March 7, 2014 by Gary Mortenson
SENECA, S.C. - Day two proved to be a lot more difficult than the opening round session for the defending national champions on Lake Keowee. For starters, the University of Louisiana-Monroe team of Brian Easton and Nick LaDart had some significant problems with their trolling motor which forced them to head back to the marina and miss valuable fishing time. Secondly, plenty of their key fishing spots dried up today, which caused them to scramble around for alternatives. Thirdly the team only managed to produce a four-fish stringer weighing 8 pounds, 6 ounces in today's competition - nearly half of what the duo hauled in on Thursday.
However, by the end of the day, Eaton and LaDart found themselves - somewhat amazingly - still atop the leaderboard heading into Saturday's all-important final day of competition. With the pressure growing with each passing day as defending national champions, the team finally was able to breathe a sigh of relief after the last team brought their fish to the scales.
"Man, it was tough today," said LaDart. "We had trolling motor problems, battery problems and we had to come back to the marina to get them fixed. We really wasted a lot of time today. The conditions really changed on us as well. The fishing changed. Everything kind of changed. And when we finally had a chance to run to our spots from yesterday, we didn't get a bite."
While the day started off as an almost unmitigated disaster, things turned around as quickly as they had soured earlier in the morning.
"Over the last couple of hours we caught three fish - two in the last few minutes of the day," said LaDart. "And that saved us. We only had six bites all day. And we only had five bites yesterday. I just hope that it's not going to cost us that we weren't able to get that fifth fish in the boat. But we really battled out there today."
Eaton and LaDart did manage to bring four spotted bass to the scales. But the defending champs know that without some quality largemouth kickers, their chances of defending their title will be close to slim and none.
"We got those spots but not the largemouth that we needed," said Eaton. "I think the rain hurt us as well. I just wish we had more time to fish today. It was too little, too late."
LaDart said that although the fishing dried up earlier in the day, their change in luck corresponded almost directly with the appearance of the sun.
"As soon as the sun came out we got our first bite," said LaDart. "On Keowee, the fishing is really starting to pick up later in the day. And I think because of that, this tournament is going to be won during the very last hour on Saturday. Because when that water warms up, the fish really turn on."
The team also said it was throwing reaction baits most of the day, covering as much water as possible.
"The bottom contours are really important to us as well," said LaDart, who didn't want to divulge too many specifics about their particular bait and tackle choices.
However, despite the myriad setbacks today, ULM still believes it has an excellent chance to walk away with a national championship title and automatic berth in the Forrest Wood Cup - the biggest and most lucrative event in all of professional bass fishing.
"Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny so that should really help us," said Eaton. "Today was one of the toughest days I've ever had fishing for sure, but we've made the finals and have a good chance to win. Another good thing is that I think we'll have our areas mostly to ourselves because the other teams that were fishing around us didn't qualify. Overall, we're happy to be in first place. We're happy to have a chance. And that's all you can ask for. But honestly, this tournament is anybody's game right now."
Slippery Rock rockets up the leaderboard
Languishing in 18th place at the end of day one, the Slippery Rock University team of Benjamin Tawney and Tyler Branca knew they'd have to make a big move in today's competition if they were to have any hope of hoisting the national championship trophy on Saturday. And that's exactly what they did. Anchored by a day-two catch of 15 pounds, 13 ounces, the largest stringer of the day, the team vaulted up the leaderboard into second place overall with a total catch of 24 pounds, 5 ounces.
"Yesterday we missed 15 fish and today we only missed five - and that was the real game changer for us," said Tawney. "We really messed up yesterday but we changed some stuff up today, made the right decisions and it worked out. I know we're in the right areas and I really think it's possible that we'll come back with a good limit tomorrow."
However, the Slippery Rock team knows it's not going to be easy.
"The water changes here day to day so it's going to be tough," said Tawney. "We're really going to have to adapt. The sun is going to be crucial for us. And so is the wind. So there are a lot of variables in play."
But regardless of how the finals play out, the team said it was happy with everything it has accomplished so far.
"We came down here one week to pre-fish and we really did our homework. And now it's paying off," said Tawney. "I've known since I was 7 years old that I wanted to become a professional bass fisherman so it feels great to be in this position. I've been waiting for a big break like this for a while. For me, my team and Slippery Rock University, this is really a statement for us."
