On the first day of last week’s YETI Fishing League Worldwide College Fishing National Championship on the Potomac River at Smallwood State Park in Marbury, West Virginia University senior Thomas Raines of Oxon Hill who spent most of his life fishing on the Potomac, felt right at home.
Raines and junior teammate Nolan Minor of Charlottesville, Va., helped West Virginia take first place in the first of the three-day tournament spanning June 4 to 6.
Raines and Minor qualified for the final day of the event, where only the top 10 fishermen out of 148 competed for a top prize of up to $50,000, a new Ranger Z175 boat with a 115 horsepower Mercury outboard engine, and a ticket to the 2019 FLW World Cup of bass fishing to be held August 9 to 11 on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
A ninth-place finish overall behind the Murray State University duo of Adam Puckett and Blake Albertson was better than they expected, as the Mountaineers caught 15 bass weighing 41 pounds 7 ounces over three days.
“It’s great,” Raines said. “I love fishing on this river. I’ve fished here for 20 some years, and it’s great to have a national championship come here, especially for all of these college kids. Its a great place for them all to fish, the tidal venue, and all of the covered spots. It’s just a great place.”
The first day of the tournament saw Raines and Minor finished in first place with five bass weighing 18-5, a solid 9 ounces against the second place boat.
“The first day went pretty good, we got a couple of good ones and filled out the limit,” said Raines at the June 5 weigh-in. “We are going to see how we end up, but I think we did pretty good. I’m from Prince George’s County, so just one county over. It was only a 30-minute drive for me. Smallwood park was always a good place to put in for all of the locals, so we hit this spot often.”
A lot of the time for locals fishing in a national tournament, the perceived head start on the competition can result in a curse.
“Actually the last time FLW came here, I got the local curse for sure,” Raines said. “We caught about 20 pounds the day before the tournament and couldn’t catch any the day of the tournament. I ended up with three short ones. I think [June 5 was] a little bit of a curse breaker.”
The college teams caught more and heavier bass than the three-day T-H Marine Bass Fishing League All-American tournament that took place in the same location the week prior.
“We ran all kinds of different techniques, it was just a lot of junk fishing,” Raines said. “We were fishing everything that looked good, but something worked in our favor because everywhere we went we were just catching them. I like the whole river. Any of the grass beds, the docks, I like it all and I’ve grown accustomed to it.”
YETI FLW College Fishing teams competed in three regular-season qualifying tournaments in one of five conferences: Central, Northern, Southern, Southeastern and Western.
All participants were full-time students at a college, university or community college and members of a college fishing club that is recognized by their school.
The top 10 teams from each division’s three regular-season tournaments and the top 20 teams from the annual FLW College Fishing Open advance to the FLW College Fishing National Championship.
“We caught around 12 keepers,” said Minor about the opening day of the event on June 4. “We didn’t have a good practice, so it kind of allowed us to just fish free. If something looked good, we fished it. I wouldn’t call it junk fishing, but it was pretty close to it. We caught several 2 1/2-pound fish today and on one spot we pulled up and caught four between 2 1/2 to 3 pounds in 10 minutes. We hadn’t practiced there, and we left them biting hoping that they might help us later.”
FLW chose Smallwood State Park as the site for both events because of the park’s ability to host many people, as well as the great fishing.
“Well, the Potomac River is loaded with fish,” said Joe Opager, FLW public relations manager. “It’s one of the most beautiful backdrops that we travel to all around the country. We are fishing along the banks of some really historic places like Mount Vernon, and that’s not something that you see in a lot of places that we go.”
The collegiate tournament is also a special event for the FLW, which sponsors many pro and amateur fishing events throughout the year.
“It’s just the excitement level that makes it special,” Opager said. “These guys are all young and are from all around the country. They are competing at no entry fee for a brand-new boat and a shot to qualify for the FLW cup and being called national champions. The media coverage is huge and it’s just a really big tournament.”
FLW prides itself in conservation surrounding natural fish populations like bass, so teams are encouraged to keep fish alive and are penalized a one-half of a pound for any dead fish that they bring to the scales.
“It’s also a fishery that can withstand the pressure of the these tournaments,” Opager said. “Smallwood park has all of that and it’s really an ideal place. We are proud to maintain a 98.2 percent live release ratio.”