning and we used probably two or three key baits. But that was about it. Our goal is to just get five bites. And that's going to be our goal tomorrow as well."
However, with the forecast calling for another day of grim conditions, how does the CSU team feel heading into Friday's competition?
"I actually think that front coming through is going to help us," said Diaz. "We're not really fishing any structure. We're just making a lot of casts. So hopefully thing will work out for us."
Young Harris nails down third
Using a total catch of 13 pounds, 8 ounces, the Young Harris College team of Furman (Joe) Thompson and Grayson Payne managed to stay within range of the leaders heading into Friday's competition.
"We're happy," said Thompson. "We had a strong start, got the jitters out of the way and we're right there in the hunt. I think we're able to (pre)fish a little more than some of the other teams and we've fished really hard. And so far, it's working out."
However, the Young Harris team did acknowledge that today's weather conditions were far from ideal.
"We planned on running around a lot more but we wound up staying close to the marina because of the wind," said Thompson. "Basically we caught what bit today. We've found some good fish today but pretty much any change in the weather will be welcomed. Ideally we'd like to have some sun as well. And hopefully tomorrow we'll get to run around some more."
According to the duo, the team has plenty of areas to choose from.
"We have about 200 waypoints and we're able to rule out some of those spots today. But we have plenty more areas to go to if we need to," said Thompson. "In the morning we're fishing shallow and following those fish deeper as they move throughout the day. We're fishing anywhere from 4 to 40 feet and throwing about every bait you can think of. And hopefully we can get them again tomorrow."
Hardin-Simmons grabs fourth
On the strength of a 12-pound, 1-ounce catch, the Hardin-Simmons University team comprised of Randy Sullivan and Hubbell Allen found itself with a top-five finish after the first day of competition. However, the team admitted that today was hardly a banner day on the water, despite their ultimate finish.
"It was tough out there today," said Sullivan. "It was definitely not an easy day of fishing. The fish just weren't in a biting mode so that made it tough. We actually wound up ditching our original plan and doing something else. I'm still confident. But we have a long ways to go."
The good news for the team is that, late in the day, Sullivan and Allen stumbled onto an area that just might pay huge dividends over the next two days.
"We covered a lot of water today," said Sullivan. "And we wound up finding this one area that has the potential to produce some really big fish. I just wish we could have figured this out a little earlier. But overall it was a pretty good day. I'm happy with what we found."
Sullivan said the team threw a jerkbait almost exclusively to land the majority of their catch, although the team did try to mix in an A-rig with minimal success.
University of Nebraska-Omaha scores top-five finish
Rounding out the top-five team finishers was Ben Kroeger and Ben Milliken of the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The duo ultimately recorded an 11-pound, 9 ounce catch to grab fifth place overall heading into Friday's competition.
Not surprisingly, the team echoed the sentiments of many who argued that Lake Keowee was far from in a giving mood today.
"It was a grind out there. We had to fish really hard just to get five bites. It was not fast and furious by any means," said Kroeger. "But we didn't have a fish in all of practice so we're happy."
Milliken said that despite the weather, the team didn't spend a lot of time sitting around.
"We covered a lot of water today and we've been learning something new every day," he said. "I think we're fishing deeper than most teams. We wound up catching all of our fish on the same bait - soft plastics."
While the team has a little ground to make up, it is confident that if the pieces fall in place, the team can make a run at the title.
"We figured out a little something in practice," said Kroeger. "And I think we can replicate it tomorrow."
To view the complete day-one standings, click here
The 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship is presented by Lowrance Insight Genesis College Cup.
Friday's takeoff is scheduled to take place at South Cove County Park, located at 828 S. Cove Road in Seneca, S.C., at 7 a.m.
Tournament info and logistics
The entire 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship field will compete for two days with the top-10 college teams advancing to the third and final day of competition based on their overall accumulated weight. Teams are permitted to bring as many as five fish to the scales during each weigh-in. After the conclusion of Saturday's weigh-in, the tournament title will be awarded to the college team that has recorded the most combined weight over all three days of competition.
Anglers will take off from South Cove County Park, located at 828 S. Cove Road in Seneca, S.C., at 7 a.m. each morning. Weigh-in will be held at South Cove County Park starting at 3 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. Weigh-in Saturday will be at 3 p.m. at Walmart, located at 1636 Sandifer Boulevard in Seneca, S.C.
Takeoffs and weigh-ins are free and open to the public.
The winning team at the 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship will receive a brand new, fully rigged Ranger Z117 with a 90-horsepower engine and an entry into the 2014 Forrest Wood Cup. The team member fishing as a pro in the Forrest Wood Cup also receives the use of a wrapped Ranger boat and Chevy tow vehicle. The Forrest Wood Cup, the world championship of bass fishing, hosted by the Capital City Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board, will be held Aug. 14-17 on Lake Murray in Columbia, S.C., and will offer the collegiate anglers the opportunity to compete for a top award of $500,000.
Bass-fishing fans take note
Want to watch the inaugural national championship weigh-in live Friday but can't make it in person? Then tune into FLW Live on FLWOutdoors.com shortly before 3 p.m. Eastern time to watch live streaming video and audio of day-two weigh in.