College: Western Michigan takes Day 1 lead at Saginaw Bay

Branden Burrill and Jack Simpson of Western Michigan takes the lead at the 2024 Strike King Bassmaster College Series at Saginaw Bay presented by Bass Pro Shops with 16 pounds.

BAY CITY, Mich. — A small-craft advisory didn’t keep Branden Burrill and Jack Simpson from catching quality bass on Day 1 of the Strike King Bassmaster College Series at Saginaw Bay presented by Bass Pro Shops.

High winds required tournament officials to keep the 196 competing teams confined to the Saginaw River, cutting off access to fertile Saginaw Bay which is considered one of the best fisheries in the country to catch a mixed bag of big bass.

Burrill and Simpson of the Western Michigan University Bass Club didn’t blink when Mother Nature tossed a curveball on Thursday, though. They seized the Day 1 lead with a five-bass total of 16 pounds, giving them a slight lead of 10 ounces over the rest of the field in the final Bassmaster College Series tournament of the 2024 regular season.

Thirteen other teams are within 2 pounds of the lead, making this a wide-open affair heading into the second and final day of competition on Friday.

Burrill and Simpson, both 23-year-old seniors at Western Michigan University, planned to make a long run into Saginaw Bay and make hay with the spawning smallmouth bite. But when they got a text before takeoff that all boats would have to stay in the river on Thursday, they (like most others, presumably) had to scramble.

“We’re both from Michigan, and we’ve fished the bay a good bit before,” Burrill said. “But we didn’t know anything about the river. We’d never fished it before.”

“We had an elaborate game plan for the bay … but we had to scrounge up a game plan at the very last minute,” Simpson said. “We started looking at the map, waiting in line this morning. We talked about a couple areas that might be productive, considering where the wind was blowing from.”

The leaders said the biggest change, fishing in the Saginaw River rather than the expansive bay, was fishing pressure.

“It didn’t matter how far you went, you could see 10 boats,” Simpson said. “You were always fishing behind someone. But there are largemouth everywhere in the river and we adapted to the pressure.”

Burrill and Simpson weighed five largemouth, using a mixture of frogs and jigs in shallow water to catch their best bass. The leaders had a 4-5, tying them with Carson Tucker and Kade MacDonald of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for the lead in the race for the $200 Big Bass of the Tournament award.

“The bite got much better for us about 1 p.m. when the wind really kicked up,” Burrill said. “It was ideal conditions for largemouth, really.”

Even with their Day 1 success in the Saginaw River, Burrill and Simpson said there’s no doubt where they’ll head Friday if they’re able.

“If the bay is open, we’re making the run no matter what,” Burrill said. “That’s where the winning fish are. We put ourselves in a really good position today. But I think it could be hard to duplicate it if we’re in the river again tomorrow.”

Simpson said the rough conditions on Saginaw Bay shouldn’t affect the smallmouth bite they think can lead them to victory.

“Where they are in the spawn right now, with the aggression and being territorial, I’d be more than happy to be able to go after those bedding smallmouth tomorrow,” he said.

Jack Stephens and Jason Qualich, of McKendree University, are in second place with a 15-6 limit. Murray State University’s Adrian Urso and Cobin Templon are third with 14-15. A trio of teams are tied with a 14-11 limit after Day 1.

The Top 10 teams here will split a cash purse of $16,400 for their school bass fishing programs, with the winning duo earning a $4,938 first prize.

The Top 20 teams from Saginaw will advance to the Strike King Bassmaster College National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops, to be held Aug. 22-24 on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina.

The tournament at Saginaw resumes Friday at 5:30 a.m. ET. Weigh-in will begin at 2:30 p.m. ET.

On Sunday, anglers in both the Strike King Bassmaster High School Series and Bassmaster Junior Series are scheduled to compete on the Saginaw system.

Go Great Lakes Bay is hosting the week’s events.