March 17, 2014 by Austin Felix
Editor's note: This is a blog written by Austin Felix who was part of the University of Minnesota team that grabbed the title at the 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship on Lake Keowee just a few weeks ago. I've been lucky enough to have the support of family, friends and my employers over the last 10-plus years, which has allowed me to pursue my dream of becoming a professional angler. It was with that same goal in mind that I joined the University of Minnesota bass team last year. I quickly realized that finishing even moderately well in nationally recognized college tournaments gave me more press than winning any number of regional tournaments back home. I've since made some of the greatest fishing friends and connections in the state of Minnesota, but they weren't easy to come by. Competitive bass fishing is a pretty closed circle when you're starting out. It's full of secrets and misdirections. Most of the people involved don't care to give you the time of day unless they feel they can learn something from you, and that's only proven by showing up day after day and doing well in competition. That's the scenario I mentally prepared myself for all winter, as my teammate Chris Burgan and I prepared to fish the 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship on Lake Keowee. I assumed that Chris and I would be outsiders from a "little school," as far as bass fishing is concerned, and would be treated as such. After all, we were competing against perennial college juggernauts such as the University of Louisiana-Monroe, Auburn, Eastern Kentucky University and Murray State. I didn't expect any sort of high school movie screen bullying, but I was fully prepared to have other competitors be short with us. Boy, was I wrong. I was completely misguided. Mere minutes after Nick LaDart and Brian Eaton, from University of Louisiana-Monroe (ULM), pulled into the parking lot of our shared hotel, we were engaged in a spirited conversation about our previous seasons and their 2014 season, for which they had already qualified for their conference invitational. Such friendly exchanges weren't localized to our parking lot or ULM's team either. Whether in the bag line, waiting at the weigh-in tanks, or at the pre-takeoff meeting, there was an overwhelming amount of positive energy. The evening after the second day of competition is when my feelings of respect and admiration for the other competitors were solidified. Where you would expect all the teams to retreat to their corners - in this case any one of the dozens of 2014 Rangers we got the pleasure of running - and put up barriers, they didn't. Rather, the heightened level of excitement brought us closer together. We seemed to bond over our collective confusion on how to operate these beautiful boats properly. If a team or individual had trouble turning on the navigation lights, wanted a rundown on a livewell system, or expressed unfamiliarity with the new Lowrance HDS Touch electronics, other members of the group quickly came to their aid. It was clear even after the final weigh-in that all the teams desperately wanted to see everyone succeed. Teams that had a rough final day were picked up in spirit by their peers. I was blessed to come out on top and was humbled by how genuine everyone was in his congratulations. Meeting all these teams this week reassures me that our industry is in good hands and the next generation of professional anglers will be incredible ambassadors to the sport. Competition separates us into two-man teams, but our shared passion clearly makes us a fraternity of anglers. The writer's opinions and observations expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of FLW.