FISHING: Gordon Lee anglers finish third at Nationals

Recent Gordon Lee graduates Colby Chapman (left) and Will Smith proudly display some of their haul during the 2018 Student Angler Federation High School National Championships on Pickwick Lake in Florence, Alabama. (Contributed photo)

As the 2018 Northwest Georgia High School Anglers Association's Anglers of the Year, Gordon Lee's Colby Chapman and Will Smith already knew what it took to finish high on the leaderboard when it came to local tournaments.

The duo recently showed that they have what it takes when it comes to the really big tournaments as well.

The two spring graduates are still basking in the glow of a recent third-place finish at the 2018 Student Angler Federation High School National Championships on Pickwick Lake in Florence, Alabama.

"I grew up watching big tournaments on television," Chapman explained, "so to be able to fish in a big prestigious tournament like this was great."

The tournament, held June 26-30, would mark the first time either angler had fished at Pickwick. The duo was in Florida the week before the tournament and had hoped to call some fishing veterans who had previously fished the lake to ask for advice, only to discover that tournament rules prohibited them from doing so 10 days before the tournament.

The pair, assisted by boat captain Brent Boxall, hauled in four fish totaling 12 pounds, 8 ounces on Day 1 to end the day in 40th place overall. However, they would ramp it up on Day 2 with 20 pounds, 3 ounces - tying for the biggest bag of the day.

The big total rocketed them to sixth place in the overall standings and assured them of making the field for the World Finals on the tournament's final day.

"We actually fished a new pattern after the first day and we really kind of stumbled onto it," Smith said. "We came across a stretch that was just thick with fish. It was really enough to last us the next few days and we just tried to stay in our comfort zone like we do on our lakes back at home."

They went out on Day 3 of the National Championship and brought in the day's biggest haul at 20 pounds, 6 ounces, which gave them third place in the final overall standings.

"At one point we had three straight casts with fish," Smith added. "One was about nine pounds, the second was about four pounds and the third was between six and seven pounds."

The boats that qualified for the World Finals all had their totals zeroed out before the one-day, winner-take-all event on Sunday, June 30. A final day total of 13 pounds, 2 ounces wasn't enough to win a world title, but it was good enough to land them in a very respectable 16th place.

"The way we found the fish that week, everything went perfect," Chapman said. "We had never fished that lake before, so we just had to rely on ourselves. It was a great end to my senior year."

The eventual winners, Jeremy Tolle and Garrett Hale from Kiefer (Okla.) High School, won the world title with a limit of bass weighing 23 pounds, 9 ounces. They both won $28,000 per year scholarships to Bethel (Tenn.) University, the top-ranked college fishing program in the country.

But Chapman and Smith didn't exactly go home empty-handed. They each won brand new rod and reels for the Big Fish Award, as well as other gift cards for their placement in the tournaments.

Being a high school fishing tournament, organizers are not allowed to give out cash prizes, but both young men said just the honor of getting to compete in the biggest high school tournament in the country was enough for them.

"Four or five years ago, if you told me that I'd be fishing in tournaments, I wouldn't have believed it," said Chapman, who will attend Dalton State in the fall and hopes to help form a fishing team at the school. "Will has been fishing in tournaments most of his life. I didn't start (tournament fishing) until about four or five years ago, but I love it now.

"The main thing I learned is no matter how big the tournament is you just have to fish like you normally would, stay focused and not worry about everybody else."

Meanwhile, Smith will attend UTC this fall and will join the college's already-established bass fishing team.

"It was a true honor just to get to fish on that level, Smith said.” This tournament was more about the prestige rather than the awards. It was great because we really stuck with what we knew and we worked for every fish we caught."

This year's event featured 384 teams from 35 states and offered up over $150,000 in scholarships and prizes, including gift cards, 50-inch flat screen TV's and trophies nearly six feet tall. This is the fourth straight year the tournament has been held at Pickwick.