By Casey O'Donnell
Special to BassFan

The pattern of the very best young anglers qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic through the College Series Classic Bracket is becoming as consistent as offshore structure fishing in the summer. Evident since the first college angler who qualified for the Classic in 2011, Andrew Upshaw, now in his third season on the FLW Tour coming off a Top-10 finish at Kentucky Lake, to the next 2 years when each Lee brother (Jordan and Matt) got his chance on bass fishing’s biggest stage. The Lees are also faring well in the triple-A ranks as both are in position to qualify for next year’s Bassmaster Elite Series through the Bassmaster Opens with one tournament remaining.

This year the cream rose to the top in the form of two former college national champions going head to head the final day of competition on Chatuge Reservoir in Young Harris, Ga. Brett Preuett, the 2013 FLW College Fishing national champion, ultimately edged out 2013 BoatUS Collegiate winner Zack Parker at the end of a 6-day fishing marathon to be invited as the next college angler to compete in the Classic.

This is what decided the battle.

College Championship

Although neither Preuett nor Parker’s school won the national championship, their teams placed in the Top 4, which allowed them to compete individually in the three-round, head-to-head bracket-style tournament. Being among the Top 4 meant they'd defeated 80 of the best college teams in fishing.

Preuett and partner Jackson Blackett of the University of Louisiana-Monroe mainly fished docks with dropshots and shaky-heads. While Parker and partner Matt Roberts representing Bethel University finesse-fished as well during the beginning of the week, they stayed in relatively deeper water around brush piles.

Classic Bracket: Day 1

Chatuge had to be approached somewhat differently with the anglers splitting up and heading out solo to begin the bracket rounds. Each individual faces off against an opposing school’s competitor; therefore in the first round team members still usually have the ability to strategize how they will effectively fish the spots they found together earlier in the week.

“During the bracket I started on one of our better spots, my partner Matt started on one of our better spots,” Parker said. “I caught them pretty good that morning and had about 10 1/2 pounds, thinking that would probably get me through to the next day.

“By 11 I quit fishing my spots I knew I had fish at and spent 2 hours scanning with my Lowrance HDS 9 Touch and found an awesome new spot that was loaded that I had not seen a boat on (during the week),” Parker said.

“Jackson and I talked about areas to fish and he said he was going to start on an area we had found the final day of the championship where we saw bigger fish schooling but failed to catch any,” Preuett said. “I went to the area where we caught our big one around the docks and never had a bite.

“I wasn’t sure if Jackson would be there or not but I told him that I would probably show up around 8:30 close to the general area that we had found the bigger schooling fish because smaller fish had been schooling everywhere out in the middle. When I pulled up Jackson was gone and after sitting there for 10 minutes with nothing happening, I looked at the time being a tad after 8, then all of sudden one jumped here, and there, then it got a little wild."

B.A.S.S./David Hunter Jones
Photo: B.A.S.S./David Hunter Jones

Zack Parker had a solid final day, but couldn't catch enough to overtake Preuett.

The school of bigger fish came up where they were catchable for Preuett and he went on to land three quality bass and ended up losing one he tried to boat-flip that he estimated at pounds. Preuett figured the fish probably did not come up feeding until he arrived around 8 due to the fact that he knew his partner started on the spot and left, proving his school of winning fish were only catchable in a certain window of time.

Day 2

Preuett’s school of fish started grouping up and feeding on top around the same time the second day, but now had stripers mixed in with them. This did not hinder the bite but after Preuett landed his first keeper he hooked up with one of the stripers. In College B.A.S.S. rules pertaining to the bracket rounds the anglers are not allowed to use nets, and while trying to land the fish and remove the bait from the massive jaws the fish broke off causing him to lose his one and only key bait – a Mike Bucca Balsa Bull. Ten minutes later, with still only one fish in the livewell, Preuett hurried to get back to the school after a fish missed his bait and he hooked himself in the back of the head and neck.

“I was not sure if it was bad but I have had hooks past the barb in me before; I guess I’m just injury-prone,” Preuett said. “I thought the bait was still on there so I was like, 'Get the bait out (to one of the B.A.S.S. photographers) and I will fish the rest of the day with the hook in me,' and the photographer said the bait had already came off of the split ring.”

