MURRAY — Last weekend, Murray State anglers Jordan Hartman and Will Gentry had the chance to win the Bassmaster College Series National Championship heading into the final day Saturday morning.
That’s when things took a drastic turn. Hartman’s rods were stolen, and even though he was assisted by fellow anglers, it was an uphill climb for the Murray State duo that had to compete with foreign gear. They finished three ounces outside of the top four that would have qualified them for a spot in the Classic Bracket event, which is as big as it gets for collegiate anglers.
Imagine a golfer using an opponent’s clubs or a tennis player swinging a different racket. The results won’t be terrible, but they will not likely equal what they could do with their own equipment.
It was a long journey that led to Lake Chickamauga in Dayton, Tennessee for the national championships. The journey started in North Carolina.
“You’ve got four chances and you’ve essentially got to finish in the top 20, depending on how many boats there are,” Hartman said. “So we went to Lake Norman in North Carolina and we missed it by a pound or two. We finished in 26th. So then we went to the second event, which was at Smith Lake, and we didn’t do great there. We finally on the third event went to Bull Shoals in Arkansas and we finished 16th, and that’s what qualified us to go to the national championships.”
Qualification is based on finishing in the top 10% in a field in one of the four tour events, according to Senior Manager Hank Weldon from Bassmasters.
“They qualified at one of our tour events; there are four of those each year, and the top 10% make it to the championship,” Weldon said. “So if you had a 250 boat field, then the top 25 would make it to the national championship.”
So the Murray State duo qaulified and headed to Tennesse. It was a three-day tournament with 116 boats in the field, and the guys showed up early to get in some practices on the lake. Practices didn’t go well. Hartman said they knew where some fish were, but they didn’t know how they were going to bite.
As they headed out on day one, the duo started putting their strategy into effect. They chose to fish with a worm and chatterbait and attack the deep grass areas of the lake, but day one wasn’t great. If it hadn’t been for a big fish at a spot close to the launch within the final 30 minutes of the day, the duo wouldn’t have reached their day one total of 15 pounds, 15 ounces to reach 20th place.
Day two started out similarly for the guys. Not much was going right.
“We only had two fish at 1 p.m. and we said we were chalking everything and we ran all the way back up to where we had caught that big one and we caught 20, almost 21 pounds in an hour,” Hartman said. “We were blessed. We were praying on the way there.”
The big haul moved them into fifth place and set them up for a run at the national championship on the third and final day. Only the top 12 teams reached the final day, and the guys now had a strategy and a spot they knew they could count on. Then, disaster struck.
Weldon said he was headed to the lake Saturday morning for takeoff when Jordan called.
“He said, ‘Hey man, I’ve got to turn around and go back to the hotel. I got to the ramp and all my rods are gone. So I either left them or somebody stole them, but I think someone stole them,’” Weldon said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, do that. Run back to the hotel,’ because we have a script we are trying to stick to. Takeoff was at 6:40 a.m. and that call was at about 5:40 a.m., so it’s inside of an hour before we start.”
“We had two boats there the whole week,” Hartman said. “Didn’t have any problems. Everybody was nice around there and we went to sleep at about 10 p.m. and woke up in the morning and I didn’t even check the boat. I unplugged it, put the cord in the back of the truck, and we were ready to go.”
He said they drove down to the ramp and ate some breakfast, and then as they get into the boat, he realized that his rod strap was cut and he didn’t have any rods.
“First thought is that they fell off,” Hartman said. “We drove here, and maybe something happened, maybe they fell off, so we drove all the way back to Blue Water, and at this point, we’ve got about 15 minutes until takeoff and on the way there, I get to thinking that they got stolen.”
Upon arrival back at the boat ramp, Hartman talked with Weldon and John Stewart and they called the angler community into action.
“We get back to the boat ramp and I go up to talk to Hank and John Stewart and they were a big help,” Hartman said. “They announced it over the intercom that we had just had our stuff stolen and we didn’t have long until we were leaving and taking off.
“Everybody that was there, the top 12, everybody was coming up offering rods. I’ve got five over here from one team, five over here from another team and I’m trying to tie stuff on and decipher what I want to use. I could’ve had 40 rods if I wanted to. We were blessed to have that many people there to help when we were in need.”
“He had a few rods at the hotel, but as soon as he pulled up, I made the announcement to all of our teams,” Weldon said. “I said, ‘Help a fellow angler out. Unfortunately, Jordan had all of his rods stolen last night,’ and within a matter of two or three minutes, I think (with) every team, at least one person came off their boat and went up to him and said, ‘What do you need?’”
Even though they received plenty of help and equipment, it wasn’t theirs.
“That is your tools,” Weldon said. “It would be like a loaner set, and that was the unfortunate part. It was not his tools, but it got them through. They had a good tournament.”
Hartman said he isn’t going to make excuses about the lack of familiarity with the loaner equipment.
“I’m not going to say that not having our stuff hurt us at all, but I’m not going to say it didn’t,” Hartman said. “If anything, it was the mental side of it. I had just had my rods stolen and I’m going out for probably the biggest day of fishing in my life so far, but I’m not going to sit here and say that losing that stuff or getting that stuff stolen was the big factor in us not finishing in the top four, because I did have rods to use. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
The real takeway from this for the two men was the community aspect of the anglers and how the competition took a back seat to helping fellow anglers.
“The community we have here in the fishing world is really cool to see,” Weldon said. “They are competitors like anybody else and they want to beat the other players, but they also want the other players to have a fair chance to beat them. So they want to make sure they help each other out when they need it.”
The men said another example of how bass fishing anglers always have each other’s backs regardless of competition happened during the interview Friday morning. Weldon recieved a call from a boat out on the water for the high school national championships at Paris Landing in Henry County, Tennessee. It turned out that two boats that were quite along distance out were near each other. One was in contention with a sheared prop and the other was out of contention but had an earlier weigh-in time. They told Weldon that they were going to hang back and possibly weigh in late becasue they wanted to make sure the other team got back safely and in time to weigh in with their big catch.
“The fishing community, I honestly personally believe it’s one of the best groups of people that you’ll ever meet,” Hartman said. “Everybody has got everybody’s back. It doesn’t matter what happens –there’s always somebody there that will lend you what you need.”