MOUNT VERNON — Tyler Wasilewski had no idea what tournament bass fishing was. Heck, he could hardly even catch a fish.
So when he competed in his first team tournament for Eastern Washington University in 2013, the outcome wasn’t surprising.
“I didn’t catch a fish,” Wasilewski said. “I was pretty embarrassed.”
Wasilewski, now an engineer technician at Janicki Industries in Sedro-Woolley, didn’t have anything to be embarrassed about at the FLW College Fishing National Championship.
Wasilewski, 23, and partner Cy Floyd competed at Lake Murray in South Carolina on April 16-17.
Yes, there is such a thing as college fishing.
The national championship tournament is one of the top two college events in the country. It’s the fishing equivalent to the Final Four.
The event will even find its way onto television. NBC Sports Network is airing it at 7 p.m. Nov. 16.
Wasilewski, who graduated from Eastern Washington University in 2014, belonged to the only college fishing club in the state.
Just getting to Lake Murray was a big accomplishment for Wasilewski.
His interest in tournament fishing began when he noticed a professional bass boat being pulled on its trailer around campus in 2012.
“It was wrapped in some hokey fishing stickers,” he said. “I didn’t understand how a college kid could get something like that.”
After some research, Wasilewski found out about the bass club and joined it even though he didn’t know a thing about the sport.
When he joined, there were six members in the club. Now there are more than 60.
The club’s rapid growth led to sponsorships — which is allowed because as a club sport college bass fishing is not governed by the NCAA — to pay for gear and trips.
Those resources enabled Wasilewski and other club members to fish renowned bodies of water at FLW and B.A.S.S. events in California. They fished Clear Lake, the California Delta and Lake Oroville.
And by the time his senior season hit, Wasilewski and partner Floyd were ready to make a run at getting to the championship tournament.
To qualify, the two had to finish among the top 15 at a regular-season FLW tournament, then the top 10 at a regional.
They met the first requirement by placing fifth at the California Delta — which included catching a “miracle” fish with 10 minutes left — then ninth at the Clear Lake regional in October 2014.
That set the stage for their trip to South Carolina’s Lake Murray.
Here’s how bass fishing tournaments work: Anglers can catch a limit of five fish 12 inches and longer. Once they’ve reached their limit, they can upgrade the catch for the rest of the tournament, culling out smaller bass from a livewell. At tournament’s end, all teams report back to weigh their catches.
At the championship tournament, Wasilewski and Floyd might as well have been aliens landing on another planet. Lake Murray fished differently from any body of water they had fished on the West Coast.
“We didn’t locate any fish,” said Wasilewski of their two days of practice. “I had all eight of my rods on the deck. So did Cy. We couldn’t find them anywhere and I was convinced there were no fish in the lake.”
In all, they managed two fish for four pounds in two days of practice.
Things took a fortunate turn on Day 1 of the championship. Or so it seemed.
Wasilewski and Floyd caught four fish to start the day despite a cold-weather front pushing through the area, which can make fishing tough.
“We got pretty lucky with those, so we felt pretty good,” Wasilewski said.
That’s when they ran into boat trouble.
About halfway through the tournament, their boat’s motor wouldn’t turn over. The battery was dead. Wasilewski spent time swapping batteries in the crowded bilge area of the boat and eventually got the motor to run.
But being short a battery meant they couldn’t use the bow-mount trolling motor. That’s the bass fishing equivalent of playing basketball with both arms tied behind your back.
Still, they had four fish, better than what they expected.
That comfort didn’t last long. On their way to weigh-in, Wasilewski and Floyd saw other competitor’s bags.
“I didn’t ask anyone what they had because I just knew,” Wasilewski said. “We knew we had to just get it over with. Get up there and take the beating with our four little fish.”
The announcer weighing their bass in front of a large crowd asked Wasilewski and Floyd if they wanted to hold up their catch for pictures.
The rough start on Day 1 left them near the bottom of the 45-boat field, but Wasilewski wasn’t about to lie down on Day 2.
“We didn’t drive all that way to look like idiots,” he said.
They set a goal of bagging 21 pounds for the next day. That, they estimated, would qualify them for the top-10 cut for Day 3.
And that’s when they figured things out. Wasilewski and Floyd found the fish and it didn’t take long for them to catch their limit.
And although they fell shy of their 21-pound goal — they weighed in 15 pounds, 11 ounces — they had some good fish to hold up for the crowd.
“We went out on a good note,” he said.
Their catch that day, which was among the top 10, surged them into 27th place. The weight was more than double that from Day 1 (7 pounds, 8 ounces). Wasilewski just wishes they had figured out the lake a day earlier.
With his collegiate bass fishing days behind him Wasilewski plans to continue tournament fishing.
He’s become active in local clubs and plans to fish other tournament circuits.
“It’s just hard not to fall in love with all of it,” Wasilewski said.