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Collings Chasing Childhood Dream at Ouachita

Collings Chasing Childhood Dream at Ouachita

Rookie FLW Tour angler Sheldon Collings isn’t going to make the same mistakes at Lake Ouachita that doomed him at Lake St. Clair and lost him Rookie of the Year honors. This time, at the Forrest Wood Cup and in pursuit of the biggest prize in professional fishing, it’s going to be different.

Collings knows he only needed a steady performance on day two at St. Clair to continue fishing through the weekend and lock up the ROY race. Finesse fishing is his bailiwick, and few lakes set up better for finesse tactics to catch a ton of big fish.

The pressure got to the 20-year-old Oklahoma pro, and instead of staying the course, Collings strayed from his game plan and came up well short of his goal of 15-plus pounds on day two, ending his tournament and any shot at ROY.

“I’m not going to lie, I was so tore up,” Collings says. “It was finesse fishing in clear water. The second day, it hit me really, really hard. I fished the way I didn’t need to fish.”

That kind of pressure isn’t going to sink Collings at Ouachita. He’s been there before, and he’s experienced what it feels like to succumb to those emotions. And for a 20-year-old angler — the youngest in the Cup field — it might just be that experience that teaches Collings what it will take to win an even bigger prize.

Collings let us ride along with him on day three of practice to get a closer look at his preparation and talk a little fishing.

 

Collings launches for practice a little later than usual on day three thanks to a damaged lower unit on his outboard that necessitated some repairs and put him behind schedule. By 8:10 a.m., he’s on the water and making a short run to his first spot of the day. His game plan is simple.

“I’m just going to keep a Plopper or a buzzbait in my hand and turn the trolling motor on 10,” he says.

That’s been the strategy from day one, surprisingly enough, given the amount of deep brush that Ouachita holds. It sets up well for finesse or semi-power tactics, but the same deep brush can also hold mounds of stripers, small spotted bass, walleyes and every other species that calls Ouachita home.

“There’s no point in me going out deep,” Collings says. “This is what I need to be doing. It only takes five bites per day.”

Collings’ shallow-water approach has worked well so far. He caught a limit of 14 pounds on day one of practice, and every day he’s learning more and more about the lake.

 

“I get chills thinking about being here at the age of 20,” Collings says. “Being able to win it would be a dream come true.

“I told my grandma when I was 8 that I was going to be the youngest to ever win the Bassmaster Classic, and this is even bigger.”

At 9 a.m., Collings finally hooks into his first fish, a little largemouth that probably won’t be much help during the tournament but is an encouraging sign to continue fishing shallow with topwaters. 

Ten minutes later, though, it’s time to deviate from the plan as Collings picks up a spinning rod he’s rigged with a weightless wacky-rigged 4-inch Yamamoto Senko.

“I can’t take it,” he says. “I’ve got to get a spinning rod out. That tree looks too good.”

With no luck working the branches of a couple laydowns, the rookie goes back to working a variety of topwaters along the banks of a large pocket with some standing timber, which he suspects might hold some winning fish. He’s getting into a groove until a fray in his line sends his buzzbait sailing and it’s time to tie on a new one.

“I went full-send mode on that one,” he jokes. “There’s probably a 4-pounder down there chewing on my buzzbait.”

 

Family means everything to Collings, and he’s quick to point out how many sacrifices his parents have made to help him chase his dream of making a living fishing professionally. Practicing on Ouachita, for the biggest tournament in professional fishing, makes it easy to keep that in perspective.

“When I was 15 or 16, my parents started home-schooling me so I could fish the BFLs,” he says. “They’ve done everything to help me out, and I’m just so thankful for it.”

Humility isn’t often something one associates with being 20 years old, but Collings has it in spades. He also understands that no matter how important the Cup is, there are some things in life that are far more important, even if it means not pre-fishing Ouachita after the tournament at St. Clair.

On July 14, Collings’ girlfriend, KC, was involved in a serious car accident that left her with a broken back and a long road to a full recovery. Collings spent the next two weeks by her side, forgoing any chance to get out on Ouachita before official practice this week.

“The ones you love are a whole lot more important than money,” he says.

 

Fishing starts to heat up for Collings around 9:45 a.m. He finds a portion of a shallow cut with murkier water, and the topwater bite turns on. He misses a couple blow-ups before finally hooking into a 1 1/2-pounder and sees it has some followers — the first roaming wolfpack he’s seen so far in practice.

At 9:55, Collings hooks into a spotted bass on a 4-inch Chug’n Spook Jr. As he swings the fish into the boat, it spits up a partially digested shad of about the same size as his walking bait. Another clue that could give Collings an advantage in the tournament.

 

At 10:15, Collings finishes running the banks of the shallow cut before idling back to the main lake and preparing for a short run to one of Ouachita’s small marinas. He’s hoping to find some keepers flipping dock slips.

After tossing a Senko and a Whopper Plopper 130 around some slips with no luck, it’s time to head deeper into the cove where there’s some shallow water and a submerged roadbed that Collings is certain will hold some fish.

He ties on a crankbait. There's about 6 feet of water around the roadbed and the remnants of an old submerged bridg. Only minutes go by before he lands a walleye and a couple small spots. He hasn’t come across any big bass yet, but he’s encouraged by the structure and murky water in that section of the lake.

 

Collings estimates it will take 45 or 46 pounds to win the Cup this year. So far, it’s been a struggle finding the kind of fish it will take to hit that mark.

“A 4-pound-class fish is going to go a long way in this tournament,” he says.

At 11:10, Collings decides to fish one more spot before lunch. He heads to the very back of the cove and throws a crankbait next to the bridge pilings and surrounding riprap. He lands a chunky largemouth, though it’s a little too short to be more than a pound.

Still, it’s another encouraging sign, especially since changing weather this week could force more big fish into those shallow, murky areas.

 

At 11:20, Collings decides it's time for lunch. He plans to run up to the river in the afternoon, but the heat of the day calls for a brief stint in the air-conditioned Mountain Harbor Marina’s floating Subway.

Inside, Collings sits down near a number of other Cup participants — all of whom are older and more experienced than Collings.

The rookie doesn’t turn 21 until February, and while age isn’t everything, Collings admits he still gets a little nervous seeing the likes of Scott Martin, Andy Morgan and Bryan Thrift at the boat ramp during tournaments.

“I’ll probably be really nervous for this one,” he says. “But once I get out on the water, I don’t think about it.”

Experience can teach many lessons, and Collings has certainly learned more than his share this year. The letdown at St. Clair taught him to fish the way he knows how to fish, pressure be damned. Ouachita is teaching him some lessons, too, and if he continues taking them to heart this week, he might just experience what it feels like to be a Forrest Wood Cup champion.

Tags: justin-onslow  pre-tournament  2018-08-10-forrest-wood-cup- 

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