College: Blame it on the moon?

CULLMAN, Ala. – Blame it on the super moon.

Blame it on the spring equinox. Heck, blame it on both if you like (the astronomical phenomenon did occur Wednesday, after all, which happened to be the first day of spring.)

But make no mistake about it – something is causing the Smith Lake Smith bass to transition as the Carhartt Bassmaster College event presented by Bass Pro Shops heads into its third and final day here in north-central Alabama.

Anglers from 74 colleges and universities in 28 different states descended upon Smith Lake earlier this week not knowing exactly what to expect by way of fishing patterns. And truth is, even the 12 remaining teams in this, the second College Series tournament of the 2019 regular season, likely would admit they aren’t necessarily dialed in on the Smith Lake bass

That might come as a surprise to some who have watched J T Russell and Porter James of the University of Montevallo grab the tournament lead with a two-day total of 38-pounds, 10 ounces.

Montevallo is only 85 miles south of Cullman and both Russell and James fish on Smith Lake often. The duo weighed the heaviest bag of the tournament on Friday -- a five-bass limit that totaled 20-9 and included the heaviest bass of the event (a 6-7 largemouth Russell caught only five feet from his boat.)

He and James have a 4-5 lead on their nearest competitors, which certainly plays in their favor. But rather than find a limit of spotted bass this morning and then hunt big largemouths to improve their creel, the Montevallo anglers said they’re “swinging for the fences” on Saturday.

Some of that may be youthful exuberance and only time will tell if it’s a gamble that pays off. But one can’t help but think Russell and James know their best chance to win this tournament is to continue picking off big bass in a variety of ways and in a variety of locations.

They have, after all, been forced to scramble like that the entire tournament.

At one point on Friday, Russell and James had 15 different rods on the deck, each rigged up with a different lure. Russell called it “junk fishing,” and said that despite his team’s lead, he and James actually have struggled to catch bass on Smith. The Montevallo duo caught only seven keepers on Friday and a day earlier, they went three full hours without so much as a nibble.

James said every time he thinks he’s onto a pattern, something shifts. And they’ve crisscrossed the lake more than once this week looking for honey holes and trying techniques to help their cause.

Montevallo teammates Cal Culpepper and Mason Waddell, meanwhile, are proof that fortunes can change in a hurry when bass are in transition as they appear to be now. Culpepper and Waddell were in 97th place after Day 1 with a 9-11 limit. Then they more than doubled that weight with a 20-5 bag on Saturday which vaulted them 92 spots and into fifth place overall.

“I think the fish are moving up,” Culpepper said. “They’re definitely getting ready to spawn. I don’t know if there’s any locked on beds yet, but we’ve heard rumors about that. We’ve definitely seen some that are ready to spawn.”

Clemson’s Derek Freeman and Caleb Allgood are in fourth place with 31-5 through two days, but they’re not exactly sure how. They just kept adapting to changes they saw and it paid off.

“Absolutely nothing has been the same,” Freeman said. “We caught them one way in practice, and a different way on the first day (of the tournament.) (Friday) we did something completely different again. It’s typical springtime fishing; a lot of changes. You have to stay on top of it.”

The remainder of the tandems who survived the cut from 250 teams to 12 include, second, Lucas Murphy/Mitchell Gunn, Grand Valley State University (Mich.,) 34-5; third, Trevor McKinney/Ethan Jones, McKendree University (Ill.,) 32-0; sixth, Dax Ewart/KJ Queen, Bethel University (Tenn.,) 27-12; seventh, Jason Felter/Joseph McClosky, Bethel, 27-8; eighth, Luke Lamb/Wilson Smith, Bethel, 27-6; ninth, Nolan Minor/Casey Lanier, West Virginia, 27-3; 10th, Joshua Gruen/Riley Blair, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, 26-12; 11th, Trevor St. John/Bailey Fain, Bryan College (Tenn.,), 26-11; and 12th, Aaron Denny/Williams Mathews, Grand Valley State, 26-3.

The 12 teams will split $8,500 in cash prizes for their college bass programs, with the winning team on Smith Lake earning $2,500 for its school.

Anglers blasted off from Smith Lake Park in Cullman at 7 a.m. today. They’re due to check-in at the park at 3 p.m. and will make their way to Wallace State Community College for the final weigh-in, which is expected to begin about 3:45 p.m. today.

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The tournament is hosted by the Greater Cullman (Ala.) Chamber of Commerce.