U of MN nails down top-three qualifying position
The University of Minnesota team comprised of Austin Felix and Chris Burgan rallied from seventh place to third with a total catch of 23 pounds, 7 ounces. And they couldn't have been happier.
"It really feels good," said Felix, of his team's final-day qualification. "It's awesome to be in the finals. Now we're just 2 to 3 pounds off the overall lead. So we definitely have a good chance now."
The team said it has tried to strategize as much as possible over the course of three days. Because of the cold, rainy and generally inclement weather on day one and day two, the team decided to ditch their original largemouth strategy and go hunting for spotted bass in an attempt to stay within shouting distance of the leaders.
"Because it was cold and rainy we decided to target spots in deep water the first two days," said Felix. "We wound up catching them in about 30 feet of water. But now that it's warming up and the largemouth bass are pulling up, I think we're going to change our strategy in the finals. Hopefully we can catch some spots in the morning and (cull) with some largemouths later in the day."
The team said that it has targeted bass with a combination of Shaky Heads and jigs so far.
And as for tomorrow?
"I'm really feeling pretty good about tomorrow," said Burgan.
WVU nets fourth place
Another squad on the outside looking in at the start of the day's competition was the West Virginia University team of Edward Rude III and Mathew Gibson. Sitting in 14th place heading into today's competition, the team rallied with a 14-pound catch this afternoon to bring their two-day totals to 23 pounds, 5 ounces - good enough to earn the fourth qualifying position overall.
"It was an awesome day," said Rude. "We just stuck with our gameplan and it paid off. We didn't get the bites we wanted to yesterday but we went back to the same area and we got them today. We knew there were fish there and thankfully it worked out for us."
However, while qualifying for the finals was a great accomplishment, the team also couldn't help but wonder what might have been.
"We lost two 6-pounders today," said Rude. "And that hurt. But hopefully we'll go out and get them tomorrow."
The team said that fishing on Lake Keowee has been tough all week. And in many instances, the fishing is simply a case of perseverance.
"We just have a couple of areas we bounce back and forth to and try to get one bite at a time," said Rude. "And when we've exhausted those areas, we just go out and go junk fishing."
Heading into the finals, WVU said it likes its chances.
"I feel really good about tomorrow," said Rude. "We're now close enough now where we can make up that weight in one day. Realistically, we have just as good of a chance as anyone to win this."
Young Harris College nets fifth
Like the ULM team, the Young Harris College squad of Furman (Joe) Thompson and Grayson Payne had their fair share of obstacles to overcome today. After a pretty decent day on the water in the early going, havoc struck at approximately 2 p.m.
"We had a lot of ups and downs today to say the least," said Thompson. "At around 2 p.m. our motor started sounding terrible. We could only idle at about 3 mph and we looked at the time and realized that there was no way we'd be able to get back in on time (for mandatory check-in). So we made it out to the middle of the lake and just started waving our hands at anybody who could see us."
Eventually, as luck would have it, a good Samaritan came by and allowed Payne (and his team's stringer of fish) to board the boat and be brought back in on time. Meanwhile, Thompson limped back to the marina with his beleaguered boat, eventually arriving near the end of weigh-in.
However, the important part of the story was that the Young Harris College team, who began the day in third place overall, managed to hang on for a top-five qualifying position with a total weight of 23 pounds, 1 ounce - less than 2 total pounds off the overall lead.
"We didn't do as well today as we'd wanted to and we weren't able to fish the way we really wanted to today, but we made it into the finals," said Thompson. "Now, we're here to win it all. Tomorrow, it's either hero or zero for us - nothing in between."
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 team qualifiers:
6th: Auburn University (Garrett Roberts and Timmy Ward) - 22-14
7th: Chico State (Nick Carrico and Andrew Loberg) - 22-13
8th: CSU-Monterey Bay (Matthew Diaz and Sebastian Resendiz) - 21-14
9th: University of Nebraska-Omaha (Ben Milliken and Ben Kroeger) - 21-4
10th: Eastern Kentucky (Ethan Snyder and Billy French) - 20-2
To view the complete day-two standings, click here
The 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship is presented by Lowrance Insight Genesis College Cup.
Saturday's final 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
After the conclusion of Saturday's weigh-in, the national championship tournament title will be awarded to the college team that has recorded the most combined weight over all three days of competition. Final weigh-in will be held 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 Saturday 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 final weigh in.