A bittersweet experience

LITTLE ROCK – One definition of the word “bittersweet” is as follows: pleasure mingled with pain or regret.

Here’s the Mercury College B.A.S.S. definition of the word: Fishing one day on a private reservoir for a 50-50 chance to earn a berth in the 2012 Bassmaster Classic, but having to beat your best friend and Stephen F. Austin University teammate to do it.

Bittersweet defined how Andrew Upshaw felt Sunday, competing on a private reservoir near here for six hours Sunday in what ended up being 100-degree heat. He was feeling more sweet than bitter Monday morning, as what he’d done started to sink in. But there remained some pain and regret.

“It’s just overwhelming,” said the 24-year-old Hemphill, Texas, resident. “I’m so proud I can represent my university and all the college anglers in the Bassmaster Classic.”

Upshaw and Ryan Watkins, who teamed to win the three-day Mercury B.A.S.S. National Championship team title on Saturday, followed each other in separate vehicles most of the way back to their homes in Texas on Sunday. They stopped and ate dinner together.

“I felt bad for Ryan,” Upshaw said. “He’s a great fisherman, and I know he’s going to do some great things in the future. That was really hard, because we are best friends. It was very emotional.”

The format for next year’s event will be changed. The top four finishers in the three-day team competition will be seeded in two four-angler brackets to determine the Bassmaster Classic berth. The No. 1 team’s anglers will be the No. 1 seed on each side of the bracket, with teammates from teams finishing 2-4 seeded in opposite brackets, accordingly.

Teammates could meet in the final again, but that won’t be guaranteed next year, as they’d both have win two qualifying rounds against individuals from other teams in order to meet for the chance at the Classic berth.

After acknowledging that the three-day team title – on the Arkansas River, Lake Maumelle and Beaver Fork Lake – was the best way to determine a national champion, Upshaw expressed some disappointment in Sunday’s competition on a “stock pond.” But, most of all, he was disappointed in the direction his emotions went as the day progressed and he had no bass in his livewell.

“I had lost it (his composure) by noon,” Upshaw said.

The final day was set up to be a slugfest. This hour glass-shaped reservoir was specially built and managed to produce trophy bass. It was much more of a technical challenge than Upshaw’s “stock pond” description would indicate. Only five years old, the lake was stocked with “tiger bass” – a cross between northern- and Florida-strain largemouths. It has produced 10-pound-plus bass and has so many bass in it now that the owner is faced with removing several 100 fish less than 18 inches long.

So why couldn’t these two anglers figure it out Sunday, after they had so successfully solved the bass-catching puzzles at three different bodies of water in the previous three days.

Bassmaster Elite Series pro Stephen Browning of Hot Springs loves this reservoir. “I can’t sleep on the nights before I go fishing there,” Browning said.

But he understands how two first-timers to the lake might miss the keys to catching fish there.

“The hotter it gets, the more those fish like it,” Browning said. “But it’s easy to miss. Those fish stay extremely shallow. In July and August, the hottest times of the year, they’ll be one-and-a-half- to two-feet deep.

“They don’t like topwater baits out there. But that little square-billed crankbait is really good.”

Browning’s favorite lure for the lake is a Koppers Live Target Crawfish crankbait in a black-back, chartreuse-belly color pattern. His backup plan is flipping a jig. Both lures are used in the shallow wood cover that has been placed near the banks around the lake.

“The main forage is a coppernose bream,” Browning said. “They stay shallow. They’ll either be suspended in those tree tops along the bank or be right in the dirt.”

Browning last fished the lake on July 1st and had another one of those bass fishing experiences that prevents sleep the night before.

“You had to throw that crankbait right at the edge of the water, crank that reel handle a couple of times and they would hammer it,” Browning said.

This reservoir is technically challenging because of all the structure that has been put in it. There are two large humps built in middle of each bell-shape in the hourglass. A large brushpile was placed in the neck of the hourglass. Treetops populate the shallow water around the edges. All of this was done before the lake was filled.

“You can’t get in a hurry,” Browning said. “You can’t look down the bank, see eight treetops and just go down them, hitting every one. You have to see one treetop, then pick apart each piece of cover in it. You have to pick it apart or else you’ll have a tendency to fish over the fish.

“You can put someone in that lake, and they’ll think they’re going to catch one every other cast, and you just don’t.”

At least you don’t until you’ve figured out exactly how the bass want a lure presented that day.

Upshaw, despite his acknowledged emotional struggles, was starting to figure it out, but he only had 12 minutes left to fish Sunday when he did. He caught both his bass – a barely 12-inch keeper and a two-plus-pounder – on the same treetop within the last minutes of the competition. He was using a Norman Deep Little N crankbait.

Upshaw’s two bass weighed 3 pounds, 5 ounces. The two fish Watkins caught – both around 9:30 a.m., on a bluegill-colored Strike King KVD 2.5 square-billed crankbait – weighed 2 pounds, 10 ounces. Only 11 ounces separated the two best-friends on the leaderboard, as it turned out.

But here’s how identical their two fish looked: Tournament director Hank Weldon was the only person who’d seen the two competitors’ livewells before the weigh-in, which took place at the JM Associates TV studio in Little Rock. And Weldon thought they might weigh exactly the same, requiring a “fish-off” on the Arkansas River later Sunday. Upshaw, who hurriedly put his fish in the livewell in the final minutes, thought he might have only 2-8.

Monday morning, Upshaw was still trying to get a grip on everything that happened Sunday. And he knows he’s still got a lot to prove. Upshaw acknowledged that this first-ever Mercury College B.A.S.S. berth in the Bassmaster Classic carries a lot of responsibility.

“When I first heard about this, I thought it was awesome,” Upshaw said. “Now that I’ve won it, I feel humbled.

“But I’m learning every day. I learned how to fish a river system this week.”

The aftermath has been almost as overwhelming as the win Sunday.

“I owe all of this to my family and a great group of friends,” Upshaw said Monday morning. “I don’t think I’ve been off the phone since 20 minutes after the event.”