From the impact of the bait hitting Preuett, it had dislodged the hooks from the split rings. Preuett’s toughness allowed him to persevere and fill out his limit on the schooling fish, giving him enough weight to make the final day.

Day 2 for Parker went much smoother as he pulled up to his brush pile he found loaded with fish the day before, and it did not take long.

“I pulled up and first cast caught a 2 1/2, hen filled out my limit and quit fishing it, thinking I could hammer those dudes (the fish) on day 3,” Parker said.

Day 3

When Parker pulled up to his honey hole, the fear all tournament anglers possess somewhere deep down became real. A non-competitor was sitting on his spot – the spot he had been managing to save for this final day. He left to hit some of his secondary areas.

“I never got the chance to catch 'em, to see what (potential) was there,” Parker said. “I didn’t say anything to him; I truly think everything happens for a reason and if he didn’t get the point with everything going on, the spectators, the camera boat … I don’t think he did it on purpose, he was just there and it was bad timing.

Preuett was off to a different kind of start, catching a good fish earlier than any of his keepers had come in the previous two rounds. With some of the pressure off he headed to his big fish schooling spot about 40 minutes later to wait for the fish to come up feeding.

“It was real foggy and kind of windy. I was worried because I needed to see them to catch them,” Preuett said.

“Fifteen minutes later the fog started clearing and it started being just right. I got one really good one on the Balsa Bull right off and then another solid keeper. For some reason they started coming up in the biggest groups I had seen in the 3 days."

Preuett was following the fish and making bait adjustments as his window of opportunity was closing. As the fish started to gravitate to a point which had been their last feeding stop, he timed it perfectly, sitting there waiting for them to come up.

“I knew they were about to come to that point, and that’s where I ended up catching my last two and the biggest bites I had,” Preuett said. “The last one was truly a blessing – I saw a splash, worked it by the splash without a bite, and as I went to reel it back to the boat one came up from the depths out of nowhere and ate it. I knew right there Zack was really going to have to catch them, but I was still worried because he is a heck of a fisherman.”

Parker did end up having another stellar day, but just ended up having less weight than Preuett in the end. Preuett is now the fourth member to qualify for the Classic through the college program. After finishing 9th last year in the Forrest Wood Cup as a co-angler, he is expected to represent college and young anglers well in the Bassmaster Classic.

Winning Gear Notes

Preuett’s primary schooling-fish bait was a Mike Bucca Balsa Bull – a topwater walking bait made completely out of balsa wood.

“Something about the pressured fish, the Balsa Bull does not have rattles in it,” Preuett said. “During the team tournament my partner threw a Spook and he wasn’t getting the bites that I was getting on the silent bait.”

> Topwater gear: 7’ medium-action Wright & McGill Skeet Rees casting rod, Shimano Curado 200e casting reel (6.2:1 ratio), 15-pound Trilene Big Game monofilament line, Triton Mike Bucca Balsa Bull (original lightning shad).

> Shaky-head gear: 6’10" medium-action MHX rod, Shimano Stradic spinning reel, 15-pound Tuf Line braided line (main line), 7-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon leader, 3/16-ounce Tree Shaker Tackle Rattler jighead, 7" Roboworm Fat straight-tail worm (prism shad or margarita mutilator) or Creme Scoundrel (watermelon).

>Dropshot gear: Same rod, reel, and line as shaky-head, 1/0 Gamakatsu G-Lock worm hook, unnamed 1/4-ounce dropshot weight, 6" Roboworm straight-tail worm (prism shad, margarita mutilator, or red crawler).

The Bottom Line

> Main factor in his success – “Overcoming all of the obstacles in my way, staying mentally focused on the goal ahead, trying to live my dream. No matter what happens, fishing 100 percent and never giving up. The hook was in my neck and that was nothing to me. If somehow I broke my leg out there they were not bringing me to the bank unless I was completely about to die. That’s how much passion I have for it."

> Performance Edge – “Definitely the support from every single person on the ULM fishing team and my friends back home. After the second day when I lost the only Balsa Bull I had, my partner from the team tournament, Jackson, drove a total of 4 hours to Lake Lanier and back, bringing me three more for the final day.”