Alone but not lonely

One-man team from University of South Carolina-Upstate holds own despite odds

Day One

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — When college bass angler Pete Sherbert learned that his partner Colin Coffman wouldn't be making the 12-hour drive to Little Rock for the 2007 Under Armor College Bass National Championship because of a family emergency, 23-year-old Sherbert did not ask any questions.

Both men knew what Sherbert had to do.

After preparing his boat, trailer and tackle, Sherbert headed out Monday night with his father by his side.

"Nothing is bigger than family," Sherbert said. "I don't care what you had planned on doing."

Working in a hospital over the course of his four years back in his hometown of Spartanburg, the USC-Upstate senior had learned many life experiences helping the elderly and the infirmed.

And Sherbert knew — even if he would be fishing alone in the College Bass National Championship — that he would be helping his friend.

Sherbert, a marketing major with a 3.4 GPA, began the USC-Upstate fishing club less than a year ago. He admitted that a rough freshman year coupled with a fierce passion for fishing year hurt his grades somewhat.

Sherbert took great pride that, despite its short existence, the club had since climbed to five members.

"Being that I'm a senior, I really hope this thing grows," he said. "That would mean a lot."

Coffman, who had qualified for the National Championship with Sherbert, is also one of the club's charter members.

Once College Bass officials learned of Sherbert's situation, they ruled he could fish alone. His partner in the boat at for Day One became an ESPNOutdoors.com writer on assignment to observe him and write about the experience.

Before sunrise on Day One, teams of anglers shared jokes and worked together to prepare for their day.
 

Sherbert, a confident former high school linebacker, was all set. So he began joining conversations and making friends.

After seeing thick smoke emerging from the engine onboard the Oklahoma State University team's boat, Sherbert suggested trying a manual pump to get oil into the engine. The trick seemed to work and the Cowboys thanked Sherbert constantly for his tip.

"Anything I can do to help you boys out, let me know," Sherbert said with a uniquely sincere tone to his light South Carolina mountain accent.

"I hate to see people like that," Sherbert whispered to his impressed boat mate.

The angler sped off, heading for an hour-long run past the David D. Terry Lock and Dam.

"I'd never been in a lock before this week," Sherbert said. "We just don't have 'em in South Carolina. Just reservoirs. But to see that water come up so quickly is really something."

Once out of the lock, Sherbert ran another half hour before turning up a hard bend in the main river channel.

"Where I'm from there's a lot of structure, so we're going to the only place I know where there is some," Sherbert said. "Plus this way I can get away from everybody else."

After a relatively calm run, Sherbert cut off the main engine, pulled out three fishing poles, and eagerly dropped his trolling motor into the water. The South Carolinian had won two Falcon rods the night before at the reception dinner's raffle. Perhaps something like karma played a role in his prizes.

"It's gonna blow out here today," he said, precisely landing a green spinnerbait between a dock's edge and a trot line.

Besides the occasional spinnerbait, a Tequila Sunrise jig with a blue trailer would prove to be Sherbert's weapon of choice for the remainder of the day.

"I call this one a Pistol Pete special, because I make my own jigs," Sherbert said, "And that rod there," he pointed, "has my name etched on it."

Within thirty minutes, "Pistol Pete" had his first bite. The angler had pitched his lure into a brushpile and the fish came off his hook as he attempted to swing it into his boat.

"This is what I wanted to see," Sherbert said. "These bass are holding up close to the cover because it's so muddy out there. I'm looking for that reaction strike."

Sherbert's proficiency flipping drew honest praise from his boat mate (who was more accustomed to the efforts of professional anglers on the BASS Elite Series). The humble recipient shrugged off the compliments instead, asking for on-the-water stories about his bass fishing heroes.

By Noon, Sherbert had managed to find three keepers over Arkansas' 15-inch size limit.

He had also caught six other fish using the very same technique.

"They are either on the corners of docks or back there in the really shallow water," Sherbert said.

And sure enough, he was right. One particular cast, over a brushpile with dock-anchoring cables that guarded the entrance, landed softly in a corner hole.

Sherbert squatted down and watched the hole like an eagle.

The hole erupted in splashes. The fish's back, alone, looked larger than anything he was holding in his livewell. But as the angler tried desperately to pull it over a log, the bass spit the lure.

"No!" Sherbert shouted in a rare burst of anger. "Oh my gosh, no!"

It only took him two pops of his lemon-lime flavored Bubble Yum to get over the loss.

"That's what happens when you're fishing this deep cover," he said. "You can get in, but sometimes you just can't get 'em out."

Just after 1 p.m., Sherbert decided that three fish would be his day's limit. When all was said and done, he had boated 11 in total.

The boat would have to travel back through waters hammered by high winds all day and there would be no telling how long the lock would take, so he didn't want to risk getting back late.

Sherbert made it back in time in plenty of time for the weigh-in.

Day Two

The difference was truly night and day for Pete Sherbert on Day Two of the 2007 Under Armor College Bass National Championship.

Returning to the same docks along Brody's Bend, where he had found success on Day One, the bite was frustratingly off.

"I'm not doing anything different," he said. "The bite is just weird."

Whereas on Day One, Sherbert had caught seven fish by noon, by the same hour on Day Two, he had yet to land a keeper.

"Same jig, same line, same docks," Sherbert said. "Just no bite."

Under high, clear skies and a warm sun, the increase in boat traffic could have played a role. Sherbert hadn't seen one other boat in the same stretch on Day One.

Around the same time that he'd quit on Day One, Sherbert decided that he would return through the lock to fish the grasses closer to the weigh-in site.

"This is fishing," Sherbert said. "Some days are just like this."

There was a hint of resignation in his voice, but upon realizing his tone, he quickly remarked, "But hey, there could be a five-pounder just up the way."

He started back in the direction of the weigh-in.

Before Sherbert arrived at the lock, he stared down a series of posts inside of a canal, just off the main river channel.

"Let's try that."

The move worked.

After switching to a crankbait, Sherbert nabbed a nice, three-pound bass.

"Now, it's on!"

Unfortunately for Sherbert, it wasn't: While he fished the canal thoroughly and aggressively, he could only muster one more keeper.

Soon the Drury University team, who had been headed for the lock, pulled up.

The anglers exchanged pleasantries and rooted each other on.

But the Drury boys had already caught their limit.

All they needed to do now was make it back to the weigh-in on time, but a double barge in the lock put the brakes on everyone.

Sherbert, Drew Sanford (complete with crankbait in head) and Alex Sahliyeh learned that the lock wouldn't be ready to let them pass until at least 2:30 p.m.
 

Anxiety and fear mounted in both boats.

"I really want to weigh these fish," Sherbert said. "If we miss the weigh-in, I guess I'll just have to take some pictures and let them go."

Both boats split from their convention and began fishing jetties while waiting for the lumbering barge to turtle through the lock.

Still no luck.

After Sherbert had almost fallen into the water twice while casting, it looked like he would have to be happy with his two fish at the day's end.

Once the barge cleared the lock, a large bald eagle soared above the anglers waiting in line.

It swooped down, latched onto a fish and flew off.

"That there just made my day," he said. "That was amazing. And that guy catches fish better than I could all day."

Sherbert's total of five fish over both days of the tournament weighed 13-12 pounds and was good for 11th place in the final standings.

Despite the difficulties of the day and of the tournament, "South Carolina" ended his Arkansas adventure with the benefit of experience, having fishing in the National Championship.

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