YOUNG HARRIS, Ga. — Brad Rutherford almost missed out on the bass fishing competition of his life: the Aug. 1-3 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship hosted by his school, Young Harris College in Young Harris, Ga.
Ditto for Matthew Peeler. Best friends and college roommates, Rutherford and Peeler have been a team for about a year in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series. But when they competed last January in the Southern Regional Conference event in Florida, they fell short of qualifying for the Championship by less than a pound.
At the time, they didn’t know that the 2013 Championship would be on Chatuge Reservoir — a lake they know very, very well — or that their college would host the event. B.A.S.S., owner of the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series, made the site announcement Feb. 28.
“That day was as high as you can get and as low as you can get at the same time,” Peeler said. “We were hosting the Championship, it was on Chatuge, but we weren’t fishing in it — yet.”
Peeler’s “yet” stemmed from knowing he and Rutherford were entered in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Wild Card event in June, which gave College Series anglers a second shot at qualifying. Rutherford and Peeler invested about 16 days of practice time on the Wild Card fishery, Alabama’s Pickwick Lake.
“We threw everything else on our fishing schedule out the window,” Peeler said. “We never considered not getting to Chatuge an option.”
“I had to get to Chatuge, so I was willing to do what we had to do,” said Rutherford.
And they nailed it. They were the fourth of 13 Wild Card teams to join the other 55 teams that had qualified through the five Regional Conference events across the county.
And now they’re one of 68 teams that will compete for three days next week for the ultimate collegiate title and trophy of bass fishing. The Top 5 will be awarded $17,500 in cash and prizes, including a $2,500 cash award from Carhartt to the winning school’s fishing team.
Also at stake is a chance at a Bassmaster Classic berth. The eight anglers from the Top 4 Championship teams will qualify for the Carhartt College Bassmaster Series Classic Bracket, which will be held in September. One of those eight anglers will win an entry in the 2014 world championship of bass fishing on Lake Guntersville in Alabama. The collegiate showdown will be in conjunction with the Sept. 27-29 Toyota All-Star Week, a Bassmaster Elite Series event in Muskegon, Mich.
As sweet as a Classic berth would be, it isn’t in Peeler’s sights. For him, it’s all about winning on Chatuge, a victory that would bring prestige and recognition to Young Harris College.
“Being in the Classic would be unbelievable, no doubt, but my main goal right now is to represent my school well,” said Peeler, who graduated in May with a degree in business and public policy and is working at a bank in his hometown of Williamson, Ga. “If we have an opportunity to advance to the bracket, we’ll talk about that after the Championship. But now I want nothing more than to say we won for Young Harris.”
Rutherford also would love to bring honor to his alma mater — the Lavonia, Ga., native graduated last week with the same degree as Peeler — but unlike his best friend, Rutherford also has a dream to turn pro.
“I’d like to try it,” said Rutherford, who is considering his career options. “A Classic appearance would go a long way, and I’d like to get into the Opens (Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens).”
But right now, both are primed to show off their adopted home lake. Chatuge is full of spotted and largemouth bass. Tournaments there have needed about 30 pounds to win, both anglers said. That’s in prespawn conditions, when the largemouth bite is more of a factor. But the spotted bass hold their own on Chatuge.
“The potential for an absolute trophy spot is on every cast. The lake’s healthy, and a lot of fish and a lot of quality fish will be caught. It’s an excellent fishery,” Peeler said.
Rutherford knows Chatuge almost better than does Peeler.
“I’ve fished it almost every day since I was a freshman,” Rutherford said. “It fishes just like my home lake, Lake Hartwell. Lately I’ve been going to Lake Lanier to practice because it is a lot like Chatuge.”
He said a kicker largemouth added to four decent spotted bass could be the winning formula.
“The creeks are better for largemouth this time of year,” he said. “The water stays cool, and the weather’s been cooler than normal. Chatuge will produce, even in August.”
Chatuge isn’t a large fishery — it’s about 13 miles long, stretching across the Georgia-North Carolina line — but the size is deceiving, Rutherford said.
“I’ve been in 100-boat tournaments, and still it fishes big,” he said. “The fish are everywhere, not schooled up like on a river,” he said. “You can fish in many different places.”
He hasn’t been on Chatuge for almost a month: it’s been off limits since June 27 to Championship anglers. They will be allowed back on the water July 27 for five days of practice.
Rutherford said he and Peeler might not be on the lake all five days. Rutherford, who has Championship experience — he finished 10th with another teammate in the 2012 event in Arkansas — knows other competitors will be watching where he and Peeler go and what they do. Rutherford’s plan is to check out the current conditions, but to keep the productive spots under his hat.
Fans are invited to watch how the game plays out; all Bassmaster events are free and open to the public. The teams will launch their boats at 6:30 a.m. ET Aug. 1-3 at The Ridges Marina in Hiawassee, Ga. (GPS help: 3499 U.S. Hwy. 76, Hiawassee, GA 30546). For the first time in the Championship’s eight-year history, the weigh-ins will be on a college campus. Weigh-ins are set to begin at 3 p.m. ET each day at Young Harris College (1 College St., Young Harris, GA 30582).
All 68 teams will compete Aug. 1 and 2. Only the Top 5 teams will return to Chatuge on the final day, Aug. 3.
While the anglers compete, fans can go to the no-admission Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Expo on campus each day beginning at 1 p.m. ET. College Series sponsors will display their products and provide demos. The local hosts of the event, Young Harris College and Towns County, Ga., will also have a presence.
Fans can track the angler’s progress online at Bassmaster.com. Features include live streaming video of the weigh-ins, real-time leaderboards, from-the-water blogs, photo galleries, BASSCam videos and daily results. All access is free.
TV coverage of the Championship will air in August on ESPNU in two parts. The first will be Sunday, Aug. 11, noon to 1 p.m. ET. The second part will air Sunday, Aug. 18 in the same time slot. They will be preceded by an Aug. 4 show from noon to 1 p.m. ET that recaps how the anglers qualified for the Championship through the five Regional Conference events.
Follow the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bass and on Twitter using hashtag #collegebass.