One of the coolest things about winning the Boat US Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship last year was the berth to the recent TBF National Championship, held on Bull Shoals Lake. When my partner, Casey O’Donnell, and I learned of our qualification to fish against the best The Bass Federation had to offer, we were immediately excited for the opportunity.

The college qualifiers from the Collegiate Championship each year are rotated between the different TBF divisions. This year, Casey and I were honorary members of the Northwest division.

Just fishing at the event was an unforgettable experience and a true honor, but I was also fortunate to finish 3rd overall and earn a ticket to the 2012 BFL All-American.

Practice

Casey and I were able to spend a full week on "the Bull" before the lake went off-limits. We caught a ton of fish, and identified areas of the lake with good populations of quality fish.

Since there is only one official practice day for the TBF Championship, my approach was to pick a couple areas that held concentrations of better-than-average fish during pre-practice, and basically follow their movements with the changing conditions, which happened to be rising water levels and water temps. Fortunately that approach worked well, and I was able to follow the fish from their pre-spawn areas to adjacent spawning pockets.

TBF
Photo: TBF

Burghoff's 15-10 bag was the best in the field on the final day of the TBF Championship.

Though I didn’t pick up the flipping stick until a little bit later in the practice day, I was able to hone in on a seemingly strong bite in the newly flooded bushes.

I ended the day feeling that I'd found some good areas in Gulley Spring Creek and Jimmie Creek. Both, I felt, had the kind of quality to scratch out 15 pounds a day, maybe more.

Day 1

The first day of the tournament turned out to be quite disappointing. Though I ended up getting the bites to comprise more than the 15-pound bag I was shooting for, I was only able to get a fraction of them into the boat.

Getting the fish through the dense jungle of flooded bushes proved to be the toughest part of the day, and I ended up losing most of my quality bites, including the day’s biggest – one that was easily in the 5-pound range.

I ended up fishing both of my areas in Gulley Springs Creek and Jimmie Creek, and scratched out a limit weighing 11 1/2 pounds.

Though I was very disappointed with my performance, I was surprised to find out that my limit was nearly 6 pounds heavier than the closest competitor in the Northwest division.

My co-angler for the day, Karl Beltz, ended up having a better time landing his fish, and ended the day leading the that side with a 13 1/2-pound limit.

Day 2: Brush, I Hate Thee

Going into day 2, I had a renewed confidence. I felt that I couldn’t fail to get the fish out of the cover any more miserably than I had the day before.

Wrong!

Though I didn’t get a “big” bite the second day, I ended up losing about eight or so fish between that were between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 pounds. I worked my butt off all day, and despite getting plenty of keeper bites, I was only able to pull four of them from the cover I had grown to loathe.

Again, very disappointed in my performance, I came to the docks with uneasy nerves, which were soon calmed when I officially was crowned the Northwest division champion by way of my four fish that weighed 8 pounds even.

All-American bound!

Final Day

By the final day I was physically and emotionally drained. Sleep hadn’t come easy all week since there were so many things going on, and I was feeling downright beaten by the loss of so many quality fish.

The good news was that I was 7th in the Top 7, so I could only move up, which I knew I could if I was able to capitalize on key bites. And I love a challenge!

The final day we ended up launching a considerable distance up the river, in the Lead Hill area. Also, we had a shortened day, with check in at 1:30 instead of 2:30 or 3. This meant that time management was crucial and that I probably would have to work my pattern local to where we were launching that day.

I ended up choosing a couple likely areas the night before. One was East Sugarloaf Creek, which I had driven through in pre-practice, but never fished there. But I knew that the amount of brush and abnormally gradual sloping banks would fit the bill for what I was doing.

It didn’t take long for me to pick up my pattern in this new creek, and I found a stretch where there was plenty of quality fish roaming the shallows and enough space between the flooded bushes and the shoreline to maneuver the Ranger.

Soon after finding this area, I immediately started hooking (and landing) quality fish. I even caught my biggest one of the week – a fish close to 5-pounds – on camera, which I think will make for great television.

I knew I had a decent bag, but figured I was one big bite away from being in contention to win. So when 1:30 rolled around, I knew I was going to be shy of the victory.

Despite being somewhat satisfied with my final-day performance, the drive to Branson for the final weigh-in was not a nervous one. I basically felt there was no way I would even be close to 1st place. I felt that I was a shoe-in for a Top-5, which I was shooting for in the beginning of the day, but absolutely not close to the win.

Honestly, all I could think about at that point was a couple hours of extra sleep and spending some time with my mom and brother in Branson.

3 Ounces

Pulling into the Walmart parking lot, with the crowd awaiting the weigh-in show, my blood started to pump again and I began to perk up. I was first to weigh-in for the boater side, and boy, was it a cool deal.!

I love being on the weigh-in stage, and it was great to bring in a good bag to make it interesting. Chris Jones called my weight out in his signature enthusiastic fashion: “Wow, 15 pounds, 10 ounces." It turned out to be the biggest of the day, and fourth-largest of the entire event.

I wish I could say that I had the hot seat for awhile, but it turned out that Gilbert Gagner, who was next to weigh in, ended up beating my weight by 3 ounces. To my surprise he held it to the end, even through a dramatic tiebreaker, with Jeff Erickson, for the win.

I was surprised that I had come so close to closing out the event, and obviously I was a little disappointed, but I took it in stride. I was just happy to pull out of my-lost fish funk and come in on the final day with a good showing.

Thanks, TBF

In the end, even if I hadn’t done well in this tournament, I would have still been happy. The TBF put on a great event – they spared no expense and treated all of the anglers like kings all week. It was great to enjoy my friends' and family’s company at Gaston’s White River Resort where the TBF put us up

All in all, it was an exciting week, and I owe the TBF a great deal of thanks for the opportunity to fish the All-American next month at the Potomac River. I hope to represent the TBF and the Association of Collegiate Anglers well.

Exciting things are happening.

Gear Notes

> Flipping (soft plastics): 7’6” medium-heavy Shimano Crucial flipping stick, Quantum Smoke SL151HPT casting reel, 20-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce tungsten weight, 4/0 TroKar TK130 hook, various “flapping craw” style baits (green-pumpkin).

> Flipping (jig): 7’6” heavy-action Quantum Smoke flipping stick, same reel, 25-pound unnamed fluorocarbon, 1/2-ounce Secret Lures HD flipping jig (green-pumpkin custom skirt), unnamed “flapping craw” style trailer (green-pumpkin).

Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is a student at the University of Central Florida and the winner of the 2011 BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship. He's an aspiring professional angler who writes a regular column for BassFan. To visit his website, click here. You can also visit him on Facebook and Twitter.