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March 14, 2013 — One of the cliches in competitive sports goes something like: “There are no winners or losers -- the opportunity to compete is what’s really important.”
But University of Wyoming students Michael Barbero and Taylor Armstrong compete in a sport in which, regardless of who wins or loses, the experience is immensely enjoyable and rewarding. They are members of the bass team, a recognized student organization at UW. It’s a new team formally organized last fall, and now has 11 members.
Barbero, a sophomore in mechanical engineering from Arvada, Colo., and Armstrong, a freshman criminal justice major who lived in several places growing up in a military family, represent UW in the College Western conference of FLW, the world’s largest tournament fishing organization that organizes major fishing competition for both professionals and amateurs. It offers millions of dollars in prizes annually.
Both students say they acquired a love for bass fishing when they were boys, and they began taking part in organized tournaments at an early age. They were well aware of the FLW college fishing circuit when it came time to choose a university. Both readily admit the opportunity to be part of a competitive fishing team influenced their decision to attend UW. They recently placed 22nd among 40 teams competing at a tournament on Arizona’s Roosevelt Lake.
There is no cost to enter FLW college fishing tournaments. All participants must be registered, full-time undergraduate students at four-year higher education institutions and members of fishing clubs recognized by their colleges or universities. While there’s an opportunity to win prize money and scholarships, the college circuit is attractive for other reasons.
The collegians compete right along with the professionals, who may fish the first and third days of a tournament, while the college teams take to the lake the second day. Armstrong and Barbero appreciate the opportunity to learn from the professionals, who sometimes offer their boats to the student fishermen.
“They (the professionals) all want the sport to grow, and they help out whenever they can,” Barbero says. “It’s an experience every young fisherman should have.”
Competitive fishing involves more than merely heading to the lake and hoping to get lucky. Armstrong says they plan ahead by looking at satellite images to determine spots that might provide the best habitats for fish. They also have to choose lures of the proper size and color (live bait is prohibited), determine the proper retrieval speed, assess the wind speed and direction and other strategies to give them an edge.
Everyone uses fish-finding equipment. When conditions are challenging, the fish congregate in the same part of the lake, and so all of the boats are concentrated in the same area. Otherwise, everyone spreads out to locate their own fishing areas.
“We respect each other’s space, and don’t get in the way of the fishermen who are there first,” Barbero says.
The events require them to attend a pre-launch meeting at 6:30 a.m., where they are assigned a number that tells them what time they can start. Everyone fishes the same duration. The catch is placed in a livewell (a tank that keeps the fish alive) and is weighed at the end of the day. The total weight of the five largest fish determines the winners, and cash prizes are awarded to the top finishers. Sometimes, no one catches large fish, and a few small bass may be enough to earn the championship.
Not surprisingly, all of the fishermen share a passion and love for their sport. Armstrong and Barbero, along with the other collegians, have ambitions to become professionals some day. They are aware that the profession’s top individuals can earn more than $1 million annually, but many others aren’t so fortunate and may sometimes struggle to make a good living.
“It would be awesome to go pro, but it’s expensive. You have to get sponsors, and you have to be determined,” they say. Beyond the college circuit, both compete at smaller, local fishing tournaments whenever possible.
“It’s (fishing) an obsession,” Armstrong says. “And no matter how well we do, the best thing about it is we are out there doing what we love to do.”
About FLW College Fishing
Each conference season consists of three one-day qualifying tournaments with a maximum of 50 teams in each event, with the winning team earning $2,000. The top 15 teams from each of the three qualifying events in a conference (a total of 45 teams) advance to a two-day FLW College Fishing Invitational, where the winning team earns $4,000. The top 10 teams from each of the invitationals advance to the 2014 national championship. Ultimately, the nation’s top college team also faces the world’s top professional anglers in the Forrest Wood Cup for a shot at winning as much as $1 million – bass fishing’s biggest award.