A pair of bass fishermen and college teammates will be going for a national championship next week.
Fort Smith native Bennett Pierce and Ratcliff resident T.J. Tucker, both of whom fish as a tandem for Arkansas Tech University's squad, will both be heading to Minnesota this weekend to begin preparations for the 2017 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops. It will be held Aug. 10-12 on Lake Bemidji in Bemidji, Minn.
The two qualified for the event after coming in fifth in the Central Region tournament earlier this year at Lake Sam Rayburn in Texas. Pierce qualified for nationals as a freshman at Tech, while Tucker is getting to go for the first time in his final chance, as he is a graduating senior.
In fact, Tucker was scheduled to take part in his graduation ceremony next week, but has decided to go to the national tournament instead.
"I told them, honestly, I've got one shot to go to this tournament, and so I picked the tournament over graduation. ... (There are) no regrets," Tucker, who will be graduating with a degree in fisheries and wildlife from Tech, said.
Needless to say, Tucker was definitely happy for the chance to go to nationals with him and his partner's performance at the regional.
"That was probably one of the happiest days I've ever had fishing, whenever we were on stage and we were sitting in fifth place going into the final day," Tucker said. "We filled our limit real early that morning and I remember looking at Ben and going, 'I think we've done it, I think we'll qualify,' which at that point, we were still kind of skeptical because we didn't have as much weight as what we had the first two days. But then whenever we had to weigh in, we started seeing where everybody else kind of struggled, too. ... I remember we just looked at each other and we were just happy."
While on the surface, fishing may appear to be a laid-back recreational activity, both Pierce and Tucker take their fishing seriously, and are determined to have more success at next week's tournament.
"It's a lot of work; it's not getting out there and having a good time, it's a full-time job and also trying to get sponsors and local sponsors and preparing for these tournaments," Pierce said. "Once they announced when the national championship was, and that's been about three months ago, it's been a full-time job just every night researching about it (the lake), looking on Google Earth. ... It's all fun and games but it's a lot of work."
Both are leaving the area this weekend to go to Minnesota, where they will begin practicing on Monday. The top four teams at the national tournament will then advance to the College Bracket, to be held Aug. 14-16 at an undisclosed location.
At that juncture, team members will fish solo while facing off against one another in a bracket-style competition. Those eight fishermen will be vying for a spot at the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic, to be held in mid-March at South Carolina's Lake Hartwell.
"It would be great to win that national championship, but our main goal is to be in that top four to qualify for that (college) bracket," Pierce said.
The two Tech teammates also clicked well together practically from the get-go.
"We haven't fished a whole lot together, but after we fished one tournament together, we realized we fished well together and we all thought alike," Pierce said. "When one of us wasn't having a good day or something, we were able to bring each other up. We just work well together."
Pierce was Tucker's third partner in three years of collegiate competition.
"Ben has been a blessing for me this year," Tucker said. "This is the third year I've fished the Bassmaster series and this is my third different partner. The first two years I've fished it we didn't even weigh in a fish. This year, Ben came and I made the decision that, 'Well, this year even though I'm the oldest, I want to have Ben take a little more control than what I had,' and it's taken off; I never thought we would get to where we're at right now."
A Southside graduate, Pierce has been involved in tournament bass fishing for about six years. Last summer, he qualified for the high school world finals in Alabama, where he placed in the top 15.
"It's all a lot of instinct," Pierce, who is majoring in business management and marketing at Tech, said. "I call it instinct and it's also a lot of hard work; I feel like I work harder than most tournament anglers."
Tucker, who went to high school at Charleston and was a lineman on the Tigers' 2011 state championship football team, didn't have a fishing team in high school. But it was during that time where he started to develop an interest in fishing while attending college.
"I guess the first time I noticed there was even college fishing, I was in 10th or 11th grade and I kind of happened to see them on TV," he said. "I saw Arkansas Tech on TV, and from then on, I was, 'Yep, that's what I want to do when I get to school, I want to try to fish.'"
Tucker then went to Tech, one of the top bass fishing teams in the country, having won a national team title as recently as 2012.
"Usually, I was in the middle of the pack; I was not necessarily in the top six but I was close," Tucker said. "But I usually had a couple of bad tournaments that dropped me off the point system. Then this year, it's really taking off."
Tucker added there's one main key in order for both him and Pierce to have a chance at advancing into the college bracket round.
"I think if we can get 16 or 17 pounds (of bass) a day, I think we can give it a really good shot," Tucker said.
Although the tandem will be broken up with Tucker's impending graduation, having Pierce return means the Wonder Boys will still be a force to be reckoned with on the lakes.
"He's really good; I really believe that he will be making a name for himself in college fishing," Tucker said of Pierce.