UF students reel in collegiate fishing title

The duo won a new boat, SUV and close to $80,000 between them.


Published: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 12:46 a.m.

It was a sight to savor for two University of Florida students at the Reitz Union on Friday.

Fresh off their victory at the College Fishing National Championships in Tennessee, Jake Gipson and Matt Wercinski were presented with a 2010 Chevy Suburban and a sleek 2010 bass boat - the crowning achievement to winning what amounts to the collegiate national fishing title.

On top of winning close to $80,000 between them, they get to use the boat and SUV to cram in as much fishing as they can between now and August as they practice for the FLW Forrest Wood Cup, fishing's end-of-season championship on Lake Lanier.

But the two students say winning was hardly on their mind when they headed out on Fort Loudoun Lake for the first day of the College Fishing National Championships. They were only hoping to make the top five.

And after a disappointing first day put them in 11th place, they felt their shot at glory was slipping away like Santiago's giant marlin in "The Old Man and the Sea."

The two UF students had spent their spring break practicing fishing in Tennessee and felt they were familiar with the geography of the lake - which made for much deeper fishing than Florida waters - and the strategy they needed to pull off a victory.

"We wanted the top five so bad," said Wercinski, a UF finance major. "Kind of like the Final Four in college basketball - we just wanted to be noticed."

The pair say they were dejected, but not defeated. After the second day, they found themselves back in the running: an eye-opening jump from 11th to second place. After a decent third day, the fishermen had no idea where they would fall in the standings.

Winners were determined by the total weight of the bass caught over the course of the three days, and the contestants would have to sweat out a final weigh-in before hearing their placement.

Whatever they had done differently after the first day had paid off.

The UF students beat out day-two leaders Texas State by a mere 9 ounces. To put that into perspective, one of the smallmouth bass they caught that weekend weighed in at 6 pounds.

"I thought they had us," said Gipson. "Honestly. [The Texas State team] had three fish, and I knew it was going to be close."

Gipson and Wercinski's victory was the culmination of a lifelong acquaintance. The two had grown up together in the Panhandle, but hadn't really become friends until they attended UF and discovered their mutual passion for fishing.

Gipson, a systems and industrial engineering student, turned Wercinski onto freshwater fishing when they both decided to join the local bass club. Inspired, they went on to form a bass fishing club at UF. The club now has about 300 members, they say.

Representing the Gator Bass Masters, they met success in various qualifying tournaments over the course of the past year and won one of five regional tournaments - the Southeast regional, which took place at Lake Monroe in Orlando back in November.

For their efforts, the two had taken in approximately $160,000 - $80,000 of which was given to UF in the form of scholarship money.

Although the two are still in talks about how to spend the money, Wercinski said one thing is certain: He is not going to pursue fishing as a profession.

"It's a tough life, you know. You're fishing against other people, but you're also fishing against the fish," he said. "It's hard to outsmart a fish sometimes, believe it or not."

Gipson, though, has always dreamed of fishing professionally. From his win at the College Fishing National Championship, he'll compete in the Wood Forest Cup in August.

"If something works out where I could fish professionally, I would love to do that," he said. "It's definitely an opportunity I've always dreamed of having."

Erica Brough/Staff photographer

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