McCoy Vereen and Ryan Handly, members of the University of Arkansas at Monticello Bass Team, recently won the BASS Pro Fishing Series, Arkansas Collegiate State Championship at Lake Atkins. It was their first fishing tournament as a team and the first competitive tournament of the season.

The two freshmen caught four qualifying fish for 12 pounds, 4 ounces. The heaviest largemouth bass weighed in at 5 pounds, 5 ounces.

“It’s a great way to start,” said Vereen. “One tournament and one championship trophy.”

They now qualify for the National Collegiate Championship to be held in late July. The location has yet to be determined.

“The key to good fishing on Saturday morning was finding clear, smoother, and shallower water,” said Handly. “The fish were just beginning to spawn on those waters, and a few were on the beds. The water wasn’t quite warm enough.”

Handly said a bad storm moved in Friday night before the tournament started and stirred up the water, messing up everyone’s Saturday strategy. He said in the morning, half the boats went one way on the lake, and the others traveled to the other. Lake Atkins was big enough for a 12-boat tournament, he said.

Vereen used jerk bait most of the day while Handly’s success came on spinnerbait and a Senko, according to Handly.

They caught more than the four fish, but they could not keep the fish they caught between 16 and 21 inches. Those were the rules of the tournament.

“This by far was the best experience since I moved to college,” Handly said.

Vereen, a freshman UAM agriculture major from Star City, learned to fish when he was a young boy. His father and grandfather introduced him to fishing the age of eight and he began competitive fishing in high school.

Vereen’s father helped start the high school bass club in Hot Springs. When the family moved, they started another team in Star City. Vereen won more than 150 tournaments in high school, two state championships, qualified for national tournaments four times, fished in the top five one year, and won it the next, he said.

Vereen said this tournament was the first of his college career. “We’re one for one right now, which is a pretty good deal.”

Handly, a freshman business major from Arcola, Mississippi, also started fishing when he was young.

“I started as a kid,” Handly said. “My dad told me I would not like to bass fish because it was slow and hard to catch.” When he was in the ninth grade, a neighbor whose son did not like to fish, asked Handly to go fishing with him. Handly said it started small with the neighbor giving him his first open reel and some tackle. Six years later, his dad bought him a bass boat. Handly said it’s an older 2003 Skeeter and looks like a showroom piece.

Handly said his love for fishing comes from the stress release it provides. “There is nothing else that compares to fishing,” he said. “It takes just one cast to catch a fish, and you never know if casting to the next tree is going to hold your new personal best.”

Handly and Vereen talked about competitive fishing since they first met at a Greenville, Mississippi dirt stock car track when they were 15. They started talking about Vereen’s competitive fishing experience, and that sparked Handly’s interest. As a result, they kept in contact through the years and reunited when they decided to attend UAM.

Handly said he chose the University of Arkansas at Monticello because his brother and dad both went to school there. He considered the local community college and Delta State, but his connections to UAM were too strong.

Vereen, who was offered four full scholarships, chose UAM because his parents didn’t want him to leave the state. He turned down offers from Bethel University, East Texas Baptist, and Drury University.

UAM Bass Team

Dr. Paul Francis, an agronomy professor at UAM, is a competitive bass fisherman himself, so he knew a little already about what the students were getting into. He said the two students came to him asking if they could reactivate the bass club to compete.

“We tried to locate the resources of the old club (out of the Crossett campus) but couldn’t find any, which means we were essentially starting from scratch,” Francis said.

Right now, that includes securing funding for the club’s competitions. “Sponsorships and donations are crucial for funding some of these trips,” Francis said. “It’s not cheap to get to some of these tournaments. With some tournaments being a 6 to 8-hour drive from here, and then you need a hotel and meals.

“I think it’s a good draw for the university. Bass fishing is a huge sport. Everybody fishes with various levels of competition. Many private companies sponsor this sport, with big-time sponsors of collegiate bass fishing competition,” Francis said.

Francis said they organized an open local tournament earlier this year at Pendleton on the Arkansas River as a fundraiser and to build team awareness, but a small craft advisory warning due to high water and excessive current created a safety issue, so it had to be canceled. They plan to reschedule the event.

The UAM Bass Club team currently has six members. In addition to Vereen and Handly, Ricky Parris, a freshman from Star City majoring in Geospatial Science, Austin Palazzi, a sophomore from Rison, Justin Hargrove, a senior from Woodlawn majoring in animal science/agriculture business (double major) and Caleph Norrell, a freshman from Crossett majoring in psychology, all belong to the club.

“We would like to grow the club,” Francis said. “Students interested in joining the fishing club do not have to register with the College of Forestry, Agriculture, and Natural Resources.” Francis said you only need to be enrolled as a UAM student to join.

Francis said he became a faculty advisor because he genuinely likes the sport. He said he’s been around the sport all of his life and he wants to support the students.

“Bass fishing is good for the university, a good activity, and good for promotion,” Francis said. “It could be a great recruiting tool for UAM. If we can keep the club growing and build interest, students will want to come here to be on the bass team. It will draw students.”

Both Vereen and Francis agree that schools are building reputations on bass fishing.

Sponsorship

The team members supply all their own fishing equipment, boats, fuel, and lodging expenses. Francis says the club is actively searching for team sponsorship. Those interested in sponsoring the team may call the College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources at 870-460-1052.