Since their sophomore year of high school, Easton Fothergill and Nick Dumke have been tournament partners. Now as juniors at the University of Montevallo, they added an impressive accomplishment to their resumes.
After notching a 29th-place finish in a field of 135 at the Red River, Dumke and Fothergill claimed the 2023 Strike King Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops Team of the Year title with 937 points.
“It still does not feel real,” Dumke said. “I don’t think it will be that way for a while. It has been something we dreamed of since high school. We talked about it before we even knew what our future was going to be. To get it done, we are very grateful for it.”
They edged out their Montevallo teammates Tyler Cory and Scott Sledge by just six points while Campbellsville University’s Morgan Miracle and Jake Thornbury finished third.
With their Team of the Year title, Fothergill and Dumke automatically qualify for the College Classic Bracket presented by Lew’s, an individual, head-to-head style tournament that sends the winner to the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic at Tulsa presented by Toyota.
Fothergill has watched the past three College Bracket champions — Louis Monetti, Tristan McCormick and Trevor McKinney — make their mark on the Classic stage and said he is excited about the possibility of being the next college angler to cross the biggest stage in bass fishing.
“Seeing the past winners on stage, I was sitting in the crowd thinking that would be so cool. For us to be the next guys is unbelievable. I still don’t believe it,” he said.
While a top goal for their junior season, Dumke and Fothergill tried not to think about Team of the Year once the season got going.
“The race was so tight all year long. We tried not to even think about it and not let it mess up the way we were fishing. We just wanted to focus on the moment, just go fishing and not let that idea get in our heads,” Dumke said.
The Minnesota natives’ worst finish of the year was at the Red River. Opening the season with a 17th at the Harris Chain of Lakes in January, Dumke and Fothergill finished 16th at Cherokee Lake before notching their best finish of the season in mid-April, a fifth at the James River.
With four vastly different fisheries at play in 2023, Dumke and Fothergill used different techniques at each stop of the tour to notch their top finishes. Keeping an open mind was key.
“On the drive home from Red River we were talking, and we had a different bait for every single tournament. Keeping an open mind and going with the flow I think was a big thing,” Fothergill said. “We’ve seen so many different things and a light bulb goes off quicker when we see a new fishery.”
Quick adjustments on the water also helped the duo jump up the leaderboard in almost every tournament.
“Day 2 of the Harris Chain was probably one of the biggest bags we’ve ever weighed, and it all happened so fast,” Dumke said. “We figured something out and were able to get into an area we knew had some good fish. We made a crazy bag happen to make a little bit of a comeback.”
On Day 2 at the James River, Dumke and Fothergill were able to throw glide baits and big swimbaits to jump up the leaderboard.
“That was another one where we figured out a new deal and something clicked,” Dumke added. “The first day we had 16 something and then on Day 2 we had 18 something. It was one of those days you will never forget.”
Then on the final day of the regular season, the duo made the decision to totally scrap what they had been doing and head offshore.
“On Day 1, we had a morning buzzbait bite and unfortunately we lost every buzzbait bite we got,” Fothergill said. “The next day, in order to have a shot, we knew we needed big bites. The buzzbait bite didn’t work out either. Late in the day, we ended up going offshore and Nick picked up a shaky head and caught a 4-pounder. That was a turning point for us, and we realized it was still possible.”
With Team of the Year coming down to the last hours of regular season competition, Dumke and Fothergill didn’t think they finished well enough at the Red River to maintain the top spot, but they were pleasantly surprised when the results became official.
“We thought we had lost it,” Fothergill said. “We loaded the boat on Day 2 and were pretty upset. We went back to weigh in and found out pretty quickly we still had a chance. It ended up being us, and it was a super cool experience. We were happy for them, and they were happy for us no matter how it shook out.”
Coming from the northern part of the country, it has taken a little bit of time for Dumke and Fothergill to dial in the southern fisheries. But the chemistry they have built since joining forces in high school, along with the multispecies nature of their home lakes, have helped break down that learning curve.
“We can give a lot of credit to being from there,” Dumke said. “Some states just have river systems and some just have a couple lakes. What’s crazy about Minnesota is, we have so many different types of lakes. We have crystal clear smallmouth lakes and then dirty, shallow largemouth lakes. We have been able to carry some of what we did growing up and apply it down here.”
Fothergill said at this point, he and Dumke are on the same page as far as decision making on the water. A lot of their communication is unspoken, when one picks up the trolling motor, the other knows exactly what it means.
“We know how each other work,” Fothergill said. “It is easy to make decisions on the water because we both are thinking the same thing 90% of the time. That has helped a lot with our success on the water. We are always on the same page.”
Although there is a bit of relief knowing they are already qualified for the College Classic Bracket, details of which will be announced at a later date, Fothergill said he and Dumke will be taking the same approach to the Strike King Bassmaster College National Championship at Pickwick Lake presented by Bass Pro Shops as they always do.
“The National Championship is different from any other tournament,” Fothergill said. “The goal stays the same. We aren’t going to hold back at all, and we are going to shoot for the win.”
The Strike King Bassmaster College National Championship at Pickwick Lake presented by Bass Pro Shops is scheduled for Aug. 10-12 in Counce, Tenn. Around 130 teams will be competing for the title as well the final three berths into the College Classic Bracket.