The wind whips off the choppy water. The sky resembles an E.L. James novel. The surrounding trees are closer to death than to the full spruce image they originally strove for. Nary a boat in sight, all of them undoubtedly settled in the scattered nooks of University Lake, itself a nook deep in the nether regions of Carrboro.
Bass fishing is not a spectator sport.
I check my watch—it’s 12:38 p.m. That can’t be right, I think. They’ve really been out here for five hours?
This is a story about bass fishing, but it’s not just about rods and reels. It’s about the Duke-UNC rivalry. It’s about long bouts of silence, the soothing qualities of a day on the water. It’s about internal and external motivation. It’s about tactics, creativity, and moments of brilliance. It’s about constantly failing in the hopes that you can nab something that you can’t see but trust is lurking there.
But at some level, yes, it’s about—in the immortal words of Duke Bass Fishing Team Vice President Brian Schoepfer—“catching hogs.”
A little backstory—I’m not a fishing guy. I’ve cast maybe 10 lines in my life; half of them got tangled. I still regret the hours I spent reading "A River Runs Through It." Truth be told, I was primarily out here as a courtesy to Schoepfer, my former roommate, to help bring notoriety to Duke’s burgeoning bass fishing program.
The occasion was the squad’s highest-profile meet of the year, the Duke-UNC Chapel Hill Bass Fishing Classic. Five two-man boats from each school hit the lake Sunday, fishing for roughly eight hours and the pair that caught the three heaviest fish would win and donate $220 to the charity of their choice. The Blue Devils won last year, but to sweeten the pot this time around, a trophy was added to the loot. Did this matter? Absolutely. If chicks dig the long ball, dudes dig monuments to their fishing prowess.
Around 2 p.m., a giddy Schoepfer and boatmate Stephen Boals return to the dock. They—both members of Duke Track & Field, which obviously invites Deion Sanders/Bo Jackson comparisons—carry a swagger about them.
As Boals heads inside to change the water for the fish, Schoepfer explains what had happened. Searching for the slightest comparative advantage, and knowing that they’d likely have to take a chance to secure the victory—“Risk it for the biscuit,” Schoepfer says—the team had committed the boating equivalent of off-roading. They took off the motor to slip beneath a low overpass. On the other side they had a whole, fertile fishing region to themselves. There, Schoepfer nabbed two decent-sized bass with his worm bait. On the return trip, though, the day turned from good to great as Boals tussled with a hog.
The bite is fishing’s equivalent to a scoring chance in soccer—it only comes around every so often, so when it does, you can’t mess it up. Here’s where the two-man game comes into play; although it’s nice to have a second person there to shoot the breeze, the pair readily admitted the day was patched with long periods of silence. No, the coupling on boats is simply pragmatic. Because when Boals tries to keep the hungry bass on his prank bait, Schoepfer is multitasking—turning the boat to make Boals’ job easier, feeding and tracking the line in so it doesn’t get snagged anywhere—and it’s panic, just absolute chaos. As they recall afterward, Boals is screaming at Schoepfer—horrible, unprintable things—they’re doing everything in their power to move the fish from there to here, a few feet…
And then it’s over. The fish is in the boat, and all is forgiven. More than forgiven, since it looks like they’re on their way to a championship—a trophy. It’s Boals’ first catch of the day, and given the circumstances—against a rival, in horrific conditions, with just an hour left (a millisecond in fishing time)—it’s already being favorably compared to Austin Rivers’ buzzer-beater in Chapel Hill.
Now we all go out on the lake—Schoepfer driving, Boals half-heartedly casting—and besides nearly falling in as I board, I have a great time. Part of this is due to the duo’s fisherman colloquialisms—I learn that being on the water is “like driving but the road’s moving”—but there’s more to it.
Because nothing about this situation is appealing—it’s cold, Jim Nantz isn’t announcing this on CBS, these guys aren’t getting any notoriety from today and, again, 7 in the morning! The only real reasons they’re out here are passion and pride. No coach is forcing them to show up for this event (Duke’s team has a student president, Krishan Sivaraj, but no official advisor.). They’re here strictly of their own volition.
When I’m in the boat, though, I kind of get why. Boals doesn’t catch anything in this brief period, but a few times it looks like there’s something brewing, and my ears prick up—I’m a watchdog, hyper-vigilant, doing my best deckhand impression. Fishing’s a tease, certainly, but you find and appreciate the little things—the current, the schwick of the cast, the bait’s subtle plop into the water. The conversation rises and dies and starts anew, the most volatile moments being when someone throws out a “basshole.” Overall, it’s very rhythmic—very Zen. You suddenly feel like reading Walden.
We head back to the dock for the most drama-filled moments of the day—the weigh-in. Word comes down that one UNC boat caught five legal (over 14-inch) fish. Boals and Schoepfer fret, bluster, hem and haw.
UNC weighs first. The Tar Heels have a real hog to start things off—7.5 lbs, the biggest catch of the day. All-in-all, they’re boasting 13.90 pounds, and the match will come down to the wire.
No one wants to weigh the other boats—it’s all about Schoepfer and Boals’ haul now. They toss in their big catch—just 6.15. Then the second. Then the third.
Oh, man. Boals looks at the scale and lets this out, ambiguously.
14.45. Duke wins. By eight ounces.
UNC understandably asks for a recount, but the numbers are right—the Blue Devils take the second consecutive competition, and, more importantly, the trophy comes to a deserving home in Durham.
It’s potentially the start of something big for Duke. The team’s looking to expand, Sivaraj said, welcoming fishermen of all levels and abilities. It now has a trophy to protect—a legacy to maintain.
Why should you care? Because we’re all bass fishermen at heart—we all have these hobbies, these things we do for ourselves just because, whether we’re being watched two people or 200 or 200,000. University Lake is the driving range, the hoop nailed to the side of the garage, the isolated study with the wood stove where we read just for fun. These places aren’t revolutionary. But they’re ours. They’re just for us. That means something.
Why else should you care? Well, look at it this way, at least this team can win championships in March.