Live now : Walmart FLW Tour 2016 Lake Okeechobee

Lehew stakes his future on the Tour

Rookie pro Shane Lehew holds up two Lake Okeechobee bass.

He's qualified to fish, but don't look for Shane Lehew at the 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship next month on South Carolina's Lake Keowee. Instead, expect him to show up with a big sack of bass that he's caught in the Walmart FLW Tour stop at nearby Lake Hartwell the same weekend.

In winning the FLW College Fishing Wheeler Lake Invitational last spring, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte angler earned a ticket to the 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship. However, since then fate intervened in the form of a sponsor with deep pockets that offered to fund Lehew through his rookie season of the Walmart FLW Tour instead.

Shane Lehew fires out a cast Friday morning. "The opportunity came from a company that doesn't want any publicity," says Lehew, who's majoring in criminal justice at UNC and plans to earn his degree next fall. "For me to be able to fish in the Tour is a once-in-a-lifetime chance; and I decided to go for it. How well I do this year will say a lot about my goal of being a professional fisherman."

So far, so good; Lehew finished 24th in the season opener at Lake Okeechobee, a body of water that can be a heartbreaker for even veteran pros. The 25-old angler is also hedging his bets by fishing the Walmart Bass Fishing League's North Carolina Division. That circuit's first tournament was staged on Lake Norman last weekend, and Lehew placed second with 17 pounds, 10 ounces. His grandfather, Larry Lehew, won the event with a 19-3 stringer.

Shane's father, Troy, is also an accomplished bass angler and kindled his son's enthusiasm for the sport. When he's not fishing or working these days, however, Troy looks after the family tackle business, Shane's Baits, whose top pro staffer is someone near and dear to his heart.

Had Shane and a partner been able to fish the National College Championship, it's safe to assume that they would have done credit to their school. In 2013, at Beaver Lake, the 49ers lost to champions Paul Clark and Brett Preuett of the University of Louisiana-Monroe by less than a pound. In winning the Wheeler Lake Invitational last May, Lehew and Eric Self overcame 44 schools from through the Southeast, including the best of the Alabama college-fishing juggernauts from Auburn and the University of Alabama.

"I hate it that I can't fish the National Championship," admits Shane. "Fishing the college series was really good for me. I learned a lot from the other guys and just the whole experience made me a better fisherman and competitor."

So it's goodbye Keowee and hello Hartwell; Lehew is focused on the Tour and taking advantage of his big break. He hopes to attain two career goals that seemed years away when he was learning his craft as a member of the UNC fishing team not so long ago: Walmart FLW Rookie of the Year, and a 2014 Forrest Cup contender.

Though he lives relatively close to Hartwell, Lehew's only fished the lake a couple of times, and that in the fall. Still, it's the sort of lake that suits his experience and expertise, as do Beaver Lake and Kentucky Lake, and might move him closer to his goals.

"I would describe myself as a power fisherman, at least in preference, and I like to fish big baits and cover water," notes Lehew. "But you have to know how to do a lot of things well to succeed at the Tour level. My biggest weakness is having to fish really deep water and I hope I'm not faced with that this spring. Otherwise, I feel pretty comfortable fishing most of the lakes on the schedule this year."

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