MAUMELLE, Ark. Skies hung low and gray over the competitors this week in the Under Armour College Bass National Championship, but it was the metaphorical kind of rain cloud that gave many a team fits during the first two days of competition.
Take, for example, the team of Slayton Gearin and Kevin Shorey from the University of Tennessee-Martin. The duo opened the tourney with a bang, bagging 8.79 pounds for fifth place on the first day.
But it was a tale of two lakes for the pair, whose confidence in the shallow flipping bite they had discovered on Day One betrayed them on Day Two with the influx of blue skies. A move to deep water only served to deepen their woes, eventually forcing the Southern duo to abandon their dreams of fishing on the final day.
"When he broke off that fish with about three minutes left to go, we just packed everything up and said it wasn't meant to be," Shorey said. "It's just disappointing because if we could have just put three bites in the boat today it would have been awful close."
But the team managed to maintain the spirit of giving it 'that old college try,' despite persistent phone calls from interested friends back home.
"That's the hardest part, and we've been putting it off all day," Gearin said. "But you know, we're glad to be here, and we hope to come back next year and every year that we can."
Next year was this year, however, for the Oklahoma Sooner team of Chip Porché and Mark Johnson. Porché was a competitor in last year's tournament, where he finished a respectable fifth despite such obstacles as a boat wrecked on rock jetties and an overzealous local fisherman on the final day.
But 2008 looked to be a new year for the well-seasoned young angler.
"We went out on Day One with a plan and we felt confident," said Porché. "But then the storm came and everybody started catching them, so we started running around [the lake]. Before we knew it we had only five minutes left until the weigh-in."
But when the Sooner team went to crank their engine, they were met with only a sputtering reminiscent of a car battery after leaving on an interior light. The crimson and cream weren't going anywhere.
"We were pretty much left out there, and we ended up DQ'ed for the day," said Porché.
A much improved Day Two wasn't enough to salvage their spirits, however.
"We won the Big 12 tournament as a team, so we had a little bit of momentum and a lot of confidence and we felt we'd do well."
After two years as a participant in the event, Porché wasn't the only one who expected a good showing from the Oklahoma team. Arkansas Tech angler Joey Potts was also rooting for the Sooners.
"Chip [Porché] is probably the nicest guy in college bass fishing and a real good fisherman," Potts said. "But every time he comes to Arkansas it seems like something happens to him."
But fate showed no compassion for in-state teams either, as Potts and his Arkansas Tech partner Jonathan Roberts fared only slightly better than their neighbors to the West. A respectable showing on Day Two could not overcome the heartbreak of a five-pounder that broke off with 15 minutes left on Day One.
"There's a lot of pressure really [being the home team], because everybody's asking you why you aren't doing good, or telling you that you're going to do good or that you're going to beat them," Potts said. "But other than pressure and how tough this lake was, that's about the only excuse I have."
But perhaps no heartbreak was greater than that of the defending champions from Virginia Tech, Scott Wiley and Charlie Machek. The Hokies returned to Arkansas confident in their ability to dominate the Arkansas River, only to find that dangerous water levels had necessitated a last-minute switch to Lake Maumelle.
Despite the fact that no team had ever won multiple titles in the College Bass National Championship, Wiley and Machek were banking on a successful week.
"To be honest, when it was on the Arkansas River, we thought we had a shot," Wiley said. "But at the same time, you just have to switch up your game plan and figure out how to catch 'em wherever you are."
Their title hopes ended, however, when mistakes cost them the chance to advance to the final day. A lost 3-pounder on the hook would have given the duo a limit on the first day and quite possibly been the difference-maker for a top-five finish.
"Our week was good and our practice was great," Machek said. "But we made a couple of key mistakes that cost us big in the end. We're disappointed because this is like the NCAA championship in basketball or football for us right now — we're competing against the best of the best, and we wanted to win."
But in true Hokie style, the pair refused to let the week's challenges overcome their overall outlook.
"The bottom line is that we had a great time anyway," Wiley said. "That's what it's all about."
The five remaining teams, led by three schools from the state of Alabama, will take on a mystery lake Friday for a shot at the title. Stay tuned for the live weigh-in at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Visit CollegeBass.com for full event coverage, including streaming daily weigh-in video of the approximate 108 collegiate bass anglers competing in the 2008 Under Armour College Bass National Championship, July 9-11, in Little Rock, Ark. Tournament coverage will air on ESPNU later this summer. Live weigh-ins are at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday – Friday.