Less than two years ago, Cole Sands and his Bryan College partner Conner Dimauro shattered records on their way to a College National Championship title on the Harris Chain of Lakes.
Now, Sands is on the verge of qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series through the St. Croix Bassmaster Opens presented by Mossy Oak Fishing.
Highlighted by a 10th-place finish at the first Southern Open on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and a 4th-place at the first Central Open on Ross Barnett, the Tennessee native entered this week’s Northern Open at Oneida Lake in 5th-place in the overall Opens AOY standings.
“I want to make it and I feel like I am ready to make it to the Elite’s if I can just have a couple good tournaments,” Sands said. “I am a little worried about this one. I need to survive this one. I feel like this is one I could either be in the Top 10 or way down.”
If he were to qualify for the Elites, he would become part of the impressive wave of young anglers (like Patrick Walters, Jacob Foutz and Cody Huff to name just a few) who fished in the Strike King Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops.
This week will be a true test for Sands, who is fishing in his first true Northern smallmouth tournament. So far, he is on track to pass as he is unofficially tied for 8th on BassTrakk with 16-0 as of 12:30 p.m. E.T.
In preparation for his first bout with Northern smallmouth, Sands spent a few extra days on Oneida that he normally would for other tournaments.
“I usually only practice two and a half days for these tournaments, but I am sitting good in the points and I have never been up North,” Sands said at tournament registration on Wednesday. “I wanted to do well in this one so I got here Friday and crushed them the first few days I was here. I got on a great largemouth deal and a great smallmouth deal, but the past two days I went back and checked everything but I couldn’t get a bite.”
Unlike some of his competition, Sands said during tournament registration that if he does well in this tournament, he will likely have several largemouth in his bag.
“If I do well in this one, I will have some big largemouth in my bag. I am going to go after smallmouth to start with. It seems like if you fish for smallmouth or fish for largemouth, you are still catching a little bit of both. I think you will see some good mixed bags weighed in (Thursday).”
Even during college, Sands wanted to fish the Bassmaster Opens, but stuck strictly with the College Series to gain some valuable on the water experience. In his first season as an Opens boater in 2021, Sands logged two Top 15’s in three Southern Opens, but opened the season with a 150th-place finish at the Harris Chain to fall out of contention for the Elite Series bid.
“I really used the College Series as a learning platform and I felt really prepared coming into these Opens,” he said. “I wanted to fish the Opens, but I didn’t think I was quite ready. Last year I came very close to making it but bombed the first one at the Harris Chain, the one I should have done well at. I had a 6th and a 12th for my other two finishes. The college circuit has prepared me for these Opens and given me a head start.”
After graduating with a Masters from Bryan College, Sands has turned into a full time guide on Lake Chickamauga while also signing up for all nine 2022 Opens. His guide business has proved more valuable to his tournament success that he originally expected.
“The main thing it has helped me with is confidence,” he explained. “Chickamauga is a great lake but it is also a tough lake too. Just having that confidence, no matter if it is the last 30 minutes and you don’t have a fish, that you are still going to catch a good bag (is critical). And just being on the water. You can learn so much about fish behavior.”
While he has an excellent skill set for a young angler, Sands noted that divine intervention and instincts have guided him in the 2022 season as well. A miserable practice turned into a Top 10 at the Kissimmee Chain while a gut feeling to throw a frog on a crowded Ross Barnett led to his best Opens finish in his young career.
“I gotta give credit to God on that one,” Sands said. “I got 8 bites in practice at the Kissimmee Chain and I pulled up to one spot I had two bites at and picked up a chatterbait and put 22 pounds in the boat in 20 minutes. At Ross Barnett, I had been fishing offshore a little and throwing a Carolina and I just got an overwhelming urge halfway through the day to go throw a frog. That is what got me to the last day. I can take some credit, but there are some things out of my control.”
You can follow Sands progress through the St. Croix Bassmaster Northern Open at Oneida Lake presented by Mossy Oak Fishing on Bassmaster.com. The live weigh-in will begin at 2 p.m. ET every day from Oneida Shores Park.