CULLMAN, Ala. — Connor Jacob and Sam Smith knew they had a future together in bass fishing, even when they were grade school classmates back home in Illinois.
Looks like the future is now for the Auburn University teammates.
Jacob and Smith won the 2021 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series at Smith Lake presented by Bass Pro Shops on Saturday with a two-day total of 10 bass weighing 33 pounds, 12 ounces. Their tournament-best limit of 18-14 on the final day turned a narrow 6-ounce lead after Day 1 into nearly a 5-pound victory.
The 20-year-old sophomores earned $2,366 for the Auburn bass fishing team and qualified for the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops, which will be held later this year at a location yet to be announced.
“This is good confidence for us,” Jacob said. “We’ve struggled a bit, but we’re fishing cleaner now. We’re fishing smarter and making better decisions. Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”
Jacob and Smith grew up together in Illinois and their friendship flourished through bass fishing. Though they attended different high schools, they joined forces whenever they could in area tournaments, as well as a few Bassmaster High School Series derbies. When it came to choosing a college, they decided on Auburn so they could be closer to the string of first-class fisheries that dot the southeastern U.S.
That includes Lewis Smith Lake, which is about 150 miles from Auburn’s campus. Their sole previous experience together here, however, resulted in a 127th-place finish in a College Series event last February.
“We did have something to prove to ourselves here,” Smith said.
Jacob and Smith had a two-pronged strategy on the 21,000-acre reservoir in north-central Alabama. They began both mornings fishing docks for spotted bass about 40 minutes down-lake. When they had a limit, which they did before 9 a.m. both days, they moved a short distance away to a mile-long stretch of pockets that held trash mats to shield heavier largemouth from the high sun.
Smith did the heavy lifting on the mats, hooking a 4-5 on Day 1 and following with a pair of 4-pounders on Day 2.
“I guess you can call me the ‘Big Fish Guy,’” he said, laughing.
Smith used a Missile Baits D Bomb (green pumpkin) for his biggest catches on the mats, while Jacob used a Missile Baits 4.5 Quiver Worm (in both plum and green pumpkin) with a 1/2-ounce flipping weight.
“It was pretty shallow, and they were hitting the D Bomb before it hit bottom,” Smith said. “The (4 1/2-pounder I caught on Day 1) was on the bottom in about 10 feet of water. But most of the bites were just under the mats we were fishing.”
On the docks, the spotted bass preferred Jacob’s Pacemaker swim jig with a variety of trailers (Keitech, Rage Swimmer, Rage Menace), while Smith used a Stanley Wedge spinnerbait.
The teammates had some doubts about their chances after struggling for three straight days of practice. Almost out of necessity, they decided to try the same techniques they employed last February. Unlike that tournament, when the water was falling, everything clicked this week. Jacob and Smith had approximately 9 pounds on a limit of spots Saturday before upgrading on the trash mats with far heavier largemouth.
“Once we caught a second 3-pounder that got us up to about 15 pounds, we felt like we could make a run at winning this thing,” Jacob said. “We kept saying ‘One more big one’, and that’s when Sam caught his last 4-pounder.”
Hayden Scott and Griffin Fernandes of Adrian (Mich.) College finished second with 28-15. Having already qualified for the College Series Championship, they exclusively targeted largemouth hoping for the biggest bites. They held the lead for most of Saturday afternoon after weighing a 16-0 limit, but were toppled in the end.
The “sink or swim” strategy almost backfired for Scott and Fernandes, who had only three bass in the livewell in the final minutes of Day 2. They rallied with two largemouth, including Fernandes’ 4-5, within earshot of Smith Lake Park to grab a podium finish.
Brooks Anderson and Parker Guy of Emmanuel College finished third with 25-3. Chris Payne and Terry Sentell of the University of Tennessee placed fourth with 24-15, and the University of Michigan’s Paul Tabisz and James Ge, who were in second after Day 1, finished fifth with 24-12.
There was a tie for the Big Bass Award between Garrett Warren and Will Jones of Auburn and Ben Cully and William Gaddis of Carson-Newman University. Both caught a 4-14.
A total of 192 boats from 27 states competed this week, with the Top 10 percent (19 teams) qualifying for the College Series Championship.
The stop at Smith Lake was scheduled originally for April but was postponed following heavy rains last month that caused water levels in the fishery to swell. A Bassmaster Open event also scheduled for the lake was postponed, as well.
The tournament was hosted by the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce and Smith Lake Park.