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Holy bass! Stephen F. Austin college champs

10/18/2005

  • For more on competive bass fishing, visit Bassmaster.com.

    Imagine, if you, will the "ESPN College GameDay" set on location, albeit in a slightly unusual venue.

    With a rowdy crowd of tailgaters gathering in the background, Lee Corso, fellow analyst Kirk Herbstreit and host Chris Fowler trade their usual inside information and the keys to a stirring comeback victory, along with a good-natured barb or two.

    The conversation might sound something like this:

    Fowler: "Gentlemen, this will be a tough one to win in a venue that can only be described as hostile. …"

    Herbstreit: "Tough? No way, not for a couple of seasoned Lumberjack Texas kids like Sobczak and Garrie."

    Corso: "Not so fast, my friend. Don't forget the Russow-and-Macchia duo from Illinois or Robertson and Chapman from down in Aggieland. They've got the power and the finesse game to come back."

    Fowler: "Fair enough gentlemen. But the key question is this: Will it be the crankbait, the spinnerbait or the jig-and-pig that will rule the day?"

    OK, perhaps not.

    But with or without the "College GameDay" crew on hand, welcome to the world of college bass fishing, a sport proudly displayed Oct. 14-15 during the inaugural College Smash-Mouth Bass Championship on Arkansas' Lake Monticello.

    When that event was over, no complicated BCS computer calculations were necessary to determine the first Smash-Mouth champs — an honor bestowed upon the Stephen F. Austin University Lumberjacks duo of Casey Sobczak and Jonathan Garrie.

    Thanks to a 6.6-pound bass landed minutes into the tournament's third and final round, the two Texans vaulted to a three-round total of nine bass weighing 17.8 pounds.

    That was easily enough to outdistance the tourney runner-up team of Rob Russow and Doug Macchia from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which weighed in a collective tally of 11 bass tipping the scales at 12.4-pounds.

    Texas A&M's Clinton Robertson and Jason Chapman started the final round in the lead but were unable to find the big fish necessary to close out the win for the maroon-and-white faithful back in College Station.

    As a result, the Aggie squad finished in third place with nine bass weighing 11.4-pounds. Where's that 12th Man … err, pound … when you need it?

    For those wondering what the College Smash-Mouth Bass Championship is all about, it's an event that pits two-man bass teams from colleges around the nation. The event's eventual championship duo is determined by the largest cumulative weight tallied at the weigh-in platform.

    And what exactly do these college bass anglers get for their efforts?

    As amateurs, the earn nothing more than a collection of great memories, the accumulation of more fishing knowledge, the satisfaction of knowing that they're college angling's best bass-fishing team and, for some, the chance to take a step closer to the dream of a pro career.

    But while these anglers might be amateurs in a technical sense, they fished more like seasoned pros — what with having to line up sponsors, researching a new body of water from a distance, setting up their tackle and boats and making key decisions during crunch time.

    They even had to learn to be flexible when Hurricane Katrina's unwelcome wrath forced a postponement of the event from late August and a move from Alabama to Arkansas.

    With a 16- to 21-inch slot restriction in place on the 1,520-acre Drew County impoundment, the angling teams that came from Stephen F. Austin, Illinois, Texas A&M, Purdue, Kentucky and Iowa all had to carefully select their fishing strategies when they arrived in the Razorback State.

    More than one team decided to target Monticello's more numerous under-slot fish and take a chance at the weigh-in platform by weighing in limits of smaller fish.

    On the final morning of the tourney, however, Sobczak decided to swing for the fences by targeting the over-slot trophy bass for which the lake is well known.

    "I had three rods set up for Carolina-rigging and I grabbed the one with the bigger bait," Sobczak said. "I told Jonathan that I was going to use the bigger bait and go for the bigger bite."

    With Garrie concentrating on catching under-slot fish and Sobczak going for over-slot fish, it didn't take long for that strategy to pay off.

    "About 15 minutes into the final day, I caught the 6.6 pound bass," said Sobczak, a 22-year-old junior from Spring, Texas, who is majoring in marketing.

    "As soon as I set the hook, I couldn't budge him and felt him swinging. I started yelling, 'Big fish, big fish, big fish!'

    "After the third or fourth time of saying it, the fish came out of the water and we knew it was a good fish."

    Garrie, a 23-year-old Baytown, Texas, senior animal-science major, admits he and his Lumberjack partner were able to breathe much easier after the fish was landed.

    "I caught the first keeper on my second cast and he caught that big fish on his fourth cast or so, so it took a lot of pressure off," Garrie said.

    With the ESPN Outdoor cameras recording the on-the-water drama, a touchdown-like celebration ensued once the fish was safely aboard.

    "As soon as he (Garrie) lipped him, we were high-fiving," Sobczak said. "The adrenaline was rushing so much that I don't remember much after that.

    "We measured the fish and put it in the live-well and high-fived again."

    In a moment reminiscent of Mike Iaconelli's dramatic last-second winning catch during the 2003 Bassmaster Classic on the Louisiana Delta, the cameras zoomed in last weekend on a visibly shaken collegiate angler trying to regroup after his big catch.

    "I grabbed the bait and tried to rehook it and I couldn't because I was shaking so much," Sobczak said. "I looked at the camera and said, 'I can't do it, I'm shaking too much.'"

    For his part, Garrie said the cameras actually helped him to relax in the boat.

    "I figured the whole camera thing would bother me a lot more than it did, but it actually calmed me down a bit," Garrie said.

    "That helped in fishing a big tournament like this, where I'm feeling the pressure because in anything I compete in, I want to win."

    For Illinois/Urbana-Champaign angler Rob Russow, 19, of Brookfield, Ill., the process of fishing for a big-tournament crown in front of TV cameras could someday help the undecided major decide his future career plans.

    "We'll have to see how that goes, but after being in the boat, getting miked up, and having a camera in the boat, it's definitely a big adrenaline rush that makes me want to keep coming back for more," Russow said.

    Clinton Robertson, 23, who grew up in the Rio Grande River community of Del Rio, Texas, near bass-rich Lake Amistad, already knows what his future livelihood will include.

    That's because the Texas A&M graduate student is studying fisheries ecology and management and hopes to become a professional fisheries biologist instead of the next Ken Cook of BASS fame.

    "That would be great (being a pro angler), but I really love my job," Robertson said. "I think I'd do more good by being the biologist rather than being a professional fisherman.

    "I want to help conserve our natural resources. The pro anglers do it, as well (as biologists), but I want to be a front runner and have my hands in it."

    Doug Macchia, the Illinois teammate of Russow, knows that one thing he wants to see in his future, pro angling career or not, is the expansion of college bass fishing.

    "I would certainly love to do it (be an angling pro) but, right now, I know I have a long way to go before I'm that good," said Macchia, 22, mechanical-engineering student from Darien, Ill.

    "But I definitely have a desire to keep myself involved in college bass fishing," he added.

    "I grew up fishing the Chicago land area in little ponds for bass. But it was not until I got to the University of Illinois and joined the bass club here that I got into tournament angling.

    "I think you have to credit college bass fishing; we're making new tournament anglers out here and promoting the sport a whole lot."

    And that's something worth talking about, even without the presence of the "College GameDay" crew.

  • For more on competive bass fishing, visit Bassmaster.com.