The UNC Bass Fishing Club has been flying under the radar for a while now.
The club has been making its mark on the collegiate bass fishing world since its founding in 2013, going from fishing in local competitions at University Lake in Chapel Hill to finishing in the top 20 percent of all boats in the Boat U.S. Collegiate Bass Championship at Lake Murray in South Carolina this May.
At a school full of Division I programs with storybook histories and Hall of Fame coaches, it's easy to overlook the success of some sports teams — especially those who fall under the club category — but the bass anglers at UNC are not letting this hold them back.
Some anglers in the UNC Bass Fishing Club have been pursuing their dream of fishing at the collegiate level for years now, while others join mainly to learn and enjoy the outdoors.
That's part of what makes the club what it is — an opportunity for bass anglers of all backgrounds and skill sets to get together and enjoy the one thing they all have in common: a desire to be out on the water, reeling in fish.
“There's two sides of the club,” Ryan Tezzi, the club's incoming vice president, said. “There’s a side where it’s just fun fishing, you know, going out and enjoying nature and being one with the fish, and then there's also the second side where you can do that and you can also do competitive tournaments if you have the skills.”
At the end of the day, the art of fishing is what brings many to join this group and the experiences shared together are what makes the commitment worthwhile.
Fishing the hyper-competitive national tournaments is an experience like no other for those lucky enough to do so, but this group finds its footing at nearby University Lake. The bonds made from teaching and learning in this setting are special for all who are a part of the club, regardless of their skill level.
“When we do our University Lake tournaments, we all get out there,” outgoing president Will Missert said. “Normally the president or some sort of executive leadership will get a list of everyone who is fishing and try to match people up and try to put a really experienced person with someone who is less experienced.”
Helping others to master their craft and catch their first big fish is a key part of what helps this group thrive.
“I’m sure there are a lot of clubs on campus that teach people,” Missert said. “But, I think that holding up your first big fish is really a very unique first experience for people. It does really kind of feel nice teaching people to get into the sport.”
Holding up that first big fish may be an exciting and unique experience, but it does not come without hard work.
Mason Atwell, the incoming president, is one of the UNC anglers who fishes competitively, and he understands the dedication needed to land big bass consistently.
“Bass fishing is not a static sport,” Atwell said. “It's something where you are constantly going and it's a mental challenge, so you really have to be adaptable, and you have to be mentally prepared for difficult days of fishing all in hopes of getting a better day.”
Searching for a better day is what drives many of the anglers to go the extra mile.
Tezzi and Atwell, who paired up to bring home the club’s 33rd overall finish in the championship, realize the importance of putting in work off the water and familiarizing themselves with the bodies of water that they are fishing.
“Once we’re off the water, we’re deliberating what we’re gonna do the next day,” Atwell said. “We pull up graphing and mapping applications on our laptops and we’re breaking down the lake. Time off the water is just as valuable as time on the water depending on how you spend it.”
Preparation is key when fishing the big tournaments, but even then there are no promises in this sport.
Pressure is at its highest at these national tournaments, with anglers coming in from schools all across the country. The 175 boats roaming the water at Lake Murray was significantly more than their typical outings at University Lake.
In these two-day tournaments, there are two anglers to a boat and each boat can bring in only five fish per day. The boat with the highest combined weight between all ten fish is declared the winner.
Tezzi and Atwell started off slow in practice a few days prior to the start of the tournament, but the pair was able to gain some traction as their stay in South Carolina progressed.
“We did horrible in practice,” Tezzi said. “We caught a few fish in practice, but Wednesday morning we really started to put it together. We went through drop shots early in the morning and ended up catching more fish than we had expected.”
Sometimes that's the way fishing goes. You never know when things might take a turn for the better or the worse out on the water.
The stakes are high and the level of commitment intensifies as you move up the competitive ranks in the world of fishing, but for those who have grown up around it all of their lives – like Tezzi, Atwell and Missert – they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The adrenaline rush of fishing like that after only fun fishing, there was no looking back for me,” Atwell said. “That moment forward I knew that competitive fishing was something that I would be super passionate about.”
The passion is there for this group.
This club may not have the notoriety that some of the higher-level programs at UNC do, but its drive to succeed is no different than any other team, regardless of the sport.
“Throwing on the UNC jersey is definitely something that feels awesome to do and that’s definitely a big motivator for us being out there and representing our school,” Atwell said. “We’re out there putting on that jersey and our hearts are racing just as hard as the basketball or the football players would when they’re ready for tipoff or ready for kickoff.”
Going forward, the club hopes to grow not only its numbers but its brand, and the future looks bright.
Next year Atwell and Tezzi will take over the head leadership roles for the club, but Missert will still be around to provide guidance as he transitions into graduate studies.
With many schools across the southeastern U.S. reeling in big-time sponsors and garnering the attention of professional anglers, Atwell hopes to attract some of this attention to Chapel Hill in his last two years at UNC.
“There’s a lot of certain SEC schools and even surrounding schools, like N.C. State, that draw a lot of attention from professional anglers and professional sponsors,” Atwell said. “One of my big goals is to grow our name and grow our base of fishermen in hopes of growing to the size and extent of programs further down South like Auburn or Alabama.”
Only time will tell if the group is able to reach the heights of those powerhouse programs, but there is one thing that is certain — the UNC Bass Fishing Club is making strides and has a clear vision in mind.