TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — With big bites few and far between, all teams agreed a kicker fish would be necessary to propel their team to victory.
Day One leaders Foster Bradley and Brent Frederick from the University of Alabama managed to do that and more, sacking a respectable 12 pounds, 15 ounces — which blew away the field at the Woods & Water Alabama Invitational by more than 3 pounds.
Hank and Ben Weldon, also from the University of Alabama, pulled in 9 pounds, 5 ounces (a respectable bag on stingy Lake Tuscaloosa), but ultimately finished second.
Falling one spot to third place on the final day was the team of Clent Davis and Chuck Holderfield from the University of Montevallo, with a limit of five bass weighing 8 pounds, 3 ounces. Defending champions Daniel Statum and Rusty Jones from the University of Alabama moved up two places to finish fourth with a final day total of 6 pounds, 12 ounces.
Iowa State University's team of Kyle Wood and Dan Huisman caught 5 pounds, 13 ounces to finish fifth, while Warren Hoffman and Joe Humphries from the University of Alabama brought up the rear in sixth with 3 pounds, 5 ounces.
After only catching solid 1- to 2-pound fish over the first two days of competition, Bradley and Frederick managed to haul in the biggest bag of the tournament by making adjustments and running new water.
They got on the board quickly and had a limit in the first hour, capitalizing on a morning bite that had been virtually nonexistent for them all week. The two anglers from the University of Alabama quickly realized they had to change water, as most of the fish they were putting in the boat were only culling an ounce or two at a time.
"We ended up going way up north and throwing SPRO frogs," said Bradley. "We never really practiced in that area, but we decided that we needed to find bigger fish ... and I guess we just stumbled upon them."
The key bite was in the afternoon, and they consistently boated fish on the frog by covering shallow water with the thickest grass they could find. With the sun high, Bradley and Frederick figured out that the bigger fish had buried up in the shade and landed a 4-pound, 9-ounce Lake Tuscaloosa behemoth.
They estimated they lost two other fish in the 4-pound class that managed to bury up in the thick grass and come off. In the end, they didn't need to worry about lost fish, as they were the only team to figure out a consistent bite for bigger fish.
Bradley is currently leading the club points for the Alabama qualifiers to the Under Armour College Bass Championship and is looking forward to carrying his momentum from this victory into the final qualifier next weekend on Lake Bankhead.
It was brotherly love that carried Hank and Ben Weldon to second place. They boated a big fish for the second consecutive day, but weren't able to cull any of the other small fish in their livewell and ultimately finished second.
"We have grown up fishing the same stuff and we actually fish really well together," said Hank Weldon. "When we pull up on a spot where he [Ben] feels more comfortable running the trolling motor, then he does. When we pull up on a spot where I feel more comfortable, then I do [run the trolling motor]."
Teamwork aside, the Weldon brothers were on bigger fish, catching a 5-pounder on Day Two and a 4-pound fish on the final day by employing a unique technique on Lake Tuscaloosa: "We were fishing up the North [River] on outside bends of deep wood, pitching green-pumpkin Strike King jigs in 15-20 feet of water," said Hank. "The problem came when recreation started at about 10 a.m. and the fish just vanished."
The Weldon brother's second-place finish is even more impressive, considering they organized the event and only got one partial day of practice. With all the logistics and organizational problems inevitably occurring when hosting a tournament, the brothers were still able to clear their minds and fish hard all day, yet walking away with the runner-up trophy.
The one that got away
Every angler has a tale about the one that got away: After Day One, the University of Montevallo's Davis and Holderfield worried a huge mistake of their own would turn out costing them a chance at making the top six cut.
With a small limit in the livewell, Davis landed a spotted bass he estimated to be at least 3 pounds. That is when things began going wrong.
"My partner is trying to cull and [the bass] just jumps out, and bounced off the side of the boat," said Davis. "He spun around trying to grab it and kicked it into the water."
Needless to say, there was some initial tension in the boat, but fortunately, Davis and Holderfield were able to rebound with a nice bag of fish on Day Two, making the top six cut and ultimately finishing in third.
Back in the saddle again
For Joe Humphries of the University of Alabama, it was a joy to just be fishing in this event, let alone making the final day cut.
Coming back from practice on Monday, Humphries fell asleep behind the wheel of his truck while towing his boat home and suffered a serious car accident which left his boat, truck and most of his fishing equipment totaled.
Fortunately for Humphries, both he and his partner Warren Hoffman emerged only physically shaken and didn't suffer any serious injuries.
"We stood on the side of the road for a good five or six hours," said Humphries. "Ended up making it down here anyway, fishing out of a buddy's boat."
He bought a few new rods and reels with money his grandparents gave him following the wreck, but was still understandably upset by what happened; it is a testament to their strength and passion for the sport that these two Alabama anglers were able to come back and finish in the final six.
Many anglers find themselves frequently in similar situations coming back from tournaments or practice after long days on the water with little sleep. On that front, Humphries was very clear and succinct in his advice: "Don't drive when you're tired, folks."