06.Mar.2014 by Gary Mortenson
SENECA, S.C. – At the 2013 FLW College Fishing National Championship, a little known ULM team comprised of Paul Clark and Brett Preuett stunned the collegiate bass-fishing world by taking home the tournament title and out-fishing a number of powerhouse universities in the process, including Auburn, Alabama and UNC Charlotte to name just a few. Cut to the 2014 national championship where the latest incarnation of ULM, Nick LaDart and Brian Eaton, were attempting to do their university proud and turn in the best performance they could as defending national champions.
As it turned out, they did just that during Thursday’s opening-round session on Lake Keowee – and a whole lot more. Bolstered by a total catch of 16 pounds, 9 ounces, the University of Louisiana-Monroe team of LaDart and Eaton steamrolled to the top of the leaderboard and gave their alumni something else to cheer about. As the inimitable Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
And the team couldn’t have been happier – or more relieved.
“We’re under a lot of pressure today,” said Eaton. “We’re the defending national champions but for us, personally, this is the first time we’ve qualified. So yeah, there was some pressure to perform. Everybody knows our (school’s) name now. So we knew we couldn’t blow it. It’s definitely exciting to be where we’re at. Because after practice yesterday, I really didn’t we’d be able to come back with 16 pounds. So yeah, we’re happy.”
However, that didn’t mean it was easy. With fierce winds, frigid temps and generally miserable conditions dominating today’s landscape, the ULM team had to put their heads down and brave the conditions – as well as the pressure – in order to grab the top spot in the tournament today.
“We had five bites all day long – three spots and two largemouth,” said LaDart. “And it took us all eight hours to get them. We just kept running back and forth to five or six areas trying to stay out of the wind.”
The duo said they concentrated as much as possible on following the baitfish around – as Lake Keowee is stocked full of blueback herring, the prime forage for bass in these waters.
“The key is following the bait around because if there’s bait there, you can definitely find some fish,” said Eaton. “That doesn’t mean those fish are easy to catch. But you need to find that bait to have a chance. We probably ran 30 or 40 miles today and caught our fish on three different baits at a bunch of different depths. We’re all over the place. We caught fish anywhere from the bank to 35 feet.”
“And with the blueback herring, those fish are moving every day,” added LaDart.
Given Friday’s forecast, which is calling for steady, cold rains throughout much of the day, the ULM team knows it’s not going to be easy to duplicate today’s haul.
“Every day is going to be different here, so you really have to adapt,” said Eaton. “It’s going to be tough to produce that weight again, but if we just get the right bites, I think we should be all right. I know the weather is going to change everything tomorrow. But at least we figured out something late in the day so I think we know the areas where the bigger fish are.”
However, LaDart said the team can’t simply rely on their current fishing hotspots if they are going to have a chance to hoist the tournament trophy come Saturday.
“I really think we need to expand upon the areas we already have to win,” said LaDart. “As of right now, I think it’s going to be hard to keep our spots a secret.”
While the team was understandably pleased with their performance, the duo said the pressure hasn’t really abated.
“Sometimes you’d like to be the hunter instead of the hunted,” said Eaton.