YOUNG HARRIS, Ga. — Dave Gullette would be standing in the front row cheering, emailing photos to all his coworkers and otherwise beaming with pride right now to see his son, Michael, and Michael’s teammate, Nathan Martin, in the lead at the 2014 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship on Chatuge Reservoir.
But Dave Gullette, Michael’s father and biggest fan, died in January, right after Michael qualified for the championship.
“We’re dedicating this tournament to him,” said Michael.
“We came here to win it for him,” said Martin.
Gullette and Martin weighed in 14 pounds, 15 ounces Thursday, putting the University of North Alabama team 9 ounces ahead of the second-place Bethel University team of Zach Parker and Matt Roberts.
“I grew up fishing with my dad in Illinois,” said Gullette, who headed south to go to college because UNA was the only school that had both the major he wanted, culinary arts, and a bass fishing team.
And he’s really glad he made that move.
“If it weren’t for this UNA team, I wouldn’t still be in school,” said Gullette. “These last few months have been so tough, but these guys have been there for me. They’ve been really supportive.”
His teammates even gave him a custom rod that says “In memory of Dave Gullette.”
“That rod is always with me, whether I’m using it or not,” Gullette added.
Gullette and Martin still have quite a ways to go before they can proclaim a win, especially with less than a pound of cushion between them and their nearest competitors.
“It’s going to take everything we’ve got and everything we know to bring it home,” said Gullette.
“Today has been so tough,” said Martin. “We only had eight bites all day. I was here last year for the championship, and I got my heart broken. We lost so many fish.”
This time, Martin is determined to have a solid tournament, and he’s off to a good start.
“We’re running three different patterns,” said Martin. “Two of them worked today. Tomorrow, it just depends on the weather.”
What’s helped them so far is that they are specifically avoiding what so many other teams are doing — using the wooden rat that last year’s winners, Tom Frink and Jacob Nummy of AUM, employed to catch 15 pounds a day here.
As for Friday, they’ve got brushpiles all over the lake that they’re planning to hit.
“I’ve got 120 more of them waypointed from last year,” said Martin. “You can never have enough brushpiles.”
Gullette and Martin were working with less practice than most of the other anglers. They got into town over the weekend, but they had to come off the water before noon on two of the three practice days because the boat’s motor overheated and they had to get it repaired.
Yet they still did better on practice time than a couple of others. Jake Gipson of the University of Alabama team only arrived the night before the championship began because he was taking the bar exam. And Jacob Wall and Kyle Schneider of University of Oregon arrived mere hours before the tournament began.
“We’ve been up for 38 hours because of flying in late on some messed up travel plans,” said Schneider.
The Oregon anglers got only a 20-minute nap before going on the water.
“We did manage to get a fish in the last 10 minutes,” said a red-eyed Schneider. “It was on one of the most delirious casts of my life!”
Wall and Schneider’s one fish weighed 2-3, only slightly higher than the average 2-pound bass brought to the scales on Day 1. About one-third of the field managed to catch a five-fish limit, and 12 teams zeroed.
The biggest fish caught was 6 pounds, 7 ounces — and there were two of them. The leaders, Martin and Gullette, caught one of them, and Garrett Cates and Graham Howard of Kansas State University caught the other. The two teams are tied for Carhartt Big Bass honors, which are awarded to the team that catches the biggest bass of the tournament. Martin and Gullette are also in the lead for Bass Pro Nitro Big Bag honors for their 14-15 sack today. If that holds up, the teammates win a $250 Bass Pro Shops gift card.
Day 1 set the stage for the championship, but Day 2 will be a big day for anglers who have a lot of ground to make up. To make the cut for Day 3, the team has to be in the Top 5. The Top 5 teams will compete for the championship trophy, and then the Top 4 teams advance to the 2014 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series College Bracket, Aug. 2-5, also on Chatuge Reservoir. In that event, the anglers will fish individually, and the winner earns a berth in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic.
Competition resumes Friday at 6:30 a.m. ET at The Ridges Marina & Resort in Hiawassee, Ga., for takeoff. The Day 2 weigh-in will be held at Young Harris College at 3 p.m. ET. Stay tuned to Bassmaster.com for updates.