Gator Pair Rallied to Win Fishing Tourney

The comeback staged by the University of Florida club fishing team for a national championship weighed in the balance of three fish. Jake Gipson and Matt Wercinski had already weighed their fish in, pushing the Florida teammates to first place with Texas State left to weigh in.

Florida was ahead by six pounds, ten ounces. Texas State had three fish to weigh in, with the FLW College Fishing National Championship on the line.

"Up there (in Knoxville, where the tournament was hosted), that's about what three fish weigh," Gipson said. "There was just no telling."

The suspense built on the weigh in stage on the University of Tennessee campus.

The final fish was weighed, and a sense of relief swept over Gipson and Wercinski. Florida maintained their lead over Texas State, winning by nine ounces. They also took home $100,000 for winning the tournament.

"It really did come down to that last fish," Gipson said. "I couldn't believe it at first. It took me a second to realize that we actually pulled it off."

What they pulled off was a comeback that looked improbable after the first day of the three-day event. Out of the 25 teams that competed in the national championship event, the Florida duo sat in 11th place when the first day was completed.

While college students across the country were heading south to be at the beach for their spring break in early March, Gipson and Wercinski went north to spend time on the lake in Knoxville. They wanted to look for spots on the lake they would attack when the national championship rolled around the following month.

It was cold and the fishing wasn't good, so the trip was mostly spent looking for places on the lake that might be better when it warmed up. The fish were getting ready to spawn, which they do in the warmer, shallower parts of the lake.

"We knew there wouldn't be many fish spawning up there yet," Gipson said of the spring break trip. "You're just looking for transition areas with stumps or rocks where the bigger fish would be hanging around."

With all the work they put in to being prepared to make a run at winning the tournament, the feeling while sitting in 11th place after the first day was an obvious disappointment. However, there was a quiet sense of optimism in the back of their mind because of what happened near the end of their first day.

After having no luck through the first part of the opening day on the lake, Gipson and Wercinski decided to try one last spot. It turned out to be the reason they won the tournament.

Most of their weight from the first day, which they admit wasn't much, came from this last spot. Gipson called it a "key transition area," with a shallow spawning pocket in the back. There were two points that stuck out right where the channel made a bend, so the spot was right up against the channel.

"It was the last place we fished all day, and we just ran out of time," Gipson said. "We thought we might have found something to work with."

From the start of the second day, the two knew exactly where to go. They sped straight for the spot that treated them so well at the end of the first day.

And the success continued.

"Right off the bat, Matt caught a six-pound small mouth that was one of the biggest of the tournament," Gipson said.

All of a sudden, the emotions on the boat changed. Their luck from the first day changed as well.

They brought in 15.5 pounds, the biggest bag of day two. It also shot them from 11th to second place. For the second straight day, most of the weight came from the same spot.

Going into day three, only the top five teams were allowed to go back out. The Florida duo knew they had a chance to win the tournament, but Texas State was still in first place. Their spot yielded more fish on day three, and the national championship was heading back to Gainesville.

Auburn finished third in the competition. The Florida anglers became friends with them while competing, but their mindset changes once a tournament begins.

"We've gotten to know a lot of the anglers, especially from the southeast," Gipson said. "We've got a bit of a rivalry going with (Auburn) since we've fished against them for a year and a half now. We're good friends with them, but when we're on the water, it's all business."

Gipson graduated from Florida at the end of the spring semester and plans to go to law school in the next year. Wercinski will graduate at the end of the coming fall semester and is considering graduate school.

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