ALEXANDER CITY, Ala. — On Thursday, Russ Johnson and Hunter Schrock of Itawamba Community College locked the keys inside their truck and had to pry the door open with a tree limb after trying unsuccessfully to break their window with a tennis racket.
On Friday, they nearly lost a tire off their boat trailer due to a bad wheel bearing.
On Saturday, despite a week of troubles, they won the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Southern Regional presented by Bass Pro Shops on Lake Martin.
Fishing in a borrowed boat, Johnson and Schrock caught five bass that weighed 14 pounds, 8 ounces and took home the first-place trophies with a three-day weight of 35-9. They finished just 4 ounces ahead of John Davis and Payton McGinnis of the University of Alabama (35-5).
“We saw the lake for the first time last Saturday,” Johnson said. “We fished Saturday, half a day on Sunday and then came back and fished the Wednesday before the tournament. We had about three days of practice, and that was it.”
But one crucial cast during that practice period turned them on to the winning strategy.
“We fish Aberdeen Lake on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway,” Johnson said. “It’s a real, shallow muddy place, and that’s why we decided to go out and try to find some largemouth here on Lake Martin. There were places that reminded us a lot of home.
“We caught a fish on about our 10th cast with a KVD 2.5 square bill crankbait Saturday, and that pretty much set the tone for the week. As soon as we caught the fish, we decided that was what we were going to go with.”
The plan seemed to work better as the week went along — even if their luck and equipment didn’t.
After the key-locking fiasco on the first day, they still managed to catch a five-bass limit that weighed 9-8. Then after seeing one of their trailer tires wobbling at a 45-degree angle the following day due to the bad wheel bearing, they managed 11-9 and made the final-day cut with 21-1.
They fished Saturday in a boat loaned to them by their Itawamba Community College teammates Ty Cox and Jake Houston. They caught 14-8 — easily the biggest catch of the day — by doing the same thing they had done all week.
“We just kept throwing that KVD 2.5 in the sexy shad pattern,” Schrock said. “We didn’t change anything all week. That was all we really knew to do.”
The tournament began with a giant field of 214 boats that weighed in the first two days at Wind Creek State Park. The field for Saturday’s round was trimmed to the Top 26, and a drive-through weigh-in was held at nearby Central Alabama Community College with a format similar to that of the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Johnson and Schrock took the lead early during Saturday’s weigh-in, and it seemed for the longest time that they wouldn’t even be seriously challenged. But the Alabama team of Davis and McGinnis, who entered the final day with the lead, made for a few nervous moments for the front runners, as they were the last boat to weigh in.
Needing an even 10 pounds to overtake the Itawamba team, Davis and McGinnis weighed in 9-11 and missed the victory by 4 ounces with a three-day total of 35-5.
“For whatever reason, the big fish just didn’t bite today,” Davis said. “Where we caught largemouth yesterday, there were spotted bass today. Obviously, they were a lot smaller.”
The second-place finishers used Strike King KVD 1.5 square bills in a crawfish pattern all week.
“This time of year, that’s how you’re going to catch your big bags,” McGinnis said. “We looked for that big bag in practice. We never found it, but we knew that was the way to do it.”
All 26 teams that qualified for Saturday’s round are now eligible to fish the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops, which will be held later this year on a lake to be determined.