Thirty minutes left

By Cal Culpepper

It was 2:15 on a windy Saturday afternoon during the 2016 Costa Bassmaster High School Southern Open. One of the best lakes in the country, Lake Guntersville, was fishing very tough for a lot of people, us included. With just one 5-pounder in the boat, my partner, Parker Marshall, my boat captain, Todd Culpepper, and myself, knew we had to make some adjustments.

For a lot of people, this is a time you would just say to yourself, “We have thirty minutes left, there’s no way we could make anything happen in that short amount of time.”

Well, I beg to differ.

When we launched our boat at 5 o’clock that morning and began to work our way towards the Guntersville City Harbor, where we would be taking off from, we had no idea what the day had in store for us. We were boat 203 out of 322 other high school teams from across the country, and I couldn’t put into words the adrenaline rush I had pumping through my veins while we waited for our names to be called in the biggest tournament I’ve ever fished. Finally, Hank Weldon goes over the microphone:

“Boat 203, from Harris County High, Cal Culpepper and Parker Marshall.”

It was game time.

The morning didn’t start off as we would liked. We fished a row of docks and broke off a fish in the process. After about an hour of dock fishing, we proceeded up the river and began to fish a grass flat that surrounded a small island. Guntersville is a bass factory, no doubt about it, and a Saturday in April brings many fisherman to the lake. 

As I dropped the trolling motor and grabbed my chatterbait rod, I couldn’t help but notice the many boats that were in the area. It overwhelmed me, but at the same time made me realize that it’s something we have to deal with. I then launched a few casts into the wind with my chatterbait, waiting for that first bite. That first bite came shortly after. I feel a thump and suddenly slack goes into my line.

As I fight this fish, it feels nothing like the bass I know so well.

“No way is this a bass,” I say to my dad and Parker, “I think it’s a catfish or a drum.”

When the head of a 5-pound largemouth bass surfaced, excitement filled my body. Parker netted the fish and in the boat she came. I was more than pumped about boating our first fish of the day. But, with the other 10-plus boats around, I stayed quiet as possible.

This fish gave us momentum, which is very important in tournament bass fishing, and gave us confidence to keep fishing the way we had caught that 5-pounder.

Hours pass, gas empties out of our gas tank as we run from spot to spot in search of a five-bass limit. We were due for check in at 3:30 p.m. and at 2:15, we still only had that one 5-pounder. Excitement from early that morning turned into nervousness. The top ten percent in this tournament qualified for the 2016 Costa Bassmaster High School National Championship. With a field of 322 boats, the top thirty-two would qualify for Nationals. Our goal going into this event was to qualify, and having one fish very late in the day wasn’t going to discourage us. Fishing is a mental game, and if you lose focus it can tear you to pieces.

We arrived at the last spot we would fish that day, a grass flat we found idling. Parker and I began casting our chatterbaits into the strong wind, knowing we had only 30 minutes to make something happen before it was time to go back to weigh-in. Within the first five minutes of being at this spot, I cast on the edge of the flat, and as I’m ripping my bait through the milfoil, I feel that strong thump.

“There he is,” I said.

Parker grabs the net and we boat keeper No. 2. The nervousness from not catching anything since early that morning exits our bodies as we begin casting again. About ten more minutes pass, and I hear from the back of the boat, “Got one!” Parker leans into what you would think was a giant log, until a mouth the size of my head ascends from the waters of Lake Guntersville.

We had boated a 6 and ½-pound largemouth.

Just as the rest of the lake, we had other boats, and even other competitors, surrounding us. We kept calm, put the big fish in the livewell, and kept casting. The clock ticks down faster and faster as we try filling out our limit in these last few minutes. We catch one more 3-pounder out of this area, staying longer than we should’ve, and then we leave.

As the wind hits my face going down the river, I can’t help but think about the three fish we had just put in our livewell in the last thirty minutes. It’s a feeling like no other. The adrenaline pumps through my veins once more before we make it back for check-in just in time. Parker and I thought we had around 14 pounds with our four fish. We felt as if the fifth keeper we couldn’t catch was going to be what hurt us.

The walk up to the weigh-in line was exciting as we make conversation with other competitors. We were next to go up on the stage when Hank Weldon begins to scare the leaders, who had brought in an impressive 24-pound bag of fish. He calls our names and up the steps we go. Parker drops our four-fish limit on the scales and it reads, “16 pounds, 10 ounces.”

I couldn’t believe it. As we grab our fish and hold them up for pictures, Hank Weldon makes us aware that we are sitting inside the cut to go to Nationals with just a few dozen more boats to weigh-in.

We walk off the stage and we’re awaited with many “Congratulations!” and “That’s an impressive four fish limit!” from friends and family. The fact that Parker and I had done what we did in the last thirty minutes shocked us, but if you never give up and stay focused, you can make anything possible.

Other teams weigh-in after us, some caught them good, some didn’t. But, what mattered to us was that after the final boat had weighed in, we were sitting in sixteenth place. We did it. We qualified for our first National Championship.

The texts and calls I received after this had happened humbled me beyond belief. The support we get from our friends, families, and sponsors is something we wouldn’t trade for the world. This tournament and the 2016 Costa Bassmaster High School National Championship are going to be memories we keep with us for the rest of our lives.