CORNELIUS, N.C. — Six bites was all it took for Will Nichols and Jamon Phillips of Jacksonville State University to vault from 10th place to the top of the standings in today’s final round of the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series tournament presented by Bass Pro Shops.
Nichols and Phillips weighed a limit of five bass that totaled 16 pounds, 2 ounces — the second heaviest of the three-day tournament. That gave them an overall three-day weight of 37-15 and put them into the hot seats with nine of the 12 duos fishing in the final round still waiting to weigh.
One by one, those teams crossed the stage, but all made quick exits. It was only after Day 2 leaders Jacob Moore and Gilliam Tharpe of North Carolina State presented a bag that contained only two bass that Nichols and Phillips broke into wide smiles and breathed heavy sighs of relief.
Even after they hoisted their tournament trophies into the air, Nichols and Phillips struggled to put their victory into perspective. It’s not often, after all, that a team has only six keeper bites and manages to jump nine spots in the standings to clinch victory.
The JSU duo made up more than 5 pounds on Saturday after starting the day with a two-day total of 21-13. Their catch throughout the week consisted mostly of spotted bass, but the ones they caught Saturday averaged more than 3 pounds apiece, which helped them sneak from behind for the win.
“It still hasn’t sunk in what just happened,” said Phillips, who was competing in his first Bassmaster College Series tournament. “This is an amazing feeling.”
The win for Jacksonville State, which is located in Jacksonville, Ala., was far from conventional. Nichols and Phillips caught only four bass during Thursday’s opening round for a 6-8 total. That forced them to try new things Friday, and it paid off.
“We had to swing for the fences,” Nichols said. “It was either that or we were going home. We got onto something that afternoon that changed things for us.”
That “something” was a pattern that required them to fish stained water in the backs of oxbows and dead-end canals scattered around Lake Norman. They fished primarily with crankbaits the final two days, though they alternated by flipping jigs to structure, including rocks, grass and docks along the shorelines.
Philips had the hot hand on Friday, when red crankbaits produced keeper bites in 2 to 10 feet of water. On Saturday, the backs of canals were active again, and the spotted bass were hungry early. Nichols said chartreuse-colored lures were key on Day 3.
The region was beset by steady rain and temperatures that hovered in the 40s throughout the tournament. The less-than-ideal conditions were hard on anglers, but they didn’t have a significant effect on the bass bite, especially for teams that were flexible.
“It was hard to figure out any sort of pattern,” said Nichols, who has competed in Bassmaster College Series events for three years. “Things changed constantly. We had to do a little bit of everything and cover a whole lot of water to catch the bass we caught.”
Nichols and Phillips won $2,500 for the Jacksonville State bass fishing team. The 12 tandems that made the Top 12 cut to fish on Championship Saturday split a total of $8,500 for their respective squads.
Jacob Louis and Nathan Doty of McKendree University in Illinois finished second with 35-13, and Benjamin Hager and Noah Shaver of UNC-Charlotte placed third with 34-15.
Moore and Tharpe of NC State won the Carhartt Big Bass Award with a 6-13 largemouth they weighed on Thursday. The catch earned them a $500 Carhartt gift card. Seventh-place anglers Chandlar Ellis and Gil Seen of Lander University in South Carolina won a $250 Bass Pros Shops gift certificate for having a 16-1 bag on Day 1 that ranked as the heaviest bag of the tournament.
In all, 256 teams from around the United States entered. The Top 26 duos (10 percent of the field) earned berths in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops, which will be held later this year at a yet-to-be-disclosed fishery.
The tournament on Lake Norman was the first of four regular season Bassmaster College Series events scheduled for 2019. It was sponsored by Visit Lake Norman, Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte.
Other Bassmaster College Series tournaments will take place on Alabama’s Smith Lake on March 21-23, Arkansas’ Bull Shoals Lake on April 25-27, and the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York on June 19-